5 Lessons Learned from Taking My Dog to the Emergency Room…

My dog recovering with a smile from his life saving surgery.

My dog a 10 year old lab and shepherd mix (see last post on dog breeds) has been in good health all his life. Recently after a weekend hiking trip, he woke up the next day and wouldn’t eat or go for a walk. When that happened I knew it was really serious. So, I took him to the vet that same day to get him checked out.

This is where the nightmare began. At our primary vet clinic, the veterinarian examined him and explained that he had an extended belly. After the vet used a handheld ultrasound, it became clear that he was most likely bleeding in the belly. The vet suspected that he had a mass in his stomach from a very aggressive cancer called Hemangiosarcoma (HAS). HAS is a cancer of the blood vessels in dogs. Little did I know, but this is a very common disease for labs and shepherds.

The vet clinic wasn’t equipped to handle such a case. They recommended that I take my dog to the emergency room at the animal hospital. I drove over to the animal hospital, which was luckily only 5 minutes away.

After an examination, they believed the diagnosis of the primary vet to be accurate, but to be sure a more comprehensive ultrasound was performed. This is when I found out that my canine companion had a mass near his spleen that was causing the bleeding.

The vet explained the likelihood of it being this aggressive cancer, but we wouldn’t know unless, the mass was removed surgically and biopsied. Clearly this was a significant decision, not only for my dog’s health but also for my finances.  

After checking the lungs for any growths and seeing no signs of it, my decision was to move forward with the surgery to remove the spleen and the associated mass. A week after the surgery, I got the dreaded news from the surgeon that the mass was malignant and was Hemangiosarcoma. 

After careful consideration and discussions with the oncologist at the animal hospital, I decided to give my beloved companion the best chance of surviving the longest without hurting his quality of life and that was with chemotherapy. Even with this therapy his prognosis was poor –survival times with surgery alone for dogs with Hemangiosarcoma may be 2–3 months or less. One year survival is less than 10%. I decided that I would be appreciative of however much time I got.

With all that said, I wanted to share some lessons learned from this challenging time that would have helped me if I had known it before this horrible event occurred. My hopes in sharing it – is that it may help you one day.

1. Pick an animal hospital before you don’t get a choice

In my situation there was no time to pick an animal hospital. My pup was driven to the closest one in the area. I got lucky – this animal hospital has been very good. Looking back, I should have researched the local animal hospitals so I could pick the best one in case an event like this ever occurred. Thinking back on it – an event like this isn’t a matter of “if”, but “when”. If I could rewind, I would check the local animal hospitals for several factors:

the facilities and the equipment the animal hospital has to treat dogs (many offer complimentary tours). I didn’t realize this, but much like a human hospital they have many different departments from the emergency room to oncology.

the location – if they provide good quality service, another item to check is how far the facility is from your home. Throughout this ordeal, I have had to go to the animal hospital sometimes several times a day and I have more visits planned weekly. So the driving time does add up, especially if there is traffic.

the reputation – it’s definitely worth checking out the reviews of the animal hospital and learning more about the staff and the quality of care they provide. I heard one horror story about one animal hospital and it made me very thankful that the facility I was using has a very good reputation.  Clearly you want to trust that your pet is getting the best possible treatment.

Your local animal clinic and vet should be able to provide you with some good choices – they refer so many cases to these hospitals, so they should know which ones are the most reputable. Checking reviews online and talking to other pet owners is another good source of information. Oh and boarding places can also provide a lot of insight – they have to bring ill pets to these hospitals if anything goes wrong. After talking to several other pet owners, I’ve heard many good stories about our pet hospital which is comforting.

2. Get a second opinion before you make a tough decision

Before I made some of the really tough decisions – like electing to move forward with the surgery and deciding on the chemotherapy –I  not only talked to the experts at the hospital, but also had a call with my primary vet to get their opinion.  In my case, I really wanted as much information as possible before making a final decision. In these situations, there is so much happening at once – emotions are high and decisions have to be made quickly – so I found it really helpful to get a second opinion to help make these really difficult decisions.

