In Part One of this series, I discussed the difference between more “black and white” decisions regarding a pet’s quality of life, versus the large gray areas where a decision is much less clear. In Part Two, I shared my “gray” experience with an Arabian gelding, as well as a couple of more “black and white” decisions regarding colicky horses. My experience with a horse snake bit case was a perfect example of a very tough gray area.
The horse snake bite
Several years ago; a rattlesnake bit a friend’s mare, twice. The mare was in a field, and my friend was out of town and depending on others to care for her horses. Due to a miscommunication, the caregivers assumed, when the mare didn’t come up at night, that she was at the trainer’s. Therefore, no one knew where the horse was for several days. During that time, she languished in a pond.
My friend called her vet as soon as she realized what had happened. Subsequently, she transported the horse to a specialty clinic. I joined my friend at the clinic 24 hours after that.
My friend had successfully treated a snake-bitten foal in the past. Therefore, she was dedicated to giving it her all to pull this mare through. But what I saw that first morning I arrived will never leave my mind.
Originally, the snake bit the mare in the face. When she whirled around and kicked at the snake, she received a second bite on her rear leg. Her face was swollen to at least twice its normal size. She was heavily medicated and supported by a sling. Her leg was huge.
The clinic vet was making decisions that were challenging for me. Apparently, my thoughts were transparent. In relatively short order, the attending vet chastised me for my “pessimism”. From that point forward, I became my friend’s “gopher” and helped in whatever way I could, as long as I didn’t have to put on isolation booties and see that dreadfully ill horse again.
As the next 36 hours unfolded, I learned more. The mare was discovered too late to administer anti-venom. Consequently, there was a high possibility that she suffered cardiac damage from the venom. Therefore, if she survived she could not be ridden.
Okay, I can understand that, as many of us have special pasture pets. But then I realized that “pulling her through” meant dealing with the reality that she was going to slough most of the skin off her face and her swollen leg. The swelling was cutting off the blood supply. As a result, much of the skin was going to die and ultimately slough. The reality of her present condition plus the future consequences, if she even made it to the future, were both very, very grim.
I dearly love my friend, and I admire her dedication to her horses. Money wasn’t an issue. It was her call to make and she gave it the most valiant effort possible. I fervently hoped that my friend would get the outcome she desired. Sadly, the mare was euthanized 6 days after she was discovered. In my case, there is no way I could have seen my horse in such a state. I guess I’m a wuss, and maybe I lean too much towards protecting my animals from pain and trauma.
My own most recent personal experience with this occurred last summer. On July 4th, I lost my dog-of-a-lifetime, Reilly. Reilly was 14 years old and her likely diagnosis was a brain tumor. For the last several years of her life, I was holding her together with bubble gum and baling wire… She was on multiple medications for arthritis, incontinence, and generalized body support.
Read my blog post about my initial fears about her condition, followed by my post about one of the worst days of my life. I made my decision when I realized she was suffering from pressure inside her head. I took the video below as Reilly’s condition worsened. My boyfriend took the blog feature photo in Colorado. It was a mere week before I lost her.
The Old Cat
The veterinary clinic where I work is under new management, and there is a new, full-time vet there. I fill in on his days off and share the Saturdays. He’s 33, with 5 years of experience in an Emergency Clinic. He’s very, very competent and talented. He has seen many critically ill dogs and cats.
However, the typical ER facility doesn’t have much follow-up with their patients. There isn’t the opportunity to build client relationships as happens in a traditional clinic setting. Quite often, Alex leaves me a note about a patient I might see on his day off.
A couple of weeks ago he gave me a head’s up that an old cat was coming in. He had seen this cat a couple of weeks previously. He was thinking we might need to do some additional diagnostic tests and/or some additional therapy for symptoms.
When the owners brought in my patient, I was looking at a 16-year-old cat (at least) who weighed 6 pounds. Previously, he weighed 14 pounds. He was suffering from dehydration. He was not mentally alert. I couldn’t, in good conscience, suggest spending money on diagnostics when I felt I had absolutely nothing to offer these folks in terms of treatment or even hope. Their history indicated probable kidney failure. Present in the room were mom, dad, and adult daughter. It turns out mom is a hospice nurse.
As I struggled to kindly share my view that there was nothing more I could do for their cat, mom said they had come prepared to hear that. They made the decision to euthanize their much-loved family member.
I asked one of my office gals if she thought I was preemptive in my call? She immediately said she agreed with the decision, and that the cat hadn’t looked good two weeks prior. I don’t know what Alex would have done. Every veterinarian has their own “bottom line” and views of when enough is enough. It isn’t up to us to make the decision for you… but quite often I am asked what I would do if it were my pet? It all boils down to the quality of life and different people assess that differently.
In my last installment of this series, I will share some thoughts on how to assess that as a pet owner. Check back in a week, and watch for a St. Patrick’s Day special on ID MyHorse Emergency Identification Tags!