Making certain decisions for your pet can be pretty simple. Yes, I give heartworm medication every month, because the drug is effective and much safer than treating my dog for heartworms. Yes, I know spaying my dog prevents mammary gland cancer and unwanted puppies. Yes, I keep my cat indoors to protect against cat fights, automobiles and feline leukemia virus infection. There are some decisions, however, that do not come so easily.
Recently, I spent time with a dog-owning family facing one of these tough decisions. The dog was older, but age should never be the sole criteria used to guide decision-making. The dog was in reasonably good shape until he collapsed earlier that day. Emergency evaluation discovered a life-threatening problem requiring an emergency surgery. It doesn’t get tougher than that — you’ve got your back against the wall and the clock is already ticking. Luckily for these owners and their dog, there was a surgical procedure to correct the problem, but (and there is always a “but” in these situations) the procedure was not without risks and no veterinarian could guarantee a positive outcome for the dog. Scientific research into this disease had identified four factors which decrease a dog’s chance of surviving the procedure. Unfortunately, this dog had three of the four factors. Does this information mean the dog should not be taken to the operating room? Not necessarily.
Just to illustrate the point, let me tell you about a cat and its owner I saw this week. Four years ago this cat experienced congestive heart failure, meaning his heart muscle was too weak to pump blood and fluid built up in his lungs. Sounds bad, and usually, it is. Once a cat experiences congestive heart failure, the typical survival time is about one year. So why is this cat still alive four years later? Is the scientifically collected data wrong? Data gives probabilities about an outcome in a population of patients with a particular condition but cannot predict how a condition will affect an individual patient. Statistics will never tell the whole story since each pet is an individual and may respond better (or worse) than the typical pet with this condition. This lucky cat defied the odds and lived to tell about it.
So what is a pet owner to do in situations like this? First, listen to your veterinarian. Ask questions about the quality of life after the procedure, the length of hospitalization and the follow up care required. Some pets have the personality to cope with many trips to the hospital for follow up care, others do not. Some families have the time and energy to nurse a pet back to health; others do not. Only your family can determine what is right for you and your pet. Sometimes your veterinarian will give you grim statistics, but if your heart tells you not to quit or if you know your pet is not a quitter, then go forward with an informed and realistic expectation of the outcome of the procedure.
By the way, the dog with the three or four bad factors was discharged from the hospital three days after surgery. Go figure.
Sometimes, even after you speak with your veterinarian, you are still confused about what to do. Maybe your friends and family are giving you conflicting advice. Perhaps you have concerns you feel are too private to share with most people. You may need more time to talk things through than your veterinarian can give you. The Animal Medical Center is the only hospital in the tri-state area with a full-time counseling department. Trained social workers can speak with you by appointment, on the phone or during your pet’s visit to help you sort through your options, figure out what questions to ask, and help you decide what is right for you and your family.
If after careful consideration you decide not to pursue treatment and have chosen to let your loved one go, AMC will be with you through the process. We also offer a free Pet Loss Support Group. For more information, visit www.amcny.org/petlosssupportgroup.
For nearly a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit www.amcny.org. To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.