Dr Anupam Sharma’s palliative care for pets

1
808

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Dr Anupam Sharma
Photography: Eamon Gallagher

After years working in the fast-paced environment of emergency medicine, Dr Anupam Sharma founded the Animal Comfort Care Centre to provide comprehensive palliative care for pets, and emotional support for their owners—and their vets. By Shane Conroy

Animals were always a source of comfort for Dr Anupam Sharma. She was born to Indian parents in Kuwait. Her mother was a foreign affairs diplomat, which involved a lot of travel. And things were not always easy at home. 

“I grew up in a traumatic household, surrounded by physical and emotional abuse. I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells just to be myself,” she says. “But animals were an escape for me. They have always been soothing. It’s a very honest, clear-cut relationship.” 

Witnessing the street dogs in New Delhi as a child cemented Dr Sharma’s empathy for animals, and reading the works of James Herriot put her firmly on the path to becoming a vet. However, her ambitions were a punchline to her conservative Hindu family. 

“Animals in India are generally not held in as high status as they are in Australia, so when I told my family that I wanted to go to Sydney to study veterinary science, they laughed at me. As far as they were concerned, I was dedicating my career to putting flea treatment on mangy dogs.” 

But that didn’t stop Dr Sharma. She travelled to Australia alone, and graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 2006.

“I was quite happy exploring the world on my own, and I had really enjoyed doing my clinical rotations in a country where animals have a higher status,” she says. “But my family still didn’t get it. About an hour before my graduation, my father called me to ask if I was now ready to get a husband and leave all this vet nonsense behind me.”

She was not. 

Finding fulfilment 

After graduation, Dr Sharma went to work at a Sydney clinic. But she had no idea that her first job in the industry was to be in an incredibly toxic workplace. “I was looking forward to my first job, but I quickly discovered that I would be working alongside a very abusive vet—the type who would throw sharps across the room,” she says. “He was not a good person and was really crushing my spirit.”

Dr Sharma made the smart decision to move on as quickly as possible. She found a new job at another Sydney clinic that was attached to an animal shelter. Fortunately, the two experiences were chalk and cheese.

I was very much looking forward to my first job, but I quickly discovered that I would be working alongside a very abusive vet—the type who would throw sharps across the room. He was not a good person and was really crushing my spirit.

Dr Anupam Sharma, founder, Animal Comfort Care Centre

“They were amazing mentors,” she says. “They created this nurturing environment that was all about teamwork and work-life balance. I learned a tonne from the nurses, and I had such a ball. It was hard work because we were on call doing general practice and shelter medicine, but I had so much support that it didn’t matter.” 

Dr Sharma’s next move was to Melbourne with her partner. She started work at a general practice, but soon found her calling in emergency medicine. “When I was working at the general practice, we’d refer emergency and overnight cases to a local emergency hospital,” she explains. “Emergency medicine really appealed to me, so I started doing overnights at the hospital.” 

Emergency medicine was a perfect fit for Dr Sharma, and she felt fulfilled as the clinician she had been trained to be. 

“We are taught to recognise when a patient is not doing well, get to the bottom of it, support them, and get them out of it,” she says. “I felt emergency was that high clinical practice that I wasn’t getting in general practice.” 

The comfort of care

After about eight and a half years of emergency overnights, it was time for Dr Sharma to start taking better care of herself. So she transitioned into a relief vet role—splitting her time between emergency and general practice shifts.

It was during this period that Dr Sharma made some important observations that would inspire her next big career move. 

“Back in general practice, I found I didn’t have enough time to go through complex cases with the client. For example, I might diagnose a cat with diabetes and would need to teach the client how to give insulin injections. On top of that, they would often have many questions about diet and how to manage certain scenarios. I would just not have the time to go through everything with the client in a 20- or 30-minute consult. That’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the business model of general practice.”

At the same time, Dr Sharma knew that emergency medicine faced similar time constraints when it came to helping pet owners understand how to manage complex, ongoing health issues for their pets. So she launched the Animal Comfort Care Centre to help fill the gap.  

The Animal Comfort Care Centre is a dedicated palliative care clinic that helps clients appropriately manage their pets’ pain and wellbeing through a terminal or long-term illness. Dr Sharma is one of only 12 certified hospice and palliative care veterinarians (CHPV) in Australia via the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC).

Dr Anupam Sharma
When it comes to mental health, it’s not enough to put up a sign and check in with your staff one day per year over morning tea,” Dr Sharma  says. “We have to really walk the walk.” 

But it’s not just about end-of-life care. Dr Sharma works with her clients on management plans to help support their pets through all stages of their illness.

“Our consultations—either a house call or via telemedicine—last about two hours, and I give the client a management plan which is usually about four or five pages. We do follow-ups after that, and the client can email or text me as much as they want as issues or questions arise. 

“It’s all about giving me the time I need to come up with a comprehensive management plan, and the time the client needs to ask questions, share their emotions, and feel supported.”  

Vets cry too

Dr Sharma says vets often don’t have the time, emotional bandwidth or education to support the psychological wellbeing of pet owners who may be struggling to deal with their pet’s terminal diagnosis.  

“In most cases, vets are not calling pet owners to check in on their emotional wellbeing after a difficult diagnosis. And if a client refuses to euthanise their pet in the first instance, the vet’s job certainly isn’t to antagonise them in that moment—which I know a lot of vets do.” 

Instead, a referral to the Animal Comfort Care Centre can help to ease the emotional burden on pet owners, and ensure their pet receives appropriate care. It can also help to relieve stress on their regular vet, who may wish they could be more supportive than time allows.  

“It might be a case where the vet has diagnosed cancer, and the pet owner says they’re not going to an oncologist, they’re not doing surgery, and they’re not doing chemo. So the vet’s like, ‘Okay, here’s some pain meds. See you later’. The vet has to move on to other patients, but we can feel so inadequate.”

And that can take a real toll on vets’ mental health. Dr Sharma is also a certified Mental Health First Aid provider. She says that when it comes to managing difficult emotions around terminal diagnosis and euthanasia, vet clinics must do more than just talk the talk.

“When it comes to mental health, it’s not enough to put up a sign and check in with your staff one day per year over morning tea,” she says. “We have to really walk the walk. That means regularly reaching out to each other, knowing each other’s triggers, and how each of us needs to be supported and when. 

“Just because euthanasia may be the right decision for the animal, it doesn’t mean it’s not emotional for the pet owner—and the vet. We are often involved with the pet and the family for years, so it can feel like a loss for us too. We need to recognise that and look after each other.”

Previous articleShape up
Next articleSASH donates $23,000 to deliver enhanced awareness and support for vet mental health

1 COMMENT

  1. What a terrific service to offer us everyday folk who only want the best for our furry family members. I love her story and how she came to the point where she is today. Inspirational!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here