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Pets Large & Small

Sea McCulley

Kim Brokaw DVM

Dr. Kim Brokaw and her horse Bart

(11/09) One of the nice things about being a large animal vet is I get to know my clients very well. Often I am at their house either late at night or am out in the cold for hours working on their horse who has colic or a difficult foaling. If it is a quiet night and I don't get any other pages, I frequently will sit down and have a cup of tea with the client and watch their horse for awhile.

Not only does this provide me with the chance to chat and get to know my client but it also gives me the opportunity to make sure that the horse is remaining comfortable after the treatment I have just administered and isn't going to get painful again as I am pulling out of the driveway. Also, because of horses' innate ability to hurt themselves, I find that I am frequently at the large barns. After several late night calls, I find I know my clients pretty well. Also, I occasionally into my large animal clients at races, horse shows, and other more pleasant venues.

It is rare that I get the same opportunity to know small animal clients. Usually we have a brief interaction in the exam room, I either vaccinate, or diagnose and treat their dog or cat. Then I don't see them again for months because their upset stomach or other minor ailment has resolved. When the diagnosis is more grim, such as cancer, I know I will be seeing the client again in the near future, and the next visit may be the sad visit for euthanasia.

I had met Mr. and Mrs. McCulley several times. They have multiple older Shar Pei's that they had rescued from various situations. As their pets were aging, the McCulley's visits were no longer the brief, pleasant vaccine visits. They were progressing to the sadder visits of me diagnosing the dogs with chronic arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. I had been working with the McCulley's for over a year and while I recognized them as good, kind people and dedicated pet owners, it wasn't until I diagnosed Sea with cancer that I really got to know what a kind and loving family they were.

I had seen Sea about a year ago as the McCulley's were concerned as she seemed to be getting disoriented. She was going blind and was having intermittent bouts of Shar Pei Fever. We discussed various methods of managing and helping her to learn her surroundings so she wouldn't be as distressed by losing her vision. Furniture was no longer to be moved and other items were to be left in the same place so that Sea could learn her way about the house and not bump into various items.

Other than a few minor problems, Sea remained fairly healthy, particularly for a dog of her age. Then one morning I got a call that Sea was bleeding badly out of her mouth and the McCulley's were on their way to the clinic. My assumption was that Sea had bitten her tongue or had some other minor injury from walking into an object in her now blind state. The McCulley's brought her into the exam room and I curled up Sea's lip and looked in her mouth. My heart sank. There was a large mass growing on her lower jaw.

Mouth cancer is very bad in dogs. In general if you see a large mass in a dog's mouth, you know that the only slight hope for slowing the disease is to remove the entire half of the jaw where the cancer is located. This is usually not a very pleasant option and most owners usually elect to humanely destroy their pets rather than attempt radicalsurgery that generally does not sure the disease. One of the hardest parts about my job is telling people that their beloved pet is going to die and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

The McCulleys were not going to give up without a fight. Sea was scheduled for surgery that day. They elected to do a less aggressive surgery with the knowledge that the tumor would not be completely removed but rather debulked. The idea behind the debulking is to remove as much of the tumor as possible but still leave the jawbone in place. In doing this procedure, the goal was to remove enough of the tumor so that Sea could be comfortable for a few weeks before it grew back. The surgery went well and Sea went home. The McCulley's described their home and how they would be providing her with the best care.

I got called out to their house about two weeks later. Sea had started bleeding from her mouth again that evening and they were thinking she might need to be euthanized. I knew that the McCulley's were good dog owners but I didn't realize just how dedicated they were to their pets until I arrived at their house.

Not only was the house excquisite with beautiful hardwood floors and gorgeous kitchen countertops but it was set up to be the ultimate in canine comfort. The house was arranged so that the dogs could wander about the house at will with sliding doors that opened to a lovely fenced yard. All of the dogs had giant beds with luxurious blankets on top of them.

They received multiple meals a day including some homemade snacks. Sea had been set up with her own private suite. She had a section of the yard that was fenced in just for her as well as an indoor and outdoor bed.

When I arrived at the house to examine Sea she was resting quietly in the yard with both her human and canine family around her. The entire McCulley family was in town for the Thurmont Colorfest so Sea had extra people present to provide her with love and care. As I get out of my car, Sea got to her feet and started walking down the driveway. Her mouth was no longer bleeding and she seemed energetic.

The McCulley's guided her back into the house and I see some spots on the floor where she had been bleeding. Once in the house Sea starts eating some of the oatmeal snacks that had been made for her. Considering all that she has been through, I thought she was looking very good. As the bleeding has stopped and Sea was looking happy, we discussed the situation and decided to continue to monitor Sea's progression. The family told me that they were just getting ready to sit down for dinner and they invite me to join them. As we were eating dinner, I heard about how the McCulley's got all of their Shar Pei's.

I am fortunate in that I have the pleasure of working with a large group of wonderful clients. Yes, there are the occasional difficult ones who are very frustrating, but my interactions with the McCulley's was exactly what I needed to remind me of how there are some amazingly kind and compassionate people in the world.

I sat around the dinner table and listened to the family talk about the various pets they have had throughout the years. As I started to leave at the end of the evening, the McCulley's invited me back to their place for dinner again and including me in their shopping plans. Just one evening with them and they were already treating me like part of their extended family.

As it was, I did not euthanize Sea that night. I knew that I would be returning to euthanize her soon but presently she was comfortable and not bleeding. I discussed with the McCulley's that it wasn't time yet and Sea wasn't ready. I expect to be called back out to their house in the next couple of days when Sea starts bleeding uncontrollably but for now am very happy to see that such a good dog has such a warm hearted family to take care of her.

Editor's Note: Kim Brokaw earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. She applies her talents and love of animals at the Walkersville Veterinary Clinic.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw