Helping veterinarians heal

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How can we better support those who care for the animals we love? (Pixabay)

I’m as skeptical about studies as the next journalist, but this one got my attention. Veterinarians committed suicide between two and 3.5 times the national average between 1979 and 2015, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Mounting student debt (without the salaries “people” docs get), the physical and emotional strains of the job, scathing public criticism, and the ever-present shadow of death were among the reasons cited in a Washington Post story.

The story describes a second-career vet who was beset by debt, depression, and increasing chronic illness that fueled gossip and anger in real time and online. A conversation with an “old friend” was the last straw. She wrote goodbye letters and, using drugs meant for euthanizing animal patients, prepared to end her life. Then she looked into the eyes of her dog, and couldn’t do it.

Others are no longer here to take that chance.

You can stop here and say whatever you want about personal choice, being cut out for the job (or not), or those darn media people playing stuff up. So much is hidden from the view of everyone but God. I do know the depths to which a heart can sink, and break, over animal suffering and death.

If you’re still with me, let’s consider how we as pet parents, people who work with animals, and animal advocates might support the veterinarians among us so that we can all do what we do best: love and care for God’s creatures. Here are a few thoughts.

Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com : CC BY-NC-SA

(Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

Respect the profession. Veterinarians have gone to school, learned multiple systems (“people” docs only have to study one), and done all kinds of work that most of us could not. Though I am not a fan of unquestioningly accepting whatever experts say, if you’ve done your homework and chosen a good vet or clinic, trust them.

Practitioners of complementary and alternative modalities such as massage, Reiki, essential oil therapy, etc. as well as vet techs, kennel owners, trainers, groomers, and more — would do well to work with vets as much as possible. We may not always agree, but we’re all in the business of helping animals and the people who love and care for them. Our collective efforts might just surprise us.

When a client wants to address a particular question or problem through animal communication or animal Reiki, my first question is always: When was the animal last seen by a veterinarian, and what did he or she say or do regarding the issue? I make it clear that I am not a medical or veterinary professional and do not diagnose. Anything I do is in support of — never instead of or against — veterinary care.

Show appreciation. Does your veterinarian administer the dreaded annual vaccinations in such a way that your dog barely seems to notice, let alone mind? Was your veterinarian exceedingly kind and gentle with your cat … and with you … when you faced the gut-wrenching decision to put her to sleep? Did your veterinarian come in on a Sunday when your dog got stung by a bee … again? Is your veterinarian patient even when your little darling is doing a spot-on Tasmanian devil imitation?

Notice. Say something. Your comment, however small it may seem to you, could make a big difference if your vet just had to put an animal down because the pet’s owner basically didn’t care, if an angry review just turned up on Facebook or Yelp, or if it’s simply been a long day.

Be aware, and use discretion. If you have reason to believe your veterinarian is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge, especially if it’s affecting his or her work, carefully consider the most kind, fair, and discreet way forward. You’ll have to decide whether you feel comfortable asking him or her directly or taking your concern to the clinic owner or even a state licensing board.

Whichever option you choose, do so in the spirit of help and accountability, not getting even. Likewise, anything you say on the subject to others in real time or on social media — and the best choice may well be to say nothing — should be in that same spirit.

Healing ourselves is so much easier when we can stand together. The animals deserve no less.

Injury, pardon, and restoration

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Maggie and Quincy at Summit Equestrian Center, December 2018. (Photo by Allison Wheaton)

First came months of construction noise and upheaval at Summit Equestrian Center. Even the best improvements are a hard sell to our animal friends.

Then one night a fox breached the coop, taking a chicken and all but one duck. The coop was fortified against further invasion, but the survivors — two sheep, a handful of chickens, and Quincy, the last duck standing — were shaken.

As an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, I sat with them, listened, and offered healing energy to help them recover in whatever way they needed. Quincy roamed around the enclosure eating, drinking, washing, shaking out her feathers, and nipping when a chicken got too close. She was determined to take care of things and find that “new normal.”

A few days later, she couldn’t walk.

Maggie, the sweet-faced black sheep who loved chin scratches, had grabbed hold of Quincy and pinned her to the ground. It was over quickly, but the result was a duck with a fracture. After her vet visit, Quincy was moved to a safe spot and given pain meds, some special supplements, plenty of Reiki, and even a little weekend “hydrotherapy” at the lake with director Allison Wheaton.

But we were mystified. The sheep, chickens, and ducks had all gotten along before, and sheep — especially female sheep with no lambs — aren’t generally aggressive. Why on earth would Maggie attack Quincy?

Gradually, I pieced together accounts from Allison and fellow volunteers with what Quincy and Maggie themselves relayed. In the heightened vigilance generated by the construction and then the fox incident, an anxious Quincy had gotten under the feet of an equally anxious Maggie. It startled Maggie so badly that a violent defense seemed like the only option.

You may not think a sheep could be appalled with herself, but I think this one was. I gently suggested she move carefully in the coop and, when the time was right, try to find a way forward with Quincy. As for Quincy — helping her heal was my first priority. Only when she recovered enough to return to the coop did I encourage her to consider working things out with Maggie … and then only when she was ready.

Though Maggie kept a respectful distance, Quincy was still nervous around her. Maggie also didn’t come to me for chin scratches as before, although she did share the Reiki energy I offered for short durations. She’d either stay where she was or move toward me, then walk away. She was reconsidering how to be and move about in her world, and I let her know that was OK.

We had been preparing for a major fall fundraiser at Summit Equestrian, and with that successful event behind us, things quieted down a bit. The construction moved closer to completion, and as the holidays approached, Quincy moved around with ease. Maggie, for her part, started venturing to the fence to say hello and accept a brief chin scratch.

