Lessons From Zachary: What a Physician Learns From the Death of a Dog

“You think that dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”Robert Louis Stevenson


My dog died three years ago today.  On this day I will remember him, and share a little bit of him with you. These are the lessons from Zachary that I learned during that fall three years ago, on the final leg of our journey together.

Zachary was the first dog of my very own. He was a flat-coated retriever, and a fairly typical example of his breed. Typical of the breed’s “Peter Pan” personality, never growing up. Smart and energetic and goofy and quirky and unique, all of which made him an absolutely typical flat-coat. I could write on and on about his qualities, both endearing and frustrating, and regale you with stories. We would have some good laughs. But let’s save that for another time. We will also hold off on discussing grief, or mourning pets, or the role of pets in our lives.

Let’s just say my dog was a very good dog, and that I still miss him.

He was diagnosed with cancer around September 17, 2011, and died on November 15 of that same year. I learned a lot in that eight weeks. He had malignant histiocytosis, a cancer for which flat-coated retrievers and Bernese mountain dogs share a genetic predisposition, as yet to be defined. It is an otherwise rare cancer, but it is also a rare and difficult-to-treat cancer in people. In fact, there is research at the NIH, as an offshoot of the Human Genome Project (the Canine Genome Project) which studies this cancer in hopes of unlocking the secrets to aid in testing, diagnosis, and cure –for both people and dogs. This research is in part funded by Flat-Coated Retriever and Bernese Mountain Dog breed groups. Zachary was able to contribute to this as a healthy youngster, and again later after he was diagnosed, in his final moments. My choosing to participate offered me some comfort at the time, and still does. Untreated, dogs usually have a life expectancy of 2-6 weeks; with treatment, that can extend up to 6 months, give or take. Zach did not respond to treatment, to put it mildly. He did not tolerate the chemotherapy. He made it 8 weeks from the time of diagnosis.

As a surgeon, I am no stranger to death and dying. I treat cancer patients nearly every day. I have cared for many patients and their families, from the initial biopsy on to the end. I thought I would be well equipped to handle this, given my background and experience. I understood the concepts and differences between treatment and cure, palliation, and hospice care. But I soon realized that I still had a lot to learn. I am still surprised at how much I had to learn, how different it was in dealing with my dog whose life was slowly and inevitably slipping away. Continue reading