Understanding the Human-Animal Bond – The Hard Way

Mark B. Parchman, DVM, CVA, CCRT, DACVS

For many years after becoming a veterinarian, I was intrigued by the depth of emotion that people displayed with their pets. I never quite understood it though, until about 1995 when I met Brandy and Dave. As one would guess just from the name, Brandy was a Golden Retriever. She was 12 years old when I met her and she had a condition called laryngeal paralysis. The larynx called the voice box in people, is like a set of elevator doors that open when dogs inhale. When it is paralyzed, they cannot move enough air down into the lungs because the doors don’t open normally. The treatment of choice is a surgical procedure to permanently fix open one side, called a laryngeal tie-back or arytenoid lateralization. It is an extremely successful surgery for laryngeal paralysis.

Brandy was really doing poorly, had a terrible blue pallor to here mucous membranes (gums) and basically was going to die without surgery. Unfortunately, she also had megaesophagus, another condition where she frequently regurgitated her food, somewhat like vomiting only the dog doesn’t know it is going to happen until it just comes up. What makes this bad is that with a permanently open airway, which is what they have after a laryngeal tie-back, the regurgitated food can go down into the lungs (aspiration) and result in a severe type of pneumonia, called bacterial aspiration pneumonia. I told Dave that if we were going to go forward, she needed the surgery. But if we did it, she was almost guaranteed to have recurrent bouts of aspiration pneumonia. He really loved that dog and he knew the logical thing to do was to stop, but emotion dictated and he asked me to do the surgery. This is where some might have said to me that it was my responsibility to say no, but after almost 25 years in veterinary specialty practice, I have learned that there is always a small chance even with really bad conditions (sort of a benefit and a burden). So, I did the surgery. She woke up and could breathe normally. She was happy! Dave was happy! I was Happy! Until the next day when she regurgitated and aspirated. She died from aspiration pneumonia 10 days later. Dave was crushed but knew that he had given her every chance to survive. Most times the story would end here.

Four months later Dave called me and asked to talk with me in private. As we sat in my office he told me that no matter how he tried, he just could not move past the loss of Brandy. At first, I gave him the standard answer of, “it will just take time”, but then he said something that really affected me. He said, “I loved my parents as much as Brandy if not more, but I didn’t feel like this when each of them died”. I know pets really can be become like a family member that is born into your family, grows up with you and dies. But how could someone feel more for the loss of their pet than for their parents? This question nagged at me until I finally realized the answer. As children we grow into adults, we leave our parents to go make our way. For the most part, we see our parents infrequently depending on time, relationship and distance. For 30 some odd years, I saw my parents a couple of times a year because I never lived very close. But our pets! They are there with us every day.

For Sue and me, our three dogs are with us almost all day every day and have been for 20 years. They don’t judge, they are grateful for any attention, they are loyal, protective and always there for us with a wag, a lick or a purr no matter how we act or feel. They are the friend that is always there for us, always ready to listen, ready to go at a moments notice, or ready to just hang out in a warm comfortable spot with us. That was the answer. When they die, it leaves a huge void in our lives. What Dave and Brandy gave me was a new insight into the relationship between people and their pets. It changed forever how I thought about pet loss and how I reacted to the people that have lost their pets. They have truly lost a family member.