The Gift of Pets:
Stories Only a Vet Could Tell

By Dr. Bruce R. Coston. Thomas Dunne Books. $25.99.

Surveys for years have listed veterinarians among the most respected professionals in the eyes of the public worldwide.

This absorbing potpourri reflects why, serving up a rich nourishment of cases from dogs and cats to a rat and sugar glider (a small marsupial from Australia) in the author’s small-town Virginia hospital that grows from a one-man to a four-practitioner practice within the covers.

Coston’s way with words is as delightful as his diagnostic and surgical expertise, and in the process rivals the popular James Herriot works we cherished from the 1970s into the 1990s. But this isn’t simply a memoir of a veterinarian and the animals he treats. It poignantly captures the emotional bond between himself and his clients and staff.

The open sign is always posted on his door and his heart, which is reflected here: “Part of being a good veterinarian is sensing not only the medical needs of the patient but also the emotional needs of its owner.” And throughout this uplifting but sobering read his dedicated staff exhibits a penchant for crisp wit one minute and refreshing inspiration the next.

Photo credit Bert Williams

Dr. Bruce R. Coston with one of his friends.

For this veterinarian, the staff is family. And that means even the boss being the butt of a few well-placed jokes and set-ups, usually from the schemer receptionist Rachel. One involves a fictitious office call of his most distasteful client that lingers with him for two weeks and another, the issuance of a speeding ticket, both on April 1.

Well polished with moving anecdotes, the cases include a mastectomy on the rat; several surgeries designed to remove foreign objects from the stomach or intestinal tract; operations targeting an assortment of tumors; and excising a portion of the tail of the sugar glider, which bites Coston five times within the first minute of handling it, prompting him to say, “The Energizer Bunny has nothing on sugar gliders. Cats are supposed to have nine lives. I was not sure how many lives sugar gliders are given.”

The moving stories of true grit don’t hold a candle to the owners, who range from arrogant to flaky and pre-teen to geriatric.

The potential for death hangs over the majority of the vignettes. No matter the age of the animal, some owners fight the good fight, despite the projected expense or Coston’s candidness about the subject’s sometimes long odds for survival.

For the Kovacs, who are local merchants and pillars of the community, the decision to let go of their surrogate child, 14-year-old Branson, a 40-pound beagle, is gut-wrenching but measured.

The dog, with a history of assorted ailments, is rushed to the hospital on Sunday evening after vomiting up a large amount of bright, red blood at home. X-rays reveal a tumor in the lining of Branson’s stomach that is triggering the bleeding, leaving the dog “weak and very compromised” and not a good surgery candidate.

In the hospital, Mr. Kovac eyes his wife and Coston and delivers an on-the spot eulogy, “I know that part of loving him (Branson) is being willing to say good-bye, too. Branson is almost 15 years old and he’s lived every minute of those 15 years at full bore. He wouldn’t understand it if he had to be throttled down now.

“. . . Branson has been a gentleman all his life. He doesn’t owe us anything. But we owe him something now. We owe him the right to say good-bye with dignity and not endure a hopeless struggle just to preserve our selfish emotions.”

Coston acknowledges that dealing with death “never ceases to plunge me deeply into the substance of the bond between human hearts and the hearts of trusting and faithful animals. At no other time is the current of that bond more tangible to me, its waves washing over the aching people, crashing onto the unyielding rocks of the pet’s illness and suffering, high tides of emotion eddying around the owners and the pet, their undercurrents pulling at me, too.

“The vulnerability of the people, the helplessness and dependence of the patient, the mortal significance of the owner’s deliberations, the emotional consequences of a loathsome decision, the weight on my shoulders of my professional input all combine to make this event one of the most intensely difficult of professional interactions.”

Coston’s grooming, challenging and encouraging a once unconfident young Lisa into a veterinary-technician career, only to lose her to lung cancer several years later is a riveting storyline throughout. While eschewing credit, Coston is basically the choreographer in the rebirth of a person and a father figure and most dependable ally until her death, even honoring her dying wish to euthanize her dog Grizzly and bury it with her.

Here Coston identifies “the Gift” (remember, this is part of the title) as a “bond between, a contract with, a promise from, and a claim upon two hearts – a circle that encompasses the very essence of those hearts (owner and pet).”

A terrific storyteller, Coston’s emotional realism is accented with energy, feeling and flourish, leaving you wishing he was practicing in your neighborhood. Does it get any better than that?