Those of us who consider veterinary medicine not just a job or career, but a calling, are deeply touched by what we see happening in Ukraine. A woman killed by Russian shelling on her way back from delivering food to starving shelter pets. Another woman who fled her country carrying a large, senior dog on her shoulders for 10 miles. An elderly man putting his body over his cats to protect them when his neighborhood was being bombed.
Would our clients perform the same heroic actions to protect their pets if their homes and homeland were under attack or suffered natural disasters? You bet!
Why do people risk their lives to protect their pets? Why do pet parents wait for hours outside a an emergency practice for their pets to be seen? Why do pet moms and dads travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to get specialty care for a four-legged family member (I have a colleague, Kim Campbell Thornton, who traveled from California to France and spent tens of thousands of dollars for a special heart surgery for her Cavalier King Charles spaniel)? Why do those less fortunate make sure their pets are well fed and receive medical care before themselves? The answer is two words: The Bond.
My first steps and my first memory are of holding onto an Australian shepherd as I wobbled across the yard of our rural farmhouse in Southern Idaho in 1954. As a 10-year-old in 1964, the Beatles invaded America and Skeeter, the Toy Manchester terrier, invaded my bed as the first dog in the Becker family to eat at our table, sit in our laps, and sleep in our beds.
In 1974, the book, All Creatures Great and Small, was released by Yorkshire, England, veterinarian James Alfred Wight (pen name James Herriot), and the world celebrated the special connection we share with our pets, known widely by name as the human-animal bond or just, The Bond.
I have written before about my rather unique career path. From age six I wanted to be a veterinarian, specifically a dairy practitioner. I got into Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine at age 20, and during the first day of school, welcoming remarks by Dean Leo Bustad, who’s often been called America’s James Herriot, outlined the evidence behind and the power of the human-animal bond.
I was so moved by his war stories (he was a Jewish prisoner of war at the Sobibor concentration camp, was befriended by a guard dog, and it was here he discovered this phenomena). I gave up the 14-year journey to work with teats and uteruses and instead started a new adventure to become a companion animal practitioner who would hold The Bond up as my North Star.
My entire veterinary career was different from many of my classmates. I worked with Dean Bustad and Terry Ryan on the People Pet Partnership, which matched elderly people with homeless pets. Leo was also one of the pioneers of the human-animal health connection and he fed me research materials and facilitated my visiting some of the early pioneers of One Health, where pets were visiting nursing homes and used in physical therapy.
Funny how many twists and turns can be in a veterinary career. Dairy vet, to companion animal practitioner, to author, to veterinary medical correspondent on TV, to nationally syndicated columnist, to founder of Fear Free. I’ve shared my story with thousands of veterinary students and veterinarians to let them know of the myriad possibilities that come with a DVM or VMD behind your name. We are a trusted, respected profession. We have many opportunities, but also serious obligations. In companion animal practice (also in equine medicine and to a lesser extent in food animal practice), the most important is the celebration, nurturing, and protection of The Bond.
Let me break these three down:
I still remember my first client, who had a tiny poodle with a lamb cut, bejeweled collar, patent leather jacket, and red lipstick all over her head. For years, most of the folks in the practice had joked about her behind her back, saying she was the “crazy dog lady” who took the dog with her to work, on shopping trips, and on vacation; who let the dog eat off her spoon and give doggy kisses that were the equivalent of tonsil swabs. She also brought the dog in monthly for a checkup; anal glands/ears/nails.
I didn’t see a weirdo; I experienced the breadth and depth of the affection connection people were sharing with animals as they moved from being thought of as pets to being considered family members. Now we celebrate our relationships with pets in holiday letters, on social media, and around our office cubicles. Most millennials think of their pets as their children, as does this boomer.
To nurture is to care for and encourage the growth or development of something. A synonym is to cherish.
The best veterinarians and nurses find ways to compliment pet parents on their pet care, pointing out how beautiful the coat is, the dog or cat is at or near their ideal body weight, or how they are so good about bringing their pets in for routine consultations and exams. Ask the pet parent(s) the genesis of the pet’s name, where the pet sleeps, or their favorite activity to do together. Let them know the physical, emotional, and social benefits of close physical contact and activities with pets.
For decades I’ve released dogs at the end of a visit or hospitalization by putting a bandana on the pet and saying to them, “You’re a lucky boy/girl to have a momma/daddy who loves you so much.” People’s tails wag along with their dogs’ tails.
Of course, this is not only about looking after a pet’s physical well-being—preventive care including vaccinations and parasite control or treating accidents or illnesses—but also looking after their emotional well-being.
The worst thing for pet parents to feel is they’re hurting their pets by trying to help them. If my pet (read: child) thinks they’re going to be harmed, injured, or killed going to the vet’s office, maybe I should just “wait and see,” go online, or visit the pet store and find the employee who told me a super-premium food could fix about every health condition.
Let me be clear: protecting The Bond is not about physical or emotional well-being; it’s both physical and emotional well-being. If a pet has severe periodontal disease or horrific ear infections, or suffers from internal or external parasites, that’s a Bond breaker as people will be more reluctant to cuddle and kiss them.
Further, if a pet suffers from undiagnosed or under-treated pain, has kidney disease that isn’t treated, or suffers from something as simple as an ingrown toenail, The Bond suffers. Likewise, if a pet has noise phobias and has to just suffer through fireworks or thunderstorms, The Bond can be fractured. Pets shouldn’t suffer repeat and severe psychological damage from just going to the veterinarian, groomer, or to be boarded. To protect The Bond requires us to commit to optimal health, happiness, and longevity. Enrichment must be included here, as well.
I used to have a nationally syndicated pet radio show on which I would end each Saturday segment by enthusiastically saying, almost yelling, “And remember, there’s only one greatest pet in the world and every one of us has him or her.”
So whether you watch a video of someone walking and carrying two cats and dog from Ukraine to Poland, someone carrying a pet into the exam room, or you’re carting your own pet from the sofa to the Serta, what fuels these acts from the miraculous to the mundane is the inexhaustible, irrefutable source of energy for those of us involved with caring for animals: The human-animal bond.
Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.