Modern veterinary science is a technically advanced field. Some animals receive not just x-rays, but sophisticated scans like MRIs. If you visit a large veterinary hospital you will find cats getting chemotherapy and dogs on the receiving end of complicated surgeries.
Naturally, a lot of the training vet students receive is focused on the “hard science” parts of what they will do as practicing veterinarians. But there’s also a softer side to veterinary medicine, one that’s increasingly being recognized where vet students are trained. Recently I learned about it from Dr. Kathy Ruby, a licensed counselor who works for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University.
“I teach a class for vet students called ‘Pet Loss and Human Bereavement’” Ruby said. “Veterinary science training is great on the medical side. It’s my job to concentrate on the other end of the leash.”
In the old days, vets mostly dealt with livestock like cows and pigs. These so-called large animals didn’t inspire close bonds with their human owners. But now many of us deeply care about the smaller animals that live in our houses. Our cats don’t just live in the barn catching mice, but spend their days in our homes. Dogs are not banished to the backyard, but sleep at the foot of our beds or even between the sheets.
“In some ways we now have what you could call inter-species families,” Ruby said. “That’s wonderful, but it also makes for great challenges when our pets reach the end of their lives.”
It’s a simple fact that we generally outlive the animals in our homes. That means we are often quite involved in an animal’s decline. And at the end we may face decisions including euthanasia.
“In ‘people medicine’ we still see death as a failure,” Ruby said. “With animals we often choose a good death at a particular time.”