Features May 2017 Issue

Wrongful Pet Deaths and Empathy for Your Vet

We may not always be happy with the services rendered by our veterinarians, but only rarely is this caused because the medical professionals donít care about our animals.

The start of spring is always a little bittersweet for me. I love the longer days, but it also marks the painful anniversary of losing my first Golden Retriever, Quiz.

Quiz was diagnosed with a mass on his spleen and went in for surgery. During the procedure, a technician inadvertently administered an overdose of medication to address a series of non-critical arrhythmias. Immediately following the overdose, Quiz went into cardiac arrest and, despite CPR, did not recover. I was gutted by his loss. I wasn’t the only one.

It still breaks my heart to think about the circumstances of his tragic passing, but I also remember the integrity demonstrated by the surgeon responsible for his care. The specialty group did everything right in the aftermath of their horrific mistake. The medical director launched a full review of the incident to determine how best to modify surgical protocol to prevent future medication errors. The surgeon remained as transparent as possible in sharing details of the incident and the subsequent review, while still protecting the privacy of the devastated technician. All charges were immediately reversed on my account. None of these actions brought back my beloved dog, but they felt authentic and were greatly appreciated.

quiz the dog

Despite the shock of losing her dog in such a tragic way, the author sought to face the situation with grace, realizing the surgeon and his team were also devastated. No vet wants to lose a patient on the table.

Of course I was angry. But I also knew in my heart it was a mistake. Veterinarians and their staff members are only human, and humans sometimes make mistakes, even devastatingly tragic ones. As such, and because of how the practice immediately took full responsibility, it never felt right to direct my anger, a side effect of my intense pain, toward the surgeon and his team. I’m really glad I made that choice.

Being a Vet is a Stressful Job

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 10,000 mostly small-animal practice veterinarians. The sobering findings revealed roughly 14 percent of male and 19 percent of female veterinarians had seriously considered suicide – three times the national average. Approximately one percent of male and one and a half percent of female vets surveyed had actually attempted suicide. This sobering statistic hit home for many dog trainers in September 2014 when renowned veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin took her own life.

Experts say the shocking rate of suicide within the profession is likely due to a combination of personality traits common among vets, and the stress and compassion fatigue associated with the profession. Most vets are perfectionists who are used to getting it right. After all, it took perfect grades to get into vet school. They often aren’t adequately prepared to accept the life and death reality of the job, and every death, no matter the cause, can feel like failure.

It’s long past time to remove the stigma associated with depression and mental illness. Consider supporting the work of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and your local mental health agencies. And, please, be kind to your vet! Remember that she wants what’s best for your animal. Understand the price on your bill generally represents a realistic cost for care, given steep overhead costs, not an attempt to price-gouge. I’m a big fan of hand-written “thank you” notes following non-routine procedures, and the occasional surprise note or token of appreciation.

As with many things, a little positive reinforcement can go a long way; you may never know just how far.

Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Southern California.

Comments (18)

A cat, who went in to the vet practice for treatment, escaped and couldn't be found. So next day the practice called them owner to tell than that sadly their cat did not survive the operation. Only to be told "Oh, he's back home!"

Posted by: Jenny H | August 29, 2017 8:30 PM    Report this comment

I understand that the best of vets can sometimes make mistakes & sometimes pets can die even if they do everything right. However, one time I took a beloved dog to be spayed & the vets office called & said, " Your dog died. You need to come in & pay us for the anesthesia & our time. Will you be picking up the body? It will cost you an extra $10 for us to dispose of it." I payed the bill & have not been back to that vet.

