Do What I Say ... Not What I Do

I started out as the ideal pet-owning veterinarian. Lofty, disciplined goals to have the "good dog" that belonged to a veterinarian. No to dogs on the bed. Yes to dog crates. And yes to obedience classes. That quickly fell off my radar. 

While I still have an obedient dog, he sleeps with me. In fact, he sleeps under the sheets with me (which I vowed I would never do before). My pets — a pit bull named JP and two cats named Seamus and Echo — have become my kids and rule the roost.

When I rescued all three of my pets, no one warned me to space them out; they’re all approaching the geriatric, sickly age simultaneously. As a result, I’ve experienced being on both sides of the clinic table — as both a veterinarian and a pet owner. As a veterinarian, I’ve always felt like I had strong bedside manner. I’ve always prided myself on having strong communication skills with pet owners. They get me. I explain it clearly and compassionately. And I’m able to do so in an empathetic manner while supporting the pet owner’s ultimate decision. Top it off with the fact that I know how to practice street medicine (i.e., "ghetto medicine" when finances aren’t available), so I’m able to provide all the options: from the Cadillac plan to the Hyundai plan.

As a veterinarian, I’m often asked the question, "What would you do if it was your own dog?" And to be honest, I used to evade that question and rarely answered it, as morally and ethically, I have to offer all the options (which may include surgery, chemotherapy, non-invasive treatment, etc.). Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of the pet owner, not the veterinarian. All I can do is provide the appropriate medical choices in an accurate, factual, but compassionate way. So that’s what I’ve done for the past 13 years of my career … until I became the affected pet owner.

Last summer, JP, my 12-year-old pit bull, was diagnosed with cancer — specifically, an aggressive, deadly brain tumor called a glioma. After JP’s MRI, I found myself sitting in my own former vet school hospital lobby where I used to teach, listening to all the options. I was pleading with my colleagues, "What would you do if it was your own dog? I mean, for real?"

Like I said, veterinarians don’t want to answer this because there are so many options out there, and they don’t want to corner pet owners into a specific decision (only to be sued for not offering more options later). And keep in mind that there are some vets out there that I wouldn’t necessarily always heed their recommendations — after all, they may not pursue chemotherapy after a bad experience, or they may put their own dog through a major surgery as 1) they get a discount on the service, 2) they are aware of all the risks, pros, and cons, etc., and 3) they can more easily deal with the complications.

So, what good came out of JP’s diagnosis with cancer? It made me realize that as a veterinarian, I should practice an improv veterinary version of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. My interpretation: Do for another’s pet what you would have done for your own …

As a pet owner, isn’t that how you would want your pet treated by a veterinarian?

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Cadillac by David Salafia

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