Continuum of life
One of the interesting aspects of the job of a doctor is the involvement with the continuum of human existence – passing through all the different stages of life with patients. Helping the mother through her pregnancy, being the family physician through the childhood years, watching as the young girl grows into a young mother herself, dealing with all of the illnesses of adulthood, and later, helping to deal with old age and ultimately the end of life.
As a vet, I share this type of experience with my patients – but everything is speeded up dramatically. They say that one human year is equivalent to seven dog or cat years. In a human time span of little over a decade, an animal passes from birth into old age. In a relatively short time span, an animal changes from a sleek, shiny young adult into a slow, creaky geriatric animal.
I enjoy getting to know my animal patients, and I like being with them throughout their whole life span. Each animal has a different personality, and there is a huge variation. The traditional family pet has always been the dog – and I know the names and personalities of many hundreds of dogs. Fritz, Benji. Cara, Flossie, Cassie, Ben, Sarah – the list of ‘dogs I have known’ goes on and on.
Most dogs fall into one of several personality categories. Firstly, there are the friendly ‘tail waggers’, who always appear to be happy to see me. Then there are the ‘neutrals’, who are neither positive nor negative about visits to the vet – it is a challenge to win these characters over to my side. Judicious use of ‘doggie treats’ assists this process, and by the time they leave, we are usually friends. Next, there are the ‘shiverers’, who clearly do not enjoy visiting the vet, but who express their fear in a timid, anxious but harmless way, trembling violently as they are examined. Finally, there are the occasional dominant dogs – who through fear or anger, use all of their natural faculties to discourage the vet – growls, and snarls followed by an attempted physical attack by biting. Strangely, this behaviour doesn’t make me dislike a dog – it is not the ‘fault’ of the creature that it behaves in this way. ‘Grudging respect’ – that is probably the best way to describe my feelings after a dog has done its aggressive best to chase me away!
Cats are the next most popular pet – and they also have a range of characters. Misty, Honey, Sylvester, Max, Toby, Leo, Princess – again, I have been friends with many, many cats. In general, cats are more anxious than dogs about visits to the vet. The classical scenario is the cat that hates going into the carrier to go to the vet – needing to be dragged away from their comfortable sleeping place at home and shoehorned into the plastic carrying cage. However, once in the surgery, the carrying cage becomes a safe sanctuary, and the reluctant cat clings tightly to the edges, refusing to be lifted out onto the consulting table. Once they have been successfully extracted, most cats begin to relax – a tickle behind the ears or a chuck beneath the chin usually helps.
As with dogs, there are many cats who are extreme variations of this ‘average’ description. There are exceptionally amiable cats – those that purr from the moment they arrive, clearly adoring the human race. And there are those rare creatures that, either through rage or terror, will not allow themselves to be handled. I have had many scratches and cat bites from these individuals, and chemical restraint is often the only way to resolve the conflict!
Small pets Personalities
Rabbits, rats, gerbils, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, reptiles, and birds also visit the vet, although most of these creatures do not attend frequently enough to become known as individual characters in the same way as dogs or cats. However, there are certain personalities who stand out in my mind over the years – Peaches, Buck, Ernie, and Nibbles are examples. One small white fluffy rabbit may look just like the next to an indifferent observer, but to an owner, and to a vet, each is as different as one human is from another.
Each of these animal names means a lot more than just a name to me – I have learned to know each of them as an individual personality, with likes and dislikes, just like humans. I have seen them pass from youth through to old age, and in many cases, I have been with them at the end, helping them move on from this life in a peaceful, calm, controlled way. The final stage is always difficult – even when it is clear that an animal has reached the point where illness or old age has stopped life from being enjoyable. An animal becomes such a close, dependable part of their owner’s life and the relationship is often as strong as many human-human friendships. It is very painful to say goodbye – but it is an inevitable part of pet ownership.
Often, at such difficult times, an owner finds it impossible to imagine that they could ever form a new relationship with another animal. However, as time passes, feelings often change. Weeks, or months later, I might see the same owner in the waiting room, a young bundle of life in their arms. The old friend has gone, but will always be remembered. A new character has arrived – and I am looking forward to meeting him or her. The continuum has begun again