When a Veterinarian Loses Her Own Pet

My dog was “not acting right,” and it turned out he had inoperable cancer. It’s naturally to feel personally responsible. But we can’t beat ourselves up.

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One day, my ZZ looked a little “funny.” Three days later, he was gone. He was 8 years old.

When a veterinarian loses her own pet, all objectivity goes out the window. That was me this week. I wasn’t a veterinarian anymore. I was a grieving pet owner. The tables were turned.

  • All of a sudden, I was wondering if I missed something.
  • All of a sudden, I was beating myself up.
  • All of a sudden, I was hoping against hope that it wasn’t as bad as I knew it was.
  • All of a sudden, I was scared. Scared for my helpless friend. And responsible. I wanted to do all I could to help, to comfort, to save his life.

I have lost many pets over the years and have helped my staff through innumerable pet losses as well. When any of us in the animal care profession experience grief first-hand, we always say the same thing: “Now we remember how clients feel.”

A Sad Week

My bouncy, happy ZZ was just a bit “off” for a couple of days. Only 8 years old, he had never been sick a day in his life. A rescue Cocker Spaniel who was born in a puppy mill, he was never trained as a puppy and became fearful of children.

He had been surrendered by 3 previous homes because he bit everyone, so I took him in as a rehab challenge. After a few months with us, beginning 7 years ago, he never bit anyone again.

Last Saturday, he jumped off the bed and looked a little “funny.” He stood, staring, not approaching his food bowl for about 45 seconds. Then he ate.

  • My rationalization: It’s 5:30 a.m., minus 4 degrees outside, and he probably didn’t want to get up yet. On Sunday and Monday, he seemed to be drinking more water.
  • My rationalization: The apartment is really, really hot. Or maybe he ate something gross on the street that made him thirsty. Monday afternoon, we took a long snowshoe walk by the pond and he seemed fine. But he didn’t want to jump in the car after the walk.
  • My rationalization: He has hurt his back before, so maybe he tweaked it again. Later that night, however, he sauntered toward me, head down, and stood. “Something ain’t right, Mom,” his demeanor told me.

Turning myself into an objective veterinarian for a moment, I bent down and ran my hands along his body. I palpated a tumor in his abdomen. There was nothing good about what I was feeling.

Surgery on Tuesday morning revealed an inoperable mass, attached to multiple organs and major vessels. The only thing to do was to humanely end ZZ’s life. We never let him wake up, so he had not a minute of suffering. My staff, his lunch buddies, and his furry pals were around him when we humanely ended his happy, exuberant life.

Don’t Miss: When Is Euthanasia Necessary?

Did I Miss Something?

If a pet who is exhibiting signs like ZZ had come in to me for an appointment, his chart would have read “NAR” (not acting right) or “ADR” (ain’t doin’ right). Those are the notations we use when the family just thinks something is “off,” but they can’t put their finger on it.

In “NAR” appointments, I sometimes discover something upsetting, like ZZ’s tumor, in the physical exam. I have to tell the family that not only were they correct in knowing their dog was “NAR,” but that there may be something seriously wrong.

Often, the people are shocked. Many immediately begin to blame themselves for not picking up sooner on something so serious. They are sometimes too hard on themselves.

No Blame. Be Sane.

It’s natural to go through a litany of self-recrimination when you are feeling helpless, sad and guilty.

  • Why didn’t I pick up on that?
  • He lost 10 pounds without me knowing?
  • But he was fine until yesterday!
  • If only I had known…
  • I thought he was tired because it was winter.
  • But he’s acted like that before and nothing was wrong…

The answer is simple in most cases: Our pets are able to mask illness because they instinctively know that to show pain is to show vulnerability.

Animals are survivors. Eat or be eaten. Our animal friends are stoic. They may continue to eat through pain or nausea. They will still go out for their walk with a headache or a tummy ache. They may hide their lethargy because they are so glad to see you. Animals are wired to hide weakness and illness. They get no benefit from a sick day.

If you learn your pet has a serious illness, a tragic turn of fate, be easy on yourself.

In the days leading up to the discovery of ZZ’s cancer, I remember how “normal” most of his behavior appeared.

We were in New York City, and I got annoyed with him for insisting we cross the street in the frigid temps to get cookies from the Marc Jacobs store. I had to grab cupcake wrappings from his mouth outside Magnolia Bakery. And when he was back in Massachusetts, he bounced out of the car to begin that favorite walk of his. He just couldn’t jump back in at the end of the walk.

If you are a Petful reader, you obviously care deeply about your furry family members. You are mindful of your pet’s behavior and tuned in to little changes. But if you learn your pet has a serious illness, which is a tragic turn of fate, be easy on yourself.

Put your efforts to making the right decisions with your vet about quality of life and treatment. Don’t beat yourself up. If you’ve been mindful of your pet’s well-being, you’ve done the best job possible.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Feb. 25, 2015.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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