How veterinarians help pet owners cope when animals are sick or die: one Toronto vet’s story

by Melissa LoParco

Most people have a soft spot for animals, whether or not they are directly a part of their lives.

Humans usually tend to have stronger emotions when it comes to looking at injured animals, an example being the singer Sarah McLaughlin’s animal shelter commercial; countless people have said they feel like crying when they see it.

So how does a veterinarian deal with looking at animal trauma every day?

According to Dr. Jonathan Mitelman, a vet at the VETS Toronto and Kingston Road Animal Hospital, the key is learning how to distance yourself from the animal.

“The first times are always difficult,” Mitelman said in an interview at Centennial College. “It’s not only just the pets; it’s the connection with people, it’s communication, it’s measuring their emotional barometer and that really takes a toll.

“Euthanasia certainly took a toll on me the first many times because I couldn’t distance myself…I can now distance myself, like watching from behind a window of cool detachment”

Dr Jon Mitelman being interviewed by Centennial Journalism students Lucy Qi, Melissa Loparco and Mohammad Arshad

Mitelman says that becoming too attached to the animal can cause an emotional pathology which can, “wear you out.”

The greatest technique for overcoming that emotional attachment a person can develop with animals is simply time and knowing what needs to be done.

“It’s training, but it’s [also] always doing the right thing for the right reasons, rationalizing it, rebounding it off of others, and helping others understand why you are doing what you are doing,” Mitelman said.

“It’s just experience, just give it time.”

But a vet’s job does not end at dealing with the pets, they also have to deal with the pet owners involved, and that relationship is something that is very important especially when the case is a rather difficult and long process.

“It’s an interesting interaction between the vet, the patient, [and] the clients,” Mitelman said. “Not all people want to be so thorough; they just want a quick answer, and if they don’t get what they want quickly the give up. I’m fortunate to work with people who want to keep going until [we find the answers].”

Knowing that sometimes even a veterinarian is at a loss for what is wrong with your pet is important, because they don’t always know the answers but they are willing to work with you to find out.

Mitelman says that sometimes it takes the death of an animal to find out what’s wrong, but he tries his best to find the answers beforehand by getting advice from clinics around Canada and the United States, and trying to notice patterns.

Sometimes when an animal is brought into the clinic the damage is so severe that survival is not likely, and that is when the vet has to break the news to the pet owners, which is not an easy task.

According to Mitelman, he always lets the pet owners know what is happening with their pet because you want to get rid of the element of surprise. But sensitizing the clients does not mean they will not act negatively.

“[How to deal with negative responses] depends on the individual,” Mitelman said. “Some people, you have to let them blow off their steam, because a lot of the times they are blaming themselves and they are taking it out on you. It’s emotional, it’s primal and it’s frustrating for people.

“There are other times where [the clients] are so blatantly wrong that they have to be corrected on the spot. It’s a case by case basis and I’m still learning.”

There is more than meets the eye when you look at the job of a veterinarian. They must learn to overcome emotional attachment to the animals they work on, but still be able to empathize with their clients when something does not go right.

But one thing is for certain: they will be there for your animal, rather it be a dog, cat, iguana, or spider, when they are most in need.