As a veterinary oncologist, I see the important role pets play in enriching the lives of their owners and providing a source of happiness and sanity on a daily basis. Pets truly are family members for the majority of people I meet. But there are certain instances where I learn how pets represent more than something “average.” This is obviously something not easily quantifiable, and surprisingly, often not immediately recognizable.
I’ve written before about the importance of the bond between service dogs that have been diagnosed with cancer and their owners (A Service Dog's Death, Given Unselfishly). When cancer strikes one of these beloved companions, it’s particularly anguishing and certainly the effects on their caretakers are magnified.
In contrast to service dogs, where I’m usually able to know the role the pet plays for their family from the onset, there are other patients I treat where the "back stories" of their significance to their families evolve over time. I tend to learn about the role of pets linked to those who have passed only when owners feel more comfortable divulging such personal information.
To me, the most meaningful example is pets that represent the final connection to a deceased loved one. Whether a parent, grandparent, spouse, sibling, or even a child (I swear I’ve seen it all), these are the cases that will truly pull at your heart and evoke an entirely different scenario of emotions.
Whenever I learn of such a story about one of my patients, I always take the time to pause and consider the complexity of such a case. As an individual accustomed to personal loss, I can understand how maintaining any connection to someone who has passed would be important. I also can see how the attachment could possibly complicate judgment regarding the care of the animal.
In the best scenario this means owners are better equipped to understand how aspects of terminal disease cross species. In the worst scenario, they simply cannot cope with the thought of losing the pet, as this would be the final connection to their lost loved one.
I think the question of how objective an owner can be in such a scenario is an extremely difficult and sensitive one. The potential or actual loss of the pet can cause a resurfacing of past grief, which can be overwhelming for some people. They may be inadequately prepared to face their emotions, or unable to factually understand their pet’s prognosis. The lines are blurry when pets are diagnosed with cancer, even when they are not complicated by grief and mourning and a deep sense of loss.
One could view this as an unfair burden for an animal to face, but ultimately, experience tells me these pets are amongst the most beloved and treasured companions I’ve ever met. Even when an owner initially lacks the capability to understand the specifics as they relate to their pet, more often than not, they are able to put their own emotions aside and truly care for their pet with a deeper sense of compassion and patience.
Such stories can truly push the limits of my emotions. It’s easy for me to become so wrapped up in the details about the story behind the animal that in some cases I’ve found myself temporarily losing sight of the bigger picture. I always need to keep in mind that as a veterinarian, my primary role is to care for animals, and to keep their health and well being at the forefront. Blurred lines or not, this rule never changes.
When our pets face a diagnosis of cancer, it is our responsibility to make sure they face their disease with dignity and without suffering. When they represent a connection to a deceased person, an additional focus needs to be made on honoring the original owner's wishes for their care. We are all compelled to maintain their happiness, quality of life, and pride for whatever remaining time they have.
I urge you all to hold a special place in your heart for those pets diagnosed with cancer that also represent a connection to a lost loved one. Though they are unable to comprehend their role in the scenario at hand, they provide a remarkable sense of unconditional love that sustains over time, never asking for a single thing in return but our care.
Dr. Joanne Intile
Image: John Donges / Flickr