Pet411: Asking difficult questions after a pet dies

ST Meeks Blog Logo Image 2016 01 28Saying good-bye to a beloved pet is heart-wrenching. It’s particularly difficult when the death comes as a surprise. Once the shock wears off, it’s natural for pet parents to question their decisions and to wonder if they really took all the necessary steps to help their pets.

I was really touched by a letter I received from Joan Smith, who lost her 8-year-old Sheltie, Zelda, after a fight with hepatitis. Although Zelda had been having health problems for a while, Joan said she was caught off guard by her dog’s death because her liver enzymes had been normal just four months ago.  Zelda also seemed so vibrantly alive – how could she have declined so quickly? Joan asked, “Why or what didn’t I see beforehand?” and wondered if she should have been getting regular ultrasounds for Zelda.

First of all, I want to express my heartfelt condolences. It’s clear from Joan’s letter that she loved Zelda very much and arranged for her to have excellent veterinary care. Sometimes, despite our very best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we want them to. At a time like this, please remember all of the wonderful things you have done for your pet and don’t get too caught up in second-guessing yourself.

Of course, it’s important to take older pets or pets with a history of illness for regular wellness visits, at least twice a year. During those visits, diagnostic tests provide vital insight into your pet’s health. Joan asked specifically about ultrasound. I would recommend an ultrasound once a year as a preventative measure. An ultrasound can also be helpful if your pet starts showing any of the following symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite
  • A mass found during an examination
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Significant changes in bowel/urinary habits
  • Abnormal bloodwork or X-rays

Bloodwork should be done twice yearly as well. These preventative steps are particularly important for pets who are age 6 or older.

It’s important to keep in mind that even the best tests in the world aren’t foolproof. The ultrasound might indicate everything is fine, and a month later your pet could develop a tumor. The best thing to do is to be watchful. You know your pets better than anyone, so you have the best chance of recognizing unusual or troublesome signs. If you notice something out of the ordinary, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and schedule a visit to your veterinarian.

Most of all, be kind to yourself after the loss of a pet. You gave your pet love and care. Isn’t that ultimately what you would want a caregiver to provide for you?

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.