The soil was wet and hard to move but I encountered no ice so the grave took shape in short order. 

When I was finished, the grave itself was rather neat. Three feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep — plenty of space to contain the earthly remains of my mother’s cat. 

Sparky, the cat’s name was. I suppose he was like a brother to me. To my mother, inching toward her 90s, Sparky was something even greater than that. He was her constant companion, a living, loving presence in her otherwise empty house.

Jan LaFlamme’s cat, Sparky, died recently of an unknown affliction. Corey LaFlamme photo

 When my mother returned from her errands, Sparky was there to greet her at the door, the perfect housemate who never had to be nagged for a visit. 

Alas, somewhere around the end of March, something went wrong. Though he was not an old cat, Sparky became visibly ill. He stopped using his litter box and it was a trick to get him to eat or drink water. 

What ailed the fit and spry cat I liked to call Spartacus? Chances are good we’ll never know. 


Though there was one frantic dash to an emergency animal clinic, that visit yielded no clues. What Sparky needed, the clinic staffers concluded, was a thorough examination by a regular veterinarian. 

And therein was the problem. 

Because Sparky had never been sick, my mother did not have a regular veterinarian she could call. Even if she did, chances were good she’d have a heap of trouble getting someone to look at the cat on short notice. 

What followed was a desperate round of calls to vets all over the place, each call more frantic than the last. My mother is more or less an unflappable woman, but the inability to get help for her beloved pet as it continued to decline nearly undid her completely. 

In the end, of course, it was futile. Sparky suffered a pair of seizures and died in my mother’s lap. 

By