Last night I had dinner with an old friend. This vet school buddy was down for the holiday weekend with the intention of unwinding and de-stressing from her demanding job—but it wasn’t happening. Boarding pass in hand at La Guardia, she got the kind of call no vet ever wants. It was the emergency service, calling to inform her of the death of a patient she’d successfully discharged that afternoon.

This dog had just undergone a minor procedure and was released in great spirits. But on the car ride home, he’d started coughing and retching. My friend had spoken to the owner at the time. She’s explained that in no way was that kind of behavior normal and if it persisted she’d have to come right back.

Two hours later she received the call at the airport—the dog had showed up DOA at the emergency facility…for no apparent reason. For the next hour, until her flight left the tarmac, she’d diligently tried to reach the owner—to no avail. No answer. She left three messages and couldn’t let it go during the four-hour flight—she stressed the whole way.

As soon as she landed she called the client and received an earful for 1-the dog’s death, 2-the fact that she couldn’t say why he died, and 3-because she hadn’t called earlier. No explanation had been good enough for any of the issues—especially since she didn’t have any for the first two and the client didn’t buy the third.

It’s hard for vets (and others in similar positions of life-and-death responsibility) to handle these situations. We do our best at work and then we go home and try to lead our normal lives. But sometimes our work has a way of following us—even on vacation.

When animals die inexplicably after surgery it’s horrible. We want to know, just like owners do, why it happened and what we could have done to prevent it. But there are never any easy answers in sudden death cases. Do we perform post-mortems on them? Usually not—owners often want their pets “undisturbed” after death.

Moreover, posts open up huge cans of worms we wish we’d never opened. Especially since this procedure isn’t exactly our bread and butter. Independent, trained pathologists are needed for this—especially when there may be a conflict of interest or when emotion (guilt, grief or fear) can cloud our judgment.

When people die there’s an established set of procedures. Human docs even attend M&M sessions (morbidity and mortality rounds) to discuss how things might have gone wrong and how the outcome may have been altered. But when pets die it’s every owner and every vet for himself. There are no rules or protocols for dealing with pet death under questionable circumstances.

No vet sleeps well after one of these cases. We all try hard to alleviate the owner’s suffering by responding promptly and solicitously to their concerns. Then we second-guess ourselves into knots.

It’s even harder when an irate owner goes in for the blame game. Everyone reacts differently to death and we have to expect angry reactions from a certain percentage of our otherwise-wonderful clients. Still—it sucks.

So it’s no wonder my friend wasn’t having a good weekend. How could she? Like she explained over our coffee last night, “I should have just stayed home. It’s easier to be miserable when you have your dogs to comfort you.” I know just how she feels.