Every veterinarian likes to help animals and use the skills they trained so hard to develop. One of the vets I was shadowing for the last month had a 165-pound St. Bernard referred to him for a femoral head ostectomy (FHO for short) due to severe arthritis caused by hip dysplasia. The dog was this woman’s baby, and she wanted to save her life but had hoped to avoid surgery. Previous pain management included laser therapy, prescription diets, and medication, but they were not working and the dog was becoming reluctant to even try to stand.
We took x-rays and saw how severe the arthritis was and then looked at the patient who did not want to bear weight on either hind leg and knew this was not good. For a veterinarian, this is a tough situation. There is a chance the patient can be helped with surgery, but the vet also has to be realistic about the prognosis not only for the dog’s survival but also for its quality of life after surgery. That was the conversation I sat in on with the veterinarian and the owners. He explained that there was a good chance that because the dog wasn’t walking now, it might not walk after surgery. He spent time answering the owners’ questions and talking with them. He made sure they understood that even with surgery, euthanasia was a possibility in their dog’s future. That was a tough conversation to have, but the owners understood and decided to go through with the procedure.
We did the surgery, and two weeks later drove to the owners’ house. The dog never walked after surgery, and it was simply not possible for the owners to care for such a large dog that couldn’t stand.
As we euthanized the dog I thought, what if there hadn’t been a discussion about the risks of surgery or the chance that it wouldn’t succeed? The owners could and likely would have been understandably furious. However, because we took the time to give them the facts and explain the reality of the situation, they understood. They were heartbroken, but they understood the risk, and the numbers hadn’t ended up in their or the dog’s favor. Honesty with owners about their pet’s condition, costs of treatments, success rates, etc, is a difficult thing to approach sometimes, but it is always the best policy.