One day as I shared Reiki with the inhabitants of the coop, I looked up and noticed Maggie and Quincy nose to bill just a few feet away from me. There was not a hint of confrontation in the stance of either. It could have been a “hey, didja smell that new feed the chickens got?” or a simple “Good morning.”

It was one of those animal moments you don’t want to spoil by so much as noticing, but Allison later confirmed the two had been hanging out.

How did they get to that point? When I asked them, Quincy and Maggie both showed me how each had moved toward the other a little bit at a time … sometimes a very little bit … rebuilding trust and parity in a way that worked for both of them.

A beautiful prayer traditionally attributed to St. Francis includes a line about bringing pardon where there is injury. It’s one thing to pardon, or forgive — to free oneself as much as possible from the effects of the injury. This can be done regardless of the injurer’s actions or attitude. It’s quite another for both parties to reconstruct what is broken so that it is better and stronger than before.

A duck and a sheep showed us how to do both.

 

Service dogs, therapy animals, and ESAs

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Bandit, shown here with Kristine, is a trained service dog at work — not a therapy or emotional support dog. (Photo by Liz Kaye Photography/Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN).

While doing research and interviews for a magazine story on therapy animals a few years ago, I learned the important legal and functional differences between therapy animals and service animals. Now emotional support animals have entered the mix, and sometimes the headlines. What distinguishes one from another, and what does it mean for us and our animal companions?

Let’s start with a brief breakdown. The American Veterinary Medical Association summarizes each category with legal chapter-and-verse citations, and Pet Partners has a useful downloadable chart with the roles and rights of each.

Service animals

Service animals, or assistance animals, are specially, individually trained to assist or perform tasks for people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. This training comes from organizations such as the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN), which is the only accredited service dog training program in the state.

These are the dogs who help the blind navigate streets and shopping malls, alert someone with epilepsy of an oncoming seizure, or retrieve keys dropped by a person in a wheelchair. According to the Americans with Disabilities act, the tasks the animal performs must be directly related to the person’s disability in order for the animal to be classed as a service dog.

Yes, a service animal basically means a service dog — but miniature horses can be service animals if they are housebroken, under the handler’s control, and can be accommodated by whatever facility the handler wishes to enter. Under the ADA, service animals are allowed just about anywhere as long as they do not directly threaten public health or safety.

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Ellie, a therapy dog with PAWS, Inc. (Pets Assisting Well-Being and Success), visits with an attendee at Fort Wayne’s Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention. Ellie and her human, Venita Lawyer, have worked in a variety of school and clinical settings. (Photo by Venita Lawyer/PAWS, Inc.)

Therapy animals

These are the dogs who, with their (usually volunteer) handlers, go from room to room in hospitals or listen to children read in libraries. They hang out in student commons areas during finals week and are becoming more common sights in airports.

My understanding is that most therapy animals do not undergo training (apart from canine “good citizen” classes), but they and their handlers are often members of groups such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Fort Wayne’s PAWS, Inc., which works with Alliance of Therapy Dogs-registered dog handler teams.

Obviously, “therapy animals” has applied mostly to dogs. However, horses who are part of specialized riding or equine-assisted counseling programs, such as the ones at Summit Equestrian Center, are also considered therapy animals.

Then there are the resident cats in hospice wings, the birds greeting nursing home visitors in the lobby, and other animals with no training or organizational affiliation whatsoever … but somehow they became therapy animals. But none of the above carry the legal status or rights of access that service animals have.

Emotional support animals

ESAs may be of any species, but are most often dogs, and receive no specialized training. Their use is supported (or prescribed) by a mental health professional stating that the animal’s presence is necessary to treat an impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.

ESAs do not have the same rights of access as service animals. They can accompany their people into restaurants only with permission of the owner/manager. However, under the Fair Housing Act, they may live in housing with “No pets” policies and travel in the cabins of airplanes with whatever documentation the airline requires.

Interestingly, the Air Carrier Access Act seems to treat psychiatric service animals and ESAs about the same, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but many of the particulars are up to the airline.

Where the lines blur

I think there is better clarity now between therapy animals and service animals. However, the distinction between a service dog for someone with a mental or psychiatric disability and an emotional support animal seems murky, as does the distinction between an ESA and a companion animal. The result is misunderstanding and often fraud.

You can go online, pay a fee, and get your dog “certified” or “registered” as an emotional support animal — never mind working with a doctor or therapist — at any number of websites. You can buy official-looking service dog harnesses, emotional support animal cards, and the like online, too (including from the popular Chewy).

If you want to get around a landlord’s pet deposit or no-pets rule, take your dog onto a plane for free, or bring him into a place where pets wouldn’t normally be allowed — and you’re willing to lie about your need and the animal’s credentials — it’s pretty easy to do. That may get you what you want, but it does so at the expense of people who have worked through legitimate channels to address their needs. It inevitably does so at the expense of the animals, too.

There have been headline-making incidents of things going horribly wrong with ESAs, their people, and others, especially in air travel. Would these things have happened if the animals involved were properly trained service dogs? Some airlines are changing their policies as a result. New laws, including in Indiana where I live, are beginning to better define emotional support animals and crack down on misrepresentation.

Working with integrity

Official distinctions may be lost on animals, but many are wonderfully clear on what they are here to do, and for whom. We can help them carry out their missions, and support other animals in finding theirs, by using good judgement about what we ask them to do and listening from the heart when they tell us.

By staying informed about the above, and all the other capacities in which humans and animals work together, we can help create a world that is more fair to the animals, the people they would aid and accompany, and the animals and people affected by their presence. There is so much we humans and animals can do and be together. If we do our work with integrity, as the fourth Reiki precept puts it, we can go a long way in helping animals do theirs.