Old Cat

In a recent article, I chronicled what a day in the clinic life of a veterinary oncologist is like, and I believe that some of my readers were surprised by some of the positive pet stories that I told. 

Each of those anecdotes was true, and my patients fill my working hours with positive energy and hope.

The reality is that the difficult conversations don’t happen in the clinic — they come late in the day, over the telephone, or in the middle of the night, via an anguished email.

After more than 25 years spent practicing veterinary medicine, these conversations have not become easier for me, although I have gained some wisdom surrounding the right time to have them.

Wishing for a Peaceful Passing

Pet owners often hope that their pet will pass quietly and without incident at home, while asleep in their favorite basket or bed, so the family can avoid the wrenching but sometimes necessary decision to euthanize

But fate rarely provides this solution.

Dog and cat owners alike do not take the decision to euthanize lightly, hence the anguished emails in the middle of the night. No one wishes to make the decision a minute sooner than is necessary, nor a second later than is appropriate. 

Yet, even after years of listening to these moving voicemail messages and reading the desperate emails, the perfect moment for euthanasia often eludes me.

Most of the time, I just listen to the family’s concerns, and they themselves realize when the time is right.

Choreographing a Proper Goodbye

Every animal whom I care for teaches me something, and since I work in New York City, I see plenty of pets with performance-artist owners of all varieties.

Recently, I had the privilege of caring for two such pets whose artistic owners helped me to better understand how to approach the fraught decision to end a pet's suffering.

As the health of both animals began to fail around the time that critical performances were coming up for their owners, our conversations and emails centered on “the right time.”

Although both pets had responded to initial treatment, their cancerous tumors ultimately recurred — and everyone was clear that the end was near.

One dog owner felt that the right time was when he could focus on his pet, as opposed to his upcoming performance. The thoughtful gentleman chose a date prior to the performance, with enough time to right himself and give a “warm, shapely performance,” according to The New York Times

The other family considered taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York City at just the right moment, in between performances. Ultimately, they realized that the stress associated with coordinating such an event took the focus off their beloved dog, so they chose a time when everyone could be together for an extended period of time to avoid a frenzied goodbye.

These two patients taught me that there is no exact right time, but there may be a best time.