Compassionate animal conversation: On the emerging role of pet-based etiquette
"Be Gentle: I know my dog is old." So goes the title of The Bark's latest "Endpiece," its always-engaging finale. Not so surprisingly, this touching essay by Susan Seligson wrested my attention away from all the other worthy pieces in this publication and — no hyperbole — even threatened to change the way I practice veterinary medicine.
If you're a dog person and you don't subscribe to The Bark, you absolutely should. Where else will you find an essay that so eloquently offers some of the most compelling pet sentiments imaginable: Don't tell me my dog is on his last legs; don't you think I ponder that notion each one of the very last days of his life?
I mean, what's wrong with people who think they can up and tell another sentient soul that their beloved and hobbling old dog, cat, gerbil ... whatever ... is dying right before their eyes? After all, they'd never presume to breathe the same sentiment to one whose human familiar is similarly on the decline, right?
The way Ms. Seligson approaches this subject, with humor and compassion, is both a commiseration and a check. Its tone is friendly and conversational, but beneath the surface lurks the question (even the veiled accusation): Do you reside within the ranks of the less-than-thoughtful? Here's an especially worthy excerpt, to illustrate her gently persuasive take on the subject:
"How old is he?" People would ask this unrelentingly about my now-departed Irish setter, Amos. I didn't mind telling them that he was 12 or 13. "Wow, they don't live much longer than that, do they?" How tacky is this?
But it gets worse. When my big, hairy mutt, Louie (we called him our "Bavarian crotch-smeller") was old and frail, someone once asked me, "Have you thought about putting him down?" First of all, that's kind of like asking a woman in her 40s (this also happened to me), "Have you ever thought about having children?" "Gee, there's an idea! Why didn't I think about that?"
Yeah, it sucks when pets get old. And yet, there I am — the vet — referring to it pointedly at every turn:
"Now that she's geriatric, we should..."
"Given her advanced age we might expect..."
"We have to be realistic in cases like these…"
Sure, I'm guilty. But at least I have context in my favor, which helps.
It helps that I can forthrightly discuss a pet's weight, his dental inattention, her unrelenting parasite load. Because while the client is paying the bill, the unspoken agreement is that I'm the pet's advocate. And without the ability to speak freely, they might as well be throwing their money in a hole. What am I there for, anyway?
Not that defending an animal's welfare gives me a pass to be cruel to a fellow human (actually, I've found this approach to be counterproductive). Sometimes it's inevitable that honesty reign supreme and the message get delivered in a less-than-comfortable manner. But at least it's within the confines of the exam room and its privations that I'm forced to do so.
Still, the issue remains: So many of us are less than compassionate when it comes to addressing the state of our fellow humans' pets that not only did this writer feel justified in penning her essay ... but I felt it worthy to point out her labors. Especially seeing as it might just improve how I consider my patients' people and their feelings.
Dr. Patty Khuly