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“I was reminded in no uncertain terms that yes, what us vets do does matter”

I am fortunate to be blessed with relatively few emotional ups and downs in life. I can identify with that sage of our times, Homer Simpson, when he was asked “Are you always this shallow or do you have hidden depths?”, to which his reply was, “oh there’s no hidden depths, but I get way more shallow”. 

However, recently I have been through an experience that forced me to experience some emotions – mainly grief – and brought back to me how important the bond between pet and owner can be. I am referring to the loss of one of our own pets, the family ginger tom, Gruffalo. 

It is easy at work to get caught up in the many peripheral things that distract us from the patients, and the bond they have with their owner. These may be clinical and scientific conundrums, cost issues, etc. 

Frequently for older vets, we have plenty to distract us from those things that may distract us from the patients – like the latest GDPR regulations or staff leaving. Some days, to be able to focus on the science is a bonus; to be able to focus on the emotional needs of our clients or get attached to the patients is a rare thing. 

These factors were brought back into sharp relief a few weeks ago when it became clear that Gruffalo had to go. We had diagnosed a squamous cell carcinoma under his tongue about a month before. He had a fair few health issues, and possibly these issues make you even more attached to them because they need you more. I had removed one thyroid gland, then the other several years ago. Inevitably, the disease recurred and he refused any medication until the liquid one became available. He had a non-specific skin allergy which responded to occasional depo injections. 

He had other idiosyncrasies too. If you stood near him on his “pride rock” spot on the back of the sofa you would get a swipe. If you touched him when he was grooming you’d get a nip. He clearly hadn’t read the cat behaviour books that tell you cats prefer “low intensity, high frequency” social interactions; he would disprove this theory by sitting on your lap for hours on end then sleeping with one of the children most of the night. 

As his slow and uncomfortable demise came to its conclusion he managed to maintain much of his character, and it was with an unsettling feeling of betrayal that I knew I was going to be the one to help him shuffle off the mortal coil. Although I told myself all the usual about sparing him the final few weeks of suffering, it did not, I can report from the other side of the consulting table, help very much.

This also brought to mind all the usual contradictions and ethical problems that pet ownership brings. I was, as was the whole family, extremely upset and occasionally weepy about the whole episode. 

We did not shed a tear for anyone reported killed in Syria and we ate roast pork for dinner (ethically sourced and slaughtered). But had anyone presented a human who I had never met and offered me a choice between inflicting pain, injury or death on a beloved family pet or the random human, I would offer the pet without a second’s thought. I am sure I am pretty average in that regard. 

Having a week or so of upset about our old cat has brought back in to focus what being a vet is all about, and how much our work can mean. I am sure that sometimes we all wonder why we do what we do, whether it “matters” in some wider sense.

As I shopped for some plants to put on his grave the day before the PTS, I had a brief weepy moment in the garden centre. Partly because I knew that while I was buying grave plants, he was at home in blissful ignorance waiting for me to serve him his lunchtime pouch

As I shopped for some plants to put on his grave the day before the PTS, I had a brief weepy moment in the garden centre. Partly because I knew that while I was buying grave plants, he was at home in blissful ignorance waiting for me to serve him his lunchtime pouch of the practice’s finest convalescence food. As I gathered my composure pretending to browse the weedkiller aisle, I was reminded in no uncertain terms that yes, what us vets do does matter. Our patients matter very much.

Gareth Cross

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