Posted by: Ratman2455 | May 18, 2017 6:10 PM    Report this comment

There is no excuse for a mistake in human or animal practice of medicine. A mistake is synonymous with accident.... Mistakes like accidents are preventable. It appears training and accountability is the result of this untimely death of Quiz. I have had numerous vets over the years with my 4 legged children and finding a vet who is accountable, professional, qualified and treats your pet with compassion with a desire and drive to not let mistakes happen either by them or their ancillary staff. A death from a mistake should not be treated any different than a mistake with a human death. If veterinarians were held accountable and liable in the same manner as a human physician there would be less "mistakes", bad diagnosis and treatments in the industry. I can personally speak from experience time and time again with all the scenarios listed above. I find more and more vets who become hardened to the practice of veterinarian medicine and look at their mistakes as just another collateral damage and move on without fixing the problem. My current and past Golden's and my GSD are the closest to family I have ever had and I want them treated with the same compassion, professionalism and knowledge of a vets chosen profession no differently than any caring human would want their closest human treated. I am retired from human medicine and I was held accountable for every thing I did and was expected to go through continued education to keep my skills at their maximum. with no excuses for any potential poor decisions. "THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR MISTAKES IN EITHER HUMAN OR VETERINARIAN MEDICINE."

Posted by: TEXPHIL | May 16, 2017 11:07 AM    Report this comment

I had my previous vet for 16 years. My darling Schipperke became ill suddenly, and for 2 years, was suffering digestive issues - which i can now surmise were something like IBD. The vet just suggested increasing fiber. for 2 years? I was consumed with my dog's illness, but didn't really understand what could be done. I now know i could have done more research, but my veterinarian was the doctor. He didn't do any further research, really try to get to the bottom of the problem. He scoffed when I tried acupuncture, even though he respected that veterinarian. Unfortunately, I waited too long to take him to WSU, to have them try & see what could be done (I am in AK).
I never went back to that vet. I finally wrote him a letter to tell him I could never have trusted him again, for it didn't seem like he put any effort into solving the medical mystery. I switched to the emergency practice, where the night doctor was able to determine what was causing all of his seizures - besides his treated epilepsy.
I understand vets are human - I have the utmost respect for them, and think they are the greatest people around.

Posted by: Kelley | May 14, 2017 11:30 PM    Report this comment

A year ago this month we lost our sweet smooth hair fox terrier to what I now see an incompetent vet. Our dog was 12 years old and very healthy and happy. We rescued her from a terrible life and she lived us dearly for it. She had to have a dental and I sat down with the vetenarian and made it clear that if she needed teeth pulled, only a couple at a time and I would bring her back at another time to do the rest. She totally agreed. She removed 20 teeth and fried her brain from too much anesthesia. I had to put my sweet girl down a week later, and when I demanded an answer as to why this happened all the Vet could say was,"I don't know". She killed my sweet girl and I can't let this go.

Posted by: ScottieLover | May 14, 2017 7:21 PM    Report this comment

Sorry, just to be clear: the original hospital which did the dental procedure was NOT the hospital in the U.S. who conducted four weeks of radiation on Jack. The original hospital is the one that has more specialists than other hospitals in my town.
The hospital in the States, at Cornell University, is beyond reproach. I can't say enough about the loving, round-the-clock care, consideration and true dedication the students and doctors provided for my beloved Jack.

Posted by: LoveGSDs | May 14, 2017 3:05 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately not all veterinarians and their hospitals shoulder the responsibility as they should.
My dog had died of esophagitis after the dental vet used bleach in his clean in his mouth during a procedure. Jack was left under anesthetic for hours. He died a horrible death and did not deserve to suffer as he did. I was told that Jack was old and so anything could have happened. Jack had triumphed over cancer, withstood chemo and radiation. I took him to an amazing hospital in the U.S. who were amazed with Jack -- always bouncing off the examining tables, after the anesthetic, never went off his food.
This is a large hospital, only one in town with such a wide array of specialists - they have a monopoly on specialized care. But I will do what I did with Jack when I tried to save him. Once again I crossed the border -- they did everything right, but couldn't save Jack. They had wished I brought him sooner -- so did I.
There was an outstanding balance of which the original hospital offered to waive -- on the condition that there would be no further action taken on my part, and no going public with what happened. There was a legal document which my lawyer sent back to the hospital unsigned. I wasn't trading this tragedy for hush money.
So the best and the worst are out there -- I wish it didn't have to cost my dog's life to find that out.

Posted by: LoveGSDs | May 14, 2017 3:01 PM    Report this comment

I am a human physician.

