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5 Rights You Have When Your Dog Is Diagnosed With a Serious Health Issue

If you get bad news about your dog's health, exercise these rights to be his best possible advocate.

Chris Corrigan Mendez  |  Jan 28th 2016


When we have a pet in our lives, trips to the veterinarian are routine. Appointments for annual checkups, minor health problems, and injuries are all included in our roles as pet protectors and loving parents. Unfortunately, these vet visits occasionally take a dramatic and unexpected turn. What may begin as a “typical” or “hopeful” appointment can end with our pet receiving a serious diagnosis.

And as the vet utters words like “chronic,” “not curable,” or “terminal,” we may find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, confused, sad, and even helpless. These powerful emotions can make it difficult for both new and experienced pet guardians to remember that at this time, we have rights.

I believe that these five rights specifically, when claimed and acted upon, can help us more effectively handle a difficult diagnosis with strength and do all we can for our beloved pet.

1. Before we leave the vet’s office, we have the right to ask for complete, detailed information

Veterinarian with dog by Shutterstock.

Veterinarian with dog by Shutterstock.

The vet can provide us with her professional knowledge, consult resources available at the clinic, and also recommend sites and literature for us to review on our own. As I have personally experienced (when my pet, Brynn, was diagnosed with diabetes), we often receive just a brief (and not entirely clear) “snapshot” of the disease or condition. This may lead us to quickly accept the first response plan provided (perhaps not the most complete and optimal choice).

If, instead, we remember that that we have the ability and the right to learn as much as we can about the condition, its origin, its expected progression, and what symptoms indicate a “crisis,” we will be able to move forward in a manner that better helps both us and our pet.

2. We have the right to seek a second opinion and even a specialist about our pet’s diagnosis

And while we can search for these medical professionals on our own, we can also insist that our primary vet provide us a recommendation and a referral.

This right became evident to me when my first dog, Fargo, was suffering from a serious skin infection on her tail. My husband and I came home from work one evening and noticed crimson marks low on the staircase wall, as if someone had been splattering paint while crawling from the first to second floor and back. Concerned and confused, we inspected Fargo’s body and found two open lesions on her extremely long and wildly active (often responsible for knocking untethered items off low surfaces) tail. We took her to our primary veterinarian, who diagnosed a skin infection and prescribed an antibiotic.

Two weeks passed with no improvement. In fact, her tail’s condition worsened. Every night, we encountered a new bloody trail on the staircase wall. We took her back to the vet and came home with a new antibiotic and a “tail wrap” strategy. But the condition continued.

On our third trip to the vet, we were told that her tail’s infection was just not responding to antibiotics and then received the “not curable” diagnosis and a recommendation to schedule tail amputation surgery. At that point, I asked my veterinarian if she knew of an animal skin care specialist in town (she did) and requested a referral. The referral was made. The specialist was able to test Fargo’s tail lesions more thoroughly and discovered a “resilient” bacterium (responsive to selective antibiotics only) as the cause of the infection. After being prescribed the effective antibiotic, my Fargo was able to keep her “action” tail!

3. We have the right to research alternative or holistic treatment options to possibly add (after discussion with our vet) to the conventional treatment plan

Dog on a massage table by Shutterstock.

Dog on a massage table by Shutterstock.

This may include supplements, diet changes, massage, or even a specialized holistic or integrated veterinary professional to add your pet’s treatment team. I acted on this right when my dog Dakota was diagnosed with cancer. In addition to seeing our primary vet and following her treatment plan, I took Dakota to an integrated healing clinic for their recommendation on diet alterations and supplements. With all her medical professionals informed and consenting to the overall response plan, I was able to believe that Dakota had a fully considered and well-rounded approach to combat the illness.

4. We have the right to consult our veterinarian and other professional resources on how to gauge our pet’s quality of life

What symptoms indicate a decline? And how can we determine our pet’s level of pain? Too often, we are unsure of what to look for and do not know when our pet’s life is becoming too hard for him to bear. We can, however, educate ourselves with the help of professionals and get at least a little closer to understanding the levels of enjoyment, interest, and comfort our pet is experiencing.

5. Lastly, we have the right to feel the way we feel when our pet is diagnosed

We do not have to hide our emotions and be embarrassed by them. And if our feelings are too powerful to handle alone or with the help of friends and family, we have the right to seek professional support during our pet’s struggle. Participating in pet illness and loss support groups or seeing a counselor during this time can allow us to share feelings and gain understanding. Consulting pet grief literature and online sources may provide us with the help we need as well.

My wish for all devoted pet parents throughout the lifetime of our pets is a series of easy, uneventful vet visits. But if an appointment results in a difficult diagnosis, just remember, we have the ability to claim and act upon our rights. This can allow us to move from our initial emotional place of shock and powerlessness to one of feeling ready to do all that we can — for our pets and for ourselves.

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About the author: Chris Corrigan Mendez, M.Ed., PLPC, NCC, is a professional counselor in private practice and the proud guardian of four rescue pooches. She leads a pet illness and loss support group and provides individual counseling to bereaved pet guardians. Chris practices under the supervision of Helen Conway-Jensen, M.A., M.Ed., LPC, NBCCH, LIC #2002021231. Follow the author at www.ccmcounseling.vpweb.com and www.facebook.com/ccmcounselingstl.