Giving Pet Owners Bad News: Part I

My Cat, Nella
My Cat, Nella

By Ashley Watson

This weekend I was given some scary news about my cat. I had to take her to a new clinic because my regular veterinarian is on vacation until the end of July. This experience gave me some perspective on how vets must deal with giving clients bad news. Even though I trusted the vets at the clinic, it was not the same as hearing the news from my own vet, who has worked with my cat since 2008. This week, I’m sharing that experience to start a discussion about the different approaches vets take in situations like this one.

On Friday night, I noticed a large growth in Nella’s mouth. Luckily I know a lot of vets in the area through work. Because a few of my coworkers take their dogs to River Cove, and I had met some of the staff during a Clinic of the Month interview, I made an appointment for her there the next day. Dr. Julie Jennings, DVM was the vet who saw me on Saturday, and she immediately suspected a tumor caused by an aggressive bone cancer. She was 85% sure of it. I was shocked, to say the least, and kept waiting for her to say, “Just kidding!” She got a second opinion by another vet at the clinic that day, Dr. Joel English, DVM. He was one of the vets I had interviewed, and he was 60% certain, which is still high but at least better odds than the ones Dr. Jennings gave me.

Vet Holding CatThey explained that the problem with diagnosing this type of growth is that a tooth infection presents exactly the same way as a tumor. Sedating her for an X-ray would give us a better idea, and a biopsy would require removing part of the bone. The other suggestion was to give her an antibiotic to see if it would have any affect on the size of the lesion. Rather than sedate her unnecessarily, I chose the antibiotic since it certainly couldn’t hurt her. Then I emailed my regular vet, Dr. Susan McMillan, as soon as I got home to fill her in on Nella’s condition.

The next day, it seemed to get a little better, but I could not tell for sure. Then on Sunday afternoon, my vet who called me on her vacation. She also discussed my options with me, and encouraged getting an X-ray for peace of mind. But she also added that Dr. Jennings said that there was still a chance it was just an infection, even though it was only a 15% chance. Dr. McMillan said, “Fifteen percent is still fifteen percent. You can’t discount that.” While I already put complete trust in my vet, this made me appreciate her even more. I’m not saying that the vets at River Cove didn’t know how to tell me bad news, but I realized just how important it is to have a relationship with your veterinarian that allows you to have these serious conversations.

In the next post, I’ll reveal the results of the X-ray and talk more about the importance of how vets communicate with their clients during stressful situations such as this one.