Dead but not forgotten

October 18, 2016

The living ones are easy. It's the strange or emotional stories of pets who pass that can haunt veterinary practitioners and lead to strange and thought-provoking encounters with clients.

Pet loss is always sad, but sometimes it's also bizarre, spooky and just plain strange. (Photos by Troy Van Horn.)Eight legs and a pulse?

As veterinarians, we're not supposed to be afraid of any animal, but I'm afraid of spiders. Their saliva, the way they move-they creep me out. A bug's not supposed to have hair on it!

Now, in their infinite wisdom, pet stores sell big spiders-tarantulas, frog-eating spiders, big wolf spiders-and one day, this guy comes into our practice with a plastic shoebox with a huge spider in it.

"Be really careful," he says. "He got out last year and bit my roommate on the face and he had to have his head drained!"

All I could think was, "Get a phone book!" But that's not a practice builder, dropping phone books on your patients. So I say, "Well, what's wrong with him?"

"He's just not himself," he tells me.

"Not his perky spider self? He called in late for work?"

It was worse than that, he says: "He hasn't eaten for several weeks, and yesterday his leg fell off!"

I try to come up with something learned-sounding, so I say, "In my experience, when the leg falls off, they're obviously ill." Sounded intelligent, right?

Then I remembered the Museum of Natural History in Denver's City Park has spider expert Leonard Licht, PhD, a spider expert. I tell the spider owner to go see the spider guy.

About an hour later, Licht calls me and says, "Dr. Fitzgerald? Dr. Licht here. Did you send a client over here with this big-ass spider?" I say I did.

"Did you tell him, 'When the leg falls off, they're obviously ill'?"

Yup, that was me.

"Well, if you would have taken the time to examine him, you would have seen that he was in fact dead!"

Look, I just didn't want to get my head drained, whatever that meant. I mean, a spider as a pet? Is this a good idea?

- Kevin Fitzgerald, PhD, DVM, DABVP

Stand-up comic, TV show vet and staff veterinarian at VCA Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver, Colorado


What's the strangest request you've received from a pet owner? Bloody reminder

We'd sent blood work on a sick patient to an in-town outside lab. Sadly, a few days after the blood work was done, our patient was euthanized when additional testing showed she was terminal.

Five days later, the client called to ask if the lab still had the blood we'd sent. We thought the lab might still have the samples, so our technician asked if the client would like further testing done. Sometimes knowing more, even post-mortem, is helpful.

The client said she didn't need more testing done, but she wanted the blood-for personal reasons.

The lab returned the blood to us by courier. The client came by right away to pick up the blood and thank us for our care of her dog.

That's all I know.

Turtle trap

One of my veterinary receptionist friends told me a story from working with another doctor. A client called in to say his turtle had pushed his head and legs out of the shell for three days but hadn't moved since then. He was calling to make an appointment to have his turtle seen, because that didn't seem right.

Because he was distraught and refused to believe my friend that his pet was in fact dead, she set up an appointment with a doctor in which he compassionately examined the turtle and pronounced him deceased.

Now that my friend works with me, whenever she gets a call from a client she can help but who demands to speak to a doctor, she warns me by saying, “Turtle.”

The eye of a storm

A client dropped off a very compromised cat for an exam. I opened the cardboard box to see her agonally breathing. I started oxygen therapy by mask and called the client to let him know she was doing very poorly and asked about emergency care. He did not want heroic measures taken and authorized euthanasia.

The poor cat could not get a full breath, and I could tell she was scared. I also suspected she only had a few moments left. I gave her a strong sedative and picked her up and held her. When I picked her up, I could tell she was a cat who would rather be held than not. The team members around me were yelling at each other and running around setting things up to place a catheter and administer euthanasia solution.

I told them just to wait and held the cat close. She took a few more breaths and relaxed and passed away. I felt like she and I were in the eye of a storm.

- Shawn Finch, DVM

Associate at Gentle Doctor Animal Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska


Pet owners can face some level of denial when their pets die. The limits of CPR

I remember this one time a nonclient rushed in with a pet hit by a car. It was a busy day, and I was in and out of several exam rooms. I was paged to the treatment area, where our critical patients immediately go because oxygen and a crash cart are handy.

I found, sadly, a dog with no response, no pulse and cold gums. In my mind, there was no chance of reviving the pet so I didn't think CPR was a valid option.

I headed out to tell the owner that her pet had passed. She immediately asked if I'd performed CPR. I told her I hadn't because the pet was beyond saving. She asked if I had paddles and insisted I perform CPR. So I did. For 5 minutes. Unsuccessfully.

When I went back into the room to tell her, she was quite upset. She told me she chose the wrong hospital to go to or her pet would still be alive. I gave my condolences, charged for the CPR and never saw her again.

- Andy Rollo, DVM

Associate at Madison Veterinary Hospital in Madison Heights, Michigan