Two Local Vets Talk about Compassion for Pets and Owners

Recently, Roaring Fork Lifestyle sat down with Dr. Louise Marron and Dr. Chuck Maker of Alpine Animal Hospital to talk about how these two experienced veterinarians help clients make end-of-life decisions about companion animals.

Lifestyle: Losing a pet is almost as hard as losing a human family member, but the bereaved don’t get as much social support. How do you comfort those who have lost companion animals?

Dr. Maker: We have had a licensed therapist come in to train us. There are professionals who do this for a living, and our profession overlaps theirs in dealing with grief. If a cat or a horse gets put down, it’s probably done by someone they have known a long time, and we want the relationship to feel supportive and caring.

Dr. Marron: We try to attune to the family or individual, so there are some variables. We make a clay paw imprint for the person to keep. We send a card, and then follow up in a day or two with a phone call.

Lifestyle: The psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross began her work on death and mourning because, as an adult, she was still trying to get over the traumatic loss of pet rabbits she had as a child. How do you explain all this to a child?

Dr. Maker: That’s different for different families, so, I defer to the parent. Having lost a lot of our own dogs and cats, I find that I have ways to help the parents. My kids went on for weeks when we lost our cat Fat Boy. We got the All Dogs Go to Heaven and the All Cats Go to Heaven books.

I have clients who have kids who ride older horses. You can easily put yourself into their shoes, and that tells you what people need. I try to be how I would like someone to be with my kids and me.

Dr. Marron: Mostly parents leave their kids at home when a pet is going to be put down. When kids do come, it’s usually because their parents want them to get a better grasp of what is happening. I explain that the pet is in pain, that we can make it go away and that she’s going to feel better.

Dr. Maker: When owners are older and the animal is old, emotions can bubble to surface and complicate the situation. Those are the most difficult cases. And when kitties and dogs come in after a traumatic accident with a vehicle, or when it’s colic in horse, people have great difficulty. They leave the clinic having lost an animal, and the grief process hasn’t even started yet.

Dr. Marron: I think what Dr. Maker is saying about lack of preparation is true. People want to feel that they did everything they could.

After years of veterinary experience, you learn that, in some cases, you could go to great effort, which involves great expense, and you wouldn’t change the outcome. I can help guide people through that, but when it’s sudden, there’s no time to prepare. Clients look to us to reassure them that there wasn’t something else they needed to do.

Lifestyle: Deciding to put down a suffering animal is especially heart-wrenching. How do you help your clients make this decision and live with it after the fact?

Dr. Marron: The living with it after the fact is the part that lasts the longest. I want to make sure that it’s really the client’s decision, and there are some tools I can use to assist them to make the decision.

There is a 12-item quality of life scale; it involves rating things like mobility, pain and appetite. It helps to objectify the decision. We give clients the scale on regular basis and watch until the rating makes it clear that the animal’s quality of life is poor.

Dr. Maker: With horses it’s more obvious. The pain is evident. It’s a 1,000-pound animal and it can’t walk, and the owner can’t help it walk. We use that same scale, and it does make the decision more black-and-white.

Horses once seemed old at 25, but now we see some that look fabulous at 30.

Lifestyle: Why the change?

Dr. Maker: Veterinarians now have a much better understanding of old horse diseases. We understand colic. We’re better at managing laminitis, or “founder,” and a common metabolic disease called Cushing’s disease. If a horse lives to be 30, we will have discussed at least one of those things with the owner.

Also we give horses better nutrition and dental care. Horses are herbivores, and their teeth wear out. In this practice, we have some horses that are living with no teeth.

We provide care from womb to tomb. We take care of the mare when she’s pregnant. The horse in the next stall is in his mid-30s, and we have to prepare his owners. I think it’s most difficult for old ranchers – a man who has ridden in the mountains for decades, and it’s a 32-year-old horse. He has worked with animals his whole life, and that animal is like kin.

Lifestyle: I have a lump in my throat because I’m reliving the loss of my 18-year-old cat.

Dr. Maker: Compassion fatigue is a frequent problem in veterinary medicine. I never met a vet who chose the profession for any reason other than they love animals, and we see so many animals! But the losses make me remember my dog Chelsea and our cat, Fat Boy. The good thing is that you can put yourself into the owner’s shoes and know what’s needed.

Lifestyle: What happens when you must put down an animal?

Dr. Marron: We try to be attuned to the family or individual so there are some variables. We have a couple designated spaces designed to put people at ease. There’s one indoors and one outdoors. Pets usually prefer to be outside.

Most animals get anxious just visiting the vet, so we give them a sedative. When client sees the animal sleepy and calm, they feel better.

We give our clients as much time as they need. They need time to say goodbye, so we wait for them to tell us they are ready. The final injection is quick and painless. Then we give our clients as much time as they need again. It’s important for us to respect their privacy and emotional process.

Dr. Maker: The dignity of animal hovers over the entire process. We feel the animal is due that, and it is never a rushed process.

Dr. Marron: Some clients want to make a paw print while the animal is still with them. Sometimes we make it later, after the animal has passed on. We find that the physical memory of the animal brings some comfort.

Lifestyle:  Those keepsakes are important. Our companion animals leave paw prints on our heart, and those are permanent.

Louise Marron, DVM, and Chuck Maker, DVM, are two of the five veterinarians affiliated with Alpine Animal Hospital, which has been providing comprehensive medical, surgical and dental care to the Roaring Fork Valley for over 40 years.