by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Veterinarians Help People Too
As a veterinarian I have been trained, and licensed to practice veterinary medicine. I have always had a great interest in animals and I have always loved working with them. My relationship with animals began very early in life. I grew up on a mixed dairy farm. In addition to a herd of milking Holstein cattle, we had horses, sheep, pigs, goats, a laying flock of chickens, guinea fowl, ducks and geese. Cats and dogs were pets and, usually, also had a working role to play on our farm. In my boyhood, I raised rabbits, pigeons, and bantams, as a pastime and hobby. I showed them in fall fairs and sold some for spending money.
My working career has been spent providing health care for companion animals. I suspect I fit the image most people have for a veterinarian - someone who enjoys animals, has experience with them and whose job involves caring for them. All true, but I still remember a day when it struck me that not only did I care for and help animals, I also did the same for people.
Her name was Mrs. J. and she had been a client for nearly twenty years at the time I begin this story. She and her fine husband were childless and I had first met them with their Siamese cat, Jock, in the clinic where I worked immediately after graduation from veterinary school.
When I left and, with my partner, started a new practice, Mr. and Mrs. J continued to bring their pets to me for their health care, driving thirty miles on busy roads in often difficult travel conditions. They were most devoted, loving owners who would do anything for their pets. After Jock, they had toy or miniature poodles - always two at a time, always gentle, polite and well-behaved little dogs. They always reflected the love and care they got in their home.
But, the years roll by. In her early seventies, Mrs. J was widowed. Her canine companions, Samantha and Marci, became even a bigger part of her life and she continued to exemplify the best in a pet owner. After his death, Samantha and Marci, provided a real connection with her late beloved husband and could trigger treasured memories of him, for Mrs. J. Now came the day when Samantha had to be put to sleep. She had enjoyed a wonderful life but the loss of such a dear friend is always a painfully sad time.
In the days that followed, I remember clearly several long discussions with Mrs. J. She was very troubled by the worry that Marci would be terribly lonely without her canine sidekick. Also, Mrs. J. had always loved having two dogs at a time, seeing them enjoy one another, caring for their separate needs, receiving, herself, double the rewards of pet companionship. She desperately wanted to get another dog. However, now almost eighty years old, she told me she was very concerned and troubled, wondering who would ever be able to care, later in its life, for a new little pet who would most likely outlive her.
There is seldom an easy answer to such dilemmas. However, Mrs. J. enjoyed excellent health, herself, she was active, involved and continued to drive herself those thirty miles whenever Marci needed to see me. I advised her to get another dog. From a breeder I knew Mrs. J got a sweet little white toy poodle and named her Sami. Sami was almost 5 years old, had raised several litters of puppies and was now ready for retirement.
What a retirement it was! Sami, I'm sure, thought she had arrived in heaven. It was a very different life from the one she had known as a breeding bitch, living in a kennel. She never failed to show her appreciation, in return, to Mrs. J. and she quickly displayed the same fine traits as all her J. pet predecessors. The years, though, continued to relentlessly go by. In a flash, it seems now, ten years had passed. Mrs. J. now lived with her niece who continued to bring her and Sami to see me. One day, at the end of that decade, I had another conversation with Mrs. J that remains vividly clear in my memory.
Sami was now almost fifteen. Mrs. J. deeply, deeply loved Sami but now she was no longer concerned about how Sami would fare without her, but rather, how she could ever survive without Sami.
I suddenly realized a truth. Now, I do not mean to suggest that all the credit for Mrs. J's long and fulfilling life should go to the relationship she had with pets. Nor do I suggest that any part I played in enhancing that relationship with her pets, was a major factor. However, I do believe, there is irrefutable evidence how much pets can increase the quality and quantity of our lives. Therefore, veterinarians, in my opinion, have a role to play in people's health just as they do for animals.