What would you think if a physician made a mistake that killed a patient and no one investigated or tried to make sure the doctor did not continue to make such mistakes?

Posted by: SadieSue | May 14, 2017 2:26 PM    Report this comment

I do not have empathy for veterinarians that poison my pets with chemical medications, toxic pesticides and toxin vaccines. I have watched too many of my pets die or get severe side effects like cancer from the live cancer cells in all the vaccines.
If vets truly care about pets then the vets need to learn holistic care and nosodes instead of vaccines. The vets were taught by big pharma to sell as many chemicals as possible via chemical meds, chemical pesticides and toxic vaccines for profit not for health.
I am willing to pay any holistic or naturaopath or homeopath vet for guidance and willing to buy the natural holistic remedies and formulas from holistic veterinarians.

If any vet wants my empathy then I expect them to learn real health care instead of selling pesticides, chemical meds and toxic vaccines and the vets earn great rewards from each big pharma manufacturer for the more chemicals they sell. Vets are just drug pushers for big pharma.

If a vet truly cares, they will NOT force the poisons down my throat. I have been to many vets anywhere I live with numerous pets and the vets were very condescending and angry when I found alternatives that worked better then the toxins. The vets were angry when I refused to buy the poisons and researched for the safe alternatives. The vets did not want to hear that I knew first hand from previous pets, how dangerous the poisons they were pushing, and I wanted my current pets to be healthy so I would refuse to buy the numerous poisons the vet drug pushers were selling. Why would the vets want me to buy poisons to hurt my pets health then get angry when my pets were cured and healthy naturally? I do not have empathy for those drug pushing vets.

Yes I have great empathy and respect for real holistic vets, real homeopathic vets and naturopathic vets.
These real health vets have so much natural knowledge to heal the entire body, it is just amazing. I have researched and studied so many holistic, homeopath and naturopath veterinarian cases, where pets were in such bad health or sure to die under a allapathic vets care, and finally they turn to natural care, and if it is not too late, many pets not only survive but thrive to live much longer healthier lives. I have learned to research any human or pet health condition and find there are numerous natural solutions that really work.

Real health is needed for all pets and humans. I do hope more of the masses will become informed and learn there are natural holistic alternatives to most all health conditions for both human and animal.

The powerful elite make their great wealth off of the uninformed masses. But the powerful elite have quietly all along been using holistic, homeopathic and naturopath health solutions for their own personal families, they seek holistic doctors in secret, as they don't want to expose to the masses, that they themselves (the powerful elite) do not use chemicals or toxins in their own families health but they are wealthy from the selling of chemicals and toxins as many are big investors in big pharma that sells to the ignorant masses.

Please really love your pets by becoming informed for real health, learn to do your own research for a natural holistic alternative for health condition xxxxx and search for a holistic, homeopath or naturopath veterinarian for guidance when needed. All pets deserve to live a long healthy life and the pets and animals depend on us to find real health, not support big pharma for great profits to support their luxurious lifestyles.

Posted by: guest1 | May 14, 2017 12:32 PM    Report this comment

I am concerned about that also. I believe the best way is to create a Pet Trust instead of leaving your wishes in a will. The best way is to find an attorney who is knowledgable about Pet Trusts, and I think you need to find 2 people who agree to either take your pets or at least be responsible for them (one of them could die or their situations could change, so you want 2). If you just leave instructions in a will, you have no idea how long the will take to settle, or if the person you leave them to will want them. This is as far as I have gotten.

Posted by: CyberDaze | May 14, 2017 12:01 PM    Report this comment

The integrity and transparency of the team make all the difference in the world.

Posted by: Troutlily | May 14, 2017 11:06 AM    Report this comment

AS A 71 YEAR OLD - WHO STARTED HIS FIRST JOB FEEDING DOGS IN A KENNEL IN 1958 - AND HAVING ACQUIRED ALMOST 60 YEARS OF WORKING WITH DOGS AND CATS IN KENNELS AND ANIMAL HOSPITALS - I HAVE THE HIGHEST REGARD FOR VETERINARIANS AND THEIR SKILLED STAFF OF, FULLY TRAINED VETERINARY TECHNICIANS. I HAVE NEVER HAD THIS BAD EXPERIENCE - BUT MISTAKES DO HAPPEN. EVEN DURING THE MOST CAREFUL AND STRINGENT PROFESSIONALISM.

