Visiting Vet: The last call

Information on options when your pet dies.

Owners might need to talk about their pet's death and make arrangements. —David Fintz

It’s raining. And cold. I was on call last night. I was tired from a busy day of appointments. When the phone rang, I had already shed my scrubs, and was parked on the couch, watching the news. My reaction to after-hours emergencies has changed over the years. I am way more experienced, so less anxious about diagnosing and knowing what to do. On the other hand, the standard of care has changed so dramatically, I am more anxious about being able to provide optimum services. I am older, and better at navigating both owners’ emotions and expectations — but I am also weary with the weight of 40 years of witnessing animal trauma, pain, suffering, and death.

The phone rang. Once this summer I got called out by the head of VetTriage (the telehealth service we use to field after-hours calls) for being rude on the phone to a member of their support staff late one night. He was right. I had been rude. It was midnight. I had been asleep. I was not at my best. I apologized, but also had a good discussion about what that support staffer could have done better. “When they call in the middle of the night, it helps to know immediately why they’re calling,“ I said. “They should start with, ‘It’s a cat in respiratory distress,’ or ‘It’s a dog hit by a car.’ Anything to give me an idea of how bad an emergency I am facing.” When the call comes directly from the veterinarian who handled the telemedicine consult, that’s ideal. But VetTriage has been growing rapidly, as the nationwide veterinary shortage worsens. Their doctors often need to move quickly to the next case, so they have support staff call us instead.

So last night the phone rang. I think it was the same Poor Guy (not a veterinarian) whose head I had snapped off this summer. I tried hard to sound upbeat and happy to hear from him. “Hang on a sec while I go to my desk,” I said. I would need to write things down. As I slowly walked toward my office, Poor Guy clearly wanted to tell me something fast. “A lady just called, really distraught,” he said. I tensed a bit. That sounded serious. “Her elderly dog had a seizure.” Seizures could go either way. Sometimes it’s one or two short seizures, then the animal stabilizes, and can be seen the next day. Other times it’s “status epilepticus” — prolonged, life-threatening convulsions that won’t stop. The latter can be very hard to manage, especially here on the Island, with no 24/7 emergency veterinary hospital or ICU. “The dog just died at home,” he concluded.

We were both silent for a minute. My first thought was there was nothing I could do for the dog now. My second thought was the owners might need to talk about the death and what arrangements they could make for the remains. “OK,” I sighed, sitting down at my desk. “Give me the info.” Poor Guy reported the owner had been so upset it was hard for her to talk. I get it. Watching an animal pass away suddenly in this way can be traumatic, even for veterinarians and their staff. How much more so for a nonmedical person with their own beloved pet? He gave me the name and phone number, and offered to call them back. “No, that’s OK,” I said politely. “You don’t know the options here. Besides, they may need medical information or emotional support. I’ll call.”

What do you do if your pet passes away, especially when your veterinarian’s office is closed? What are your options for “arrangements”? Years ago, the MSPCA ran the animal shelter in Edgartown, and had facilities to provide cremation services. Eventually, however, that ended. Nowadays, Island veterinarians work with an “aftercare and memorial center” from the mainland. This company can provide individual cremation (after which the ashes are placed in a nice container and “reunited with your family”), communal cremation, or burial services. There are also options for memorial products such as paw prints, fur clippings, etc. They send over a driver every few weeks for what they call “gentle pickup of your pet” from your veterinarian.

Many people here still opt to bury their pets on their own property. In Massachusetts, the decision as to whether home burial of animals is permissible is left to the bylaws of each individual town or city. On the website, one can access these ordinances and bylaws. I checked West Tisbury’s link, and did not see any laws prohibiting home pet burial. This is often true in rural and agriculturally based communities. If you want to know the specifics for your town, you can check that website, or call your board of health and ask.

In cases where a pet has been euthanized, we must also be aware of the risk posed to wildlife, should they unearth and ingest the remains. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service even has a fact sheet titled “Secondary Pentobarbital Poisoning of Wildlife,” which states, “Each year, a number of bald and golden eagles, other wildlife, and domestic dogs are intoxicated or killed after ingestion of pentobarbital residues in the tissue of exposed euthanized carcasses.” Euthanized animals require quick burial with at least three to four feet of cover, taking into consideration the groundwater table and soil type. A piece of chicken wire laid across before completing burial will also deter scavengers like skunks from digging at the site.

This is not an easy conversation or a pleasant topic, but it’s one all pet owners must face eventually. The family in question opted for individual cremation. I had them come over. My kind husband met them outside and brought in the tiny body. In a few weeks they will be “reunited.” It’s raining. And cold. And I am so sorry this was all I was able to do when the phone rang last night.