Are you happy with your veterinarian? It’s the question I ask when a client loses a horse or has a long-term issue. I’m not sure it’s important that they actually have the best vet in the world, but it is important that they think they do. The reason to talk about it now is obvious; there may not be time later.
Acknowledged, vets have a very hard job. It’s an expensive education, long hours in lousy conditions, and some level of constant danger. Add to that a high level of life-or-death stress. If all of that isn’t enough, the occupation calls for good communication skills with humans and animals. And even then sometimes it still all comes down to luck in the end. Veterinary medicine is as much an art as a science.
Lots of us wanted to become vets at some point in our youth, and most of us came to our senses. I usually think vets are saints, just on general principle. But our animals are family members, so it isn’t that easy.
Last winter one of my dogs had an eye condition that required a specialist. The prognosis was complicated. We were several visits and a few hundred dollars into the process. My dog had four different medications, administered three times a day, with ten minutes between each medication. It added up to two and a half hours of medicating a day. Okay, it could be worse. On top of that, the vet’s manner was a bit stilted. We didn’t need to be friends, but my dog was uncomfortable with him. On one visit, the vet abruptly grabbed my dog’s face, and sure enough, my dog nipped at him. I asked that my dog be muzzled, hoping to mitigate the increasing stress on all sides.
Then I asked for the prognosis. It was chronic. “Try hard with the medication,” he said, “because if it doesn’t work the next step is surgery and the surgery rarely works.” That didn’t sound good; my dog’s condition wasn’t improving and his easy-going temperament was turning dark. And if the possible surgery rarely works, why would we even consider it?
I asked the vet to slow down during one visit, my dog was cowering, but the vet snapped at me. Again, he doesn’t know me; we don’t have to be friends. Later I asked if there was some point when removing the eye would be considered. It seemed to me like the treatment was starting to be a bigger issue to my dog than the initial ailment. “I won’t talk about that,” he said.
I assured him that I did need to know–for financial reasons as well as quality of life questions. “Well, I can’t help you with that,” he said as the door closed behind him. I paid one more staggering bill, and heaved a sigh once we were in the truck. We both felt a bit roughed up; what would these visits be like a year from now? I’m an experienced owner and I don’t need hand-holding but this was starting to feel adversarial. I felt cornered and I wasn’t the one having things poked into my eye. Is this the meaning of purgatory?
The moment stood in stark contrast to a similar process with a different vet for another dog. There were monthly visits for years, a blood draw every time, and my dog couldn’t wait to get in the door. One day I initiated the hard talk; I asked what to look for as things progressed. She spent twenty minutes detailing possibilities that we would weigh as time went on. Quality of life mattered to her as much as it did to my dog. I left heartbroken, but also knowledgeable.
It’s almost unfair to vets, after all they have to accomplish to even be standing in an exam room, that horsemanship (or the dog or human equivalent) matters… but it does. Perhaps even more so for animals; their sensual perception is so much keener than ours that they’re hardly ever fooled.
If you are like me, you have a few vets on your contact list. Okay, I have eighteen vets in my phone, including specialists. I don’t want to marry any of them, but I have more respect for some than others.
Lately, I find myself scrutinizing the list a bit more closely. I have a dog who’s thirteen, a twenty-one-year-old llama, and my Grandfather Horse is a very frail thirty. At this point, I have survived the loss of beloved animals on a fairly routine basis. I’m not being callous, just realistic–losing them never gets easier emotionally, but trusting the vet is essential.
Last month we had the routine spring barn call for the horses. A few of them have sorted histories with humans, and as we enter the first run, I remind the vet to go slow. It’s a conversation that we’ve had before. He remembers how it started with this horse and as I hold the horse gently, breathing deep, the shot’s given with no fuss. Two horses later, the process has changed. He does the “good” horses differently; the vet tech is braced holding the halter. It’s a gradual change–almost passive. Then the donkey gets shoved into a fence panel, as my vet explains to me that they should give to pressure. It’s more thoughtless than cruel but my farrier will pay the price for this rudeness at his next trim. And I might know something more about giving to pressure than my vet thinks I do. Finally, my young mare–who has ground-tied for two years of weekly shots for her stifle–is running backward across the pen with the vet tech dangling from her halter.
I understand both sides; I want to be reasonable. How many times have I gone back to re-train softness and trust with an animal after a fearful vet experience? How many times do I ask my animals to make up for the shortcomings of humans?
Am I over-reacting? It was only spring shots but I know how it goes. Eventually it always ends up being life or death.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.