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How Do You Cope When the Vet Gives You Bad News?

You're in the waiting room, your dog's in back, and the vet has a grim look. What do you do?

 |  Aug 26th 2013  |   24 Contributions


As pet owners, we all know that regular visits to the vet are important. Depending on the age and health of your pets, your vet may even be one of your best friends! If you've had animals in your life for any length of time, you have probably experienced a health scare, an event where your pet is suspected of having something really serious. It's happened at least once or twice with each of our pets, and it's always frightening.

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Sweet Sally Brown at eight weeks

I remember our first scare with our dog Sally. We got Sally as an eight-week-old pup and she was a little bundle of chocolate Lab goodness. She was our first dog as a couple, our "Sweet Sally Brown." We went to a vet close to our home in Los Feliz, California. We had frequent but typical puppy vet visits -- vaccinations, a bee sting, diarrhea, nothing too serious or scary. Then one day when she was about six months old, she developed a slight cough and seemed a little off her game, tired and sluggish, not her normal bouncy puppy self. We got her right in to the vet for an exam. The vet looked her over and suggested a chest X-ray. We agreed.

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Sally and her brother Tino lounging in our front yard

After what seemed like much too long, the vet returned looking grim. She asked us if Sally had been given her heartworm medicine. Our reaction was, huh? We told him no, nobody had ever told us she needed it. Although we were both from the East Coast where heartworm is prevalent, and we each had dogs before, it had never been brought to our attention here in California, so we didn't think much about it. It's carried by mosquitoes and there are few mosquitoes here, so how could she get it?

"I think she may have heartworm," the vet said. My heart sank, tears welled up in my eyes -- I knew that heartworm was a very serious illness, especially in a dog so young. We just got her, we couldn’t lose her! We're a little frantic, and to be honest a little pissed off that the vets never warned us that she needed heartworm medicine.

At the time, a heartworm diagnosis was made through a blood test, which had to be sent to the lab, so we had to wait 24-plus hours for our results. It was the most agonizing 24 hours of my life. We were both so in love with our sweet Sally, we couldn't imagine our life without her.

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Sweet Sally at 8 months

Luckily, the test came back negative, she didn't have heartworm -- and since then she has never missed another heartworm dose. I also lost faith in that vet and changed vets shortly after that, but I learned a few valuable lessons from this experience: First, I made sure all my dogs have their heartworm medicine. Second, I learned that YOU have to be your dog's advocate, you can't rely on the doctors to do what's right or to tell you everything you need to know. You must educate yourself in order to care properly for the pets in your life, and that means reading, asking questions and making sure you are comfortable with the answers. (Using Google to diagnose is not a good idea, but that's a whole separate article.)

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Sally loved to go fishing with her dad at Big Bear Lake

Over the years, we've lost three pets, including Sally, to old age. We nursed them through many and varied illnesses, ranging from orthopedic surgeries to glaucoma to simple vomiting and diarrhea to the worst -- bone cancer. It never gets easier, and I don’t think you are ever really prepared to handle bad news. I find that armed with credible information about alternatives helps calm the anxiety, but it's still a frightening event.

How about you? Do you have a health-scare story to share? Tell us how you handled it. What did you learn from it? What can the rest of us learn from it?

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