3. Consider some future scenarios in advance to plan for the future

Before this very sad prognosis, I realized that my dog was getting old and this type of illness could occur, but I really didn’t want to face such a scenario, so I never really thought it through in terms of what I would do. I’ve clearly figured out what I would do because I had no other choice, but it was under duress and in a very short time frame. If I could do it over, I would (as much as I would hate it) contemplate some of these scenarios and think about how I would approach them. I doubt I would have all the answers, but I do think it would have helped in dealing with the situation. Some scenarios to think about:

  • In what situations will I treat my pet and when will I stop?
  • How would my pet react to treatment (are they a good or bad candidate)?
  • In terms of treatment – am I doing what is best for my pet or myself?
  • Do you have people that can help you care for your pet after treatment (requires potentially much more care)?
  • Do you need to change any plans you’ve made to take care of your pet?
  • How will you handle the stress of the situation?
  • How will you handle the remains of your pet (there are many options here ) if it comes that that
  • Have I saved any money in case of an emergency?
  • Do I have pet insurance? (more about this in the next point)

4. Consider the financial impact of an emergency event

In situations where your pet’s life is on the line it is really difficult to think about the best medical procedures for your dog, while also considering the high costs of those treatments. In my case, the costs kept mounting from the diagnostics, days of hospital stay, surgery and eventually the chemotherapy. Even if you have saved money for such an event, the costs can be quite overwhelming. The worst feeling is not to be able to afford the best care for your pet. As a member of the family, you want to rest assured that you have done everything in your power to save your dog. I learned two really critical lessons throughout this process:

  • Pet insurance is vital in dire situations like this….with thousands of dollars of payments that have to be made for medical procedures. I’ve had a pet insurance policy the last few years and felt a bit cheated, because the only costs that were covered were emergency events. My worldview changed drastically during this event. My pet insurance underwritten by Nationwide has been critical throughout this ordeal.

    They have helped cover more than half the costs. That has really helped focus my attention on my dog’s well-being and not completely panic based on the mounting costs. In my view the best pet insurance is for emergency events and not for normal and routine care treatments. In my case, I didn’t research the pet insurance options – I picked one from my employers plan. I’d recommend looking at all the options and picking the best plan for your pet based on your budget and coverage. Here is an article I came across from the Canine Journal that compares plans as a starting point. Another review comes from Mashable that is titled “7 of the best pet insurance companies, according to actual pet owners.”
  • If you didn’t purchase pet insurance or it wasn’t an option. Consider alternative funding options. For example an organization named “Fetch a Cure” offers it’s  Companions in Crisis (CIC) fund. The fund provides financial assistance to help families pay for life-saving treatments for their pets, who have been diagnosed with cancer. This program looks to provide pet owners with a sense of hope when facing a cancer diagnosis. Fetch a Cure hopes to give you the gift of quality time with your beloved pet. The program serves the states of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, and pets who have a confirmed diagnosis of cancer.

If you need assistance outside the states of Virginia, Maryland, or The District of Columbia, or for something besides a cancer diagnosis, there are numerous other organizations that may be able to help. Here is a list from the “Fetch a Cure” website that you can review to evaluate your options.

5. Evaluate how you are doing in the situation

It’s really difficult to see your loyal companion suffer and come to terms with their eventual death. In such tense and stressful times, I soon realized that you need to make your own health a priority. It’s really easy to become consumed with such a dire situation and be sad. When this happens your mental and physical health suffer – which isn’t helpful for your canine companion.  I found it really helpful to get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise to combat stress.

In terms of a final thought, I gain comfort from knowing that I am doing everything for my best friend. I have also decided to make the most of his remaining time, by planning events and spending quality time together.  I no longer take for granted the time that I have with him. Even though I know that he is going to pass relatively soon and that is a very sad and depressing thought, I am very appreciative of getting a second chance with him. This isn’t easy to accept, but I’m doing my best to appreciate the time we have had and still have. My mission moving forward is to make the most of my remaining time with my best friend. He has been such an integral and wonderful part of my life, so that is the least I can do.

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