Years ago I saw a cartoon in a veterinarian’s office. In the exaggerated illustration, an old cowboy held the fraying lead rope of a skeletal, wildly sway-backed old horse with a rough coat. Stars were plain to see in the sky, and a clock on the barn wall indicated that it was the middle of the night. A veterinarian dressed in pajamas covered with a long coat shook his head, and the old horse rolled its eyes as the cowboy explained, “I don’t know what’s happened, Doc. I came out to feed ‘em tonight and saw he had taken sick real sudden!”
I guess that it’s a common, bittersweet joke with veterinarians – being paged in the middle of the night to attend to an animal whose medical “emergency” was a long time coming.
In fact, we heard the complaint several times from the veterinarians we spoke with for our series on canine cancer. We heard it expressed again and again that one of the greatest frustrations of their veterinary careers is dealing with the owners of dogs who have just been diagnosed with wildly advanced cancer.
“There’s nothing worse,” one practitioner told me, “than being expected to work immediate miracles on a dog that has been exhibiting easily recognizeable symptoms of disease for weeks, months, and even years – symptoms like steadily growing lumps and persistent weight loss, and so on.”
Even I get a little impatient when I hear from a reader who wants my immediate advice on what to do with his or her dog, right now, for an advanced condition. Never mind that I’m a journalist, not a veterinarian!
I’m not cross. My heart goes out to these people. I understand how painful it is to look into the rapidly dimming eyes of a beloved animal companion and know that you do not have the tools or knowledge neccessary to help him.
And I am overjoyed to be in a position to point these folks in the direction of further resources, if it’s at all possible. I try to let them know when our next article on the subject will be published. And I offer my genuine sympathy; I’ve been there.
But I also strongly encourage them to call their own veterinarian and set up an appointment as soon as possible. If they are unhappy with their vet, I advise them to find another one – fast! If they are looking for an alternative or complementary practitioner, I tell them to contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA); they will send you a list of holistic veterinarians in your area (the contact numbers for AHVMA are listed in our “Resources” section, page 24, every month).
But these steps constitute closing the barn door after the horses get out. Every medical professional will tell you that early intervention is the key to all successful treatments. First and most importantly, be aware of your dog’s body, appetite, elimination, and dispositition. If a change occurs, talk to a veterinarian about it as soon as possible.
Step two: Cultivate a relationship with a veterinarian. If you don’t like or don’t trust one veterinarian, or his style of medicine (conventional or alternative), start looking now for another. I strongly recommend that anyone who currently lacks access to a holistic veterinarian contact AHVMA as soon as possible, so that, at a minimum, you have the phone numbers for experts who can offer you an alternate treatment option if the need arises.
This isn’t empty advice; I’m taking it myself. Earlier this week, when I washed my nine-year-old dog, Rupert, I found small lump on his side. I’ve already made an appointment with our favorite conventional veterinarian. If it turns out to be cancer, I already know which holistic clinic I’ll take him to for treatment. That’s why I’ve been able to sleep.
Plus, I don’t want to end up in some cartoon. I want the relationship with my medical advisors to be based on mutual care and respect, not frustration. I want to do anything I can to help them help Rupie.