LJ Talks with Karen Fine, Author of 'The Other Family Doctor'

Karen Fine talks about pets, the life of a vet, and good books to read.

Your memoir offers an emotional, immersive experience centered on the deep bond between people and their pets. How does that bond figure in your work?

It’s an important part of veterinary practice. I watch the person and animal interact, and I also get a sense of the relationship when people talk about their daily routines with their pets. I think of daily routines as the building blocks of the human-animal bond. I feel a connection to that bond as well as to the individuals in front of me. If a client is gruff or irritable, it may be difficult to relate to them, but when I see the love they share with their animal, I can communicate with them more easily.

You provide an engaging account of your work, but also address the burnout and stress involved. What should readers know about the daily practice of being a vet?

The daily work of being a vet is incredibly variable, which is part of the stress; you can go straight from seeing a new kitten or puppy to guiding a family through painful decision-making about a sick animal, and you never know at the beginning of a day what it will be like (or when it will end). Veterinarians tend to be perfectionists, and we are often very hard on ourselves. I think I’m proudest of helping people through the euthanasia process, even though it can be hard for me to not take on their emotions. Most veterinarians will tell you they get the most thank-you cards after an animal dies.

You share stories about animals ranging from funny to heartwarming to sorrowful. In particular, you offer advice about the death of a pet. What have you learned that you think is most helpful to those suffering such a loss?

I think the depth of emotions surrounding pet loss can take people by surprise, and because it’s not a loss that’s commonly reflected in our society, it’s called disenfranchised grief. However, it is widespread among animal lovers. It can help to connect with others who understand the importance of our animal relationships. I’ve seen many people experience tremendous guilt after their pet dies, which may result from the heavy responsibility of making decisions about end-of-life care and euthanasia. My advice is not to second-guess decisions after you’ve made them. It’s all too easy to look back and regret certain choices, yet we all do the best we can with the information we have at the time. I’ve seen people develop a heartbreaking false narrative that they failed their pet. In my experience, this shame is rarely warranted, and I know their beloved animal would not want them to feel that way.

How can your readers best support the welfare of animals?

I can best speak to caring for dogs and cats, and my advice is to create an enriched environment for them. “Enrichment” is the key term to look for, and there’s a lot of information available. Walking your dogs, letting them sniff, and giving your animals toys and projects that help involve their brains as well as their muscles is important. Taking dogs to training class is so valuable. I tell clients that even though I used to teach puppy training, when I get a puppy, we go to class. There’s just no substitute for that experience.

Do you have any favorite pet/animal books you would like to suggest to our readers?

Like many veterinarians, I was inspired by the “All Creatures Great and Small” series by James Herriot. I love Sy Montgomery’s books, especially The Good Good Pig and The Soul of an Octopus. There’s a wonderful new book by E.B. Bartels called Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter, about the different ways people grieve for their animals. And I enjoyed The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and translator Philip Gabriel, and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

Do you read novels or nonfiction (not about animals) during your leisure time? What are the books you have most enjoyed recently?

 I’m currently reading Bono’s memoir, Surrender. U2’s music helped me get through vet school, and I have such respect for celebrities who use their platforms for good. Another memoir I enjoyed was This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist. It’s an exploration of death festivals around the world, written like a funny travel story with a deeper focus on mortality. I’m hooked on the “Thursday Murder Club” mysteries by Richard Osman, and I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series. After I told my editor how much I admire McCall Smith’s book covers, the art department contacted his illustrator, Iain McIntosh, in Scotland, and he designed my cover! My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was brilliant. I just finished a galley of The Society of Shame by Jane Roper, which was hysterically funny.

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