By: Jennifer Shepherd DVM
I am a veterinarian. This means, among other things, I am primarily a scientist and a compassionate caregiver. The scientist in me always needs to know.
I need to know all I can about my patients so I can diagnose them and make treatment options. I recommend blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, and aspirating every lump I find on a pet so I can know my patients are healthy. To me, knowing is extremely important.
This is why it has always annoyed me when pet owners decline recommended tests because “they are old and we wouldn’t do anything anyway.” I respect and honor these decisions, but I hate it when I don’t have all of the information and can’t give targeted treatment options.
A couple of weeks ago, I was given a lesson on what it feels like to know too much.
My dog, Coal, is almost 12 years old and the best dog in the world! He had some soft stool a couple of weeks ago and I decided to examine him and get a sample to rule out parasites. That’s when I found his enlarged prostate.
Coal was neutered when he was five months old, so I had a feeling this wasn’t good. After doing blood and urine tests and ultrasound-guided cytology, the diagnosis came back as “probable carcinoma.” My heart sank. I called an oncologist and talked over all the options.
Even with chemotherapy, Coal’s life expectancy is only months. I know all my options… and my options are limited. He is on Piroxicam to slow down the tumor growth, but sooner rather than later, it will be time to say goodbye to my furry friend.
Now I wonder, did it really do me any good to know? My dog seems happy and healthy in every way, but every time I look at him I see a ticking time bomb. I think, “When will it be time? Will he be here for Christmas? What if he gets sick when I have to board him next month – should we cancel the trip? When do I tell my kids? How do I tell them? Is it wrong to start thinking about getting another dog to ease the transition?” Sometimes I even get a little angry – I was supposed to find Giardia not prostatic carcinoma!
I can’t help but think that maybe it would be better if I didn’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t look at him differently and with sadness. He is still the same happy dog he was two weeks ago. He doesn’t know he only has a few months left. Maybe a quick goodbye when there are no options is better than wondering how much longer I have with him. I’m honestly not sure.
Now that the initial sting of accidentally finding terminal cancer in my dog is lessening, I think I’m glad I know. I can spoil him and enjoy him when he is happy and healthy. I can make him comfortable for as long as I can, and when the time comes to say goodbye I won’t look back with regret and wonder “if I had found this sooner, could we have saved him?”
But I now know how pet owners feel when they bring in a senior pet. Sometimes they just want to enjoy their time with their pet and not think about the inevitable goodbye that is coming. I understand that now better than ever.
Next time I recommend aspirating a new lump on a dog and they decline because “he’s old and we probably wouldn’t remove it anyway. He seems healthy.” I will be a little more understanding. Maybe sometimes it’s better not to know.
When she isn’t working, she enjoys spending time with her husband Paul, three children, and her dog Coal.