Caring for animals was not just a career choice, it was a calling. Besides healing my animal patients, I have long aspired to do something that would more broadly benefit animals and the humans who care about them. One day, as I reflected on how we make health care decisions on behalf of animals, I realized that the best decisions consider factors besides the patient's medical needs. In the course of twenty years in various aspects of the veterinary profession, I have come across many unique situations and solutions. My purpose for writing this book is to guide people through the process of making the best choices for their animal companions.
Most people love their pets and want them to live long, happy, and healthy lives. As reality has it, however, even the best cared for and deeply loved pets are subject to illness, disease, and eventually death. It is when such events threaten that I hope I can really be of assistance to my patients and their humans. As a veterinarian, I help people make and carry out decisions about their pets based on their own values, resources, and spiritual beliefs.
For those of you who can't believe how much you love your dog or cat - or your bird or horse or iguana or hamster or whatever other animal you happened to connect with and that happened to connect with you - this process will help make the most difficult decisions a little bit easier. Even though it will still be hard on your feeling-self, your thinking-self will know that you are doing the best you can for your loved one.
If you are lucky, you will have to make very few difficult decisions on behalf of your animal companion because he or she will be healthy, live a long life, and then pass away peacefully in his or her sleep. Indeed, an entire chapter is devoted to aging gracefully and the ways that we can increase the odds of this happening for our animal friends. It is also about paying attention to our pet companions as they proceed through their lives. Animals can teach humans many lessons about aging gracefully. Most have fewer hang-ups about the process, or worries about the future, than we do. They enjoy what each day has to offer. If we can respect and learn from that attitude, the quality of all of our lives might improve.
Nevertheless, most of us will at some point be challenged to make decisions of some sort about our pet's health care. These decisions have become much more complex than they were ten or even five years ago because of the increasing variety of options in veterinary health care today. Where there used to be a local veterinarian who took care of everything, there are now numerous specialists for different animals and different types of illnesses. Technology has expanded to include ultrasound, computer tomography (CT or "catscan"), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, carts and wheelchairs, artificial limbs and joints, dialysis, transplants, pacemakers, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, herbal treatments, and dozens upon dozens of other ways of diagnosing problems and prolonging life. However, rather than survey the ever-expanding multitude of care options, this book will guide you in the best way to make choices no matter what the options are.
Moreover, like humans, animals are living longer, challenging us to redefine "old." When I first started working as a veterinarian, my boss's fourteen-year-old Labrador retriever suddenly collapsed one day with a very painful abdomen. An ultrasound revealed a fluid-filled liver mass, and with much disquiet, a surgeon was called in to explore the dog's abdomen. An abscessed liver lobe was removed and the patient recovered and lived for three more years. The challenge that day was whether to risk surgery, which might not have been successful, or to accept that this illness was the end of fourteen good years of life. No one wants a pet's life to end as a failed medical procedure. But if we succumb to preconceptions about age or refrain from offering patients the best care options because they are "old," it may shortchange them and ourselves the gift of life. Age should be a consideration, but it is not a diagnosis or a disease.
Some of you may choose not to pursue certain medical procedures, whether for philosophical, financial, or other reasons. If you were my client, however, I would present you with options, the likely outcomes, and the possible complications. Why shouldn't the person who lives with, cares for, and most understands and loves an animal be fully informed and participate in deciding its fate? Another chapter in this book is devoted to choosing a veterinarian whose views about pets and health care parallel your own. Most veterinarians want to heal animals, but their approaches, styles, and standards of excellence can vary tremendously. It is easier for you, your pet, and your veterinarian if you share similar goals and philosophies in regard to life and health care. Your veterinarian can guide you, carry out diagnostics, and prescribe treatments, but part of your responsibility as your pet's caregiver is to make the decisions that will affect the quantity and quality of that individual pet's life.
This book is not going to tell you what to do. Instead, it reflects on different views about human-animal relationships, life and death, Western and non-Western medicines, and pet care and commitment. The choices that work for you and your animal companion may differ from the choices that work for me and my animal companion. The choices that work for my socially interactive and accommodating pet may differ from the choices that work for my independent and opinionated pet, even if they happen to have the same medical condition. Neither choice is inferior or superior to the other; they are just different. Every animal's individual interests deserve to be accommodated, and many variables affect our decisions: the animal's ailment, prognosis, personality, and temperament; our relationship with that pet; our lifestyle, priorities, financial resources, and previous experiences; our philosophical and/or spiritual beliefs; and our ability to provide hands-on supportive care. My goal is to help you realize and think through the options available to you and your animal companion and to help you make well-reasoned decisions.
Most of the examples I use in this book involve pet dogs, cats, and birds because these are the species that make up most of my patient population. However, while the details might vary for other species, the processes and principles I present can be extrapolated and applied. I should also clarify that my focus is on those human-animal relationships where a bond or some emotional attachment already exists. In more institutional human-animal interactions - for example, those based on production or research - the fate of animals is decided based upon different goals and priorities. While I am sympathetic to the plight of animals in these situations, it is the subject matter of a different book. Perhaps by better understanding the animals with whom we share our daily lives, we will better appreciate and seek to help the other animals with whom we share the planet.
The terms we use when describing humans, animals, and their relationship to each other often have subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle connotations and inferences. However, this book is not a commentary on animal politics. I do not desire to offend those in favor of granting animals legal rights, nor do I desire to alienate the average "pet owner." My goal is focused on the more practical matter of helping animals as they currently exist in our lives, and I have tried to use neutral, nonpolitical phrasing. When referring to humans in these relationships, I use the terms "human" and "caregiver." When referring to animals, I personally prefer the phrases "nonhuman family member" and "animal companion," though I do use the term "pet" as well - since, all politics aside, that is how most people refer to their companion animals. I also follow the convention common in veterinary settings where humans who come into the office are referred to as "clients" and animals are referred to as "patients."
Kindred Spirit, Kindred Care is the result of my own involuntary pondering during countless walks on the beach and in the forest with my dog. It is my journey into ethics, healing, and spirituality. It is a culmination of my experiences with the many clients who have shared their lives with me and entrusted their animal soul mates to my care. It is a collection of lessons from my animal patients and companions about enjoying life, aging gracefully, and being honest. I hope that our experiences may lead the way for others.