AS A TRAINED VETERINARY TECHNICIAN, AN EMT AND 'SEARCH AND RESCUE' PERSON FOR OVER 50 YEARS - I KNOW THAT IT ONLY TAKES A SMALL, OVER DOSE OF PROPOFOL OR ISOFLURANE TO CAUSE DEATH IN YOUR PET.

YOUR VETERINARIAN AND HIS EXTREMELY QUALIFIED STAFF TAKE EVERY PRECAUTION TO MONITOR YOUR PETS VITAL SIGNS DURING AN OPERATION AND RECOVERY. I WAS PLEASED AT THE ATTITUDE OF THE WRITER IN THE ABOVE ARTICLE. SHOWING EMPATHY - IS A LOVING AND KIND HUMAN QUALITY.

Posted by: vet_tech_Rod | May 14, 2017 10:19 AM    Report this comment

Excellent article!! I've been taking my dogs - from the first one to the current two - to the same vet for nearly 17 years. While I don't always agree with him, I know for a fact that he has always had their best interests at heart. And I trust him - and his new associate - implicitly. So much so that I am doing my vet assistant course externship at his animal hospital. I wouldn't go to any other vet (except in an emergency). I know Doc and his staff love my girls - past and present - and their other patients as well.

Posted by: SJO | May 14, 2017 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Good day.
Excellent article...
I wish I would read it the day I lost my beloved mini schnauzer...
I know that doc did everything he could the day she died... I know he is a wonderful surgeon and specialist...
My rage and anger was that not him not other staff of the clinic saw that my girl was not spayed and never ever warn me of the possibility of deaths because of that...
I agree the vet profession is stressful... however I think that vets should know every patient in their clinic and check the histories of patients on a regular basis to prevent possible death because they did not warn the owner about complications or causes that will lead to fatal end of their fur friend...

Posted by: aantonino75 | May 13, 2017 8:43 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the article. I love the vet practice I take my two Labrador Retrievers to, they truly care about my girls and always check up with me after they've been in or have had an emergency. I often wondered how they are able to deal with the toll of loss of clients pets. Think I'll send them a note of appreciation.

Posted by: Kolilimom | May 6, 2017 2:33 PM    Report this comment

This is a great article, especially since blaming and bashing seems to have become a way of life these days. I don't love all the advice I get from veterinarians, but I've never wondered for one second whether they were "just in it for the money." Vets care about animals and want to help, and you're absolutely correct that their jobs are tremendously difficult on so many levels. I couldn't do it.

The situation with your Golden is tragic, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm guessing the tech will also never fully recover from his/her error, even though it's absolutely true that vet staffs are human, and humans make mistakes.

Posted by: JanC1955 | April 30, 2017 1:47 PM    Report this comment

To hilfri: I can't put links to articles here, but just Google "caring for your pet after you're gone" (without the quotation marks) and you'll find lots of information.

Posted by: JanC1955 | April 30, 2017 1:41 PM    Report this comment

I have Dr. Yin's book How to Behave so your Dog Behaves, and was enthused that she is an expert close to where I live, as expertise nearby could potentially "save the day", should one of my dogs ever develop a confusing (to me) departure from their generally normal, predictable selves. I had no idea that she had died, and was greatly saddened. This also brought up for me the concern that I have had in the past few years (I am 62) on resources and ideas for surviving pets should the owner die. This may seem morbid but we are all mortal, and I have not seen this topic discussed. Does anyone have any suggestions on material or references dealing with this? I am certainly not wealthy, but do have some assets, and have no family that one could ordinarily entrust with this. As we have an aging population, this may concern many others as well.

Posted by: hilfri | April 27, 2017 10:45 AM    Report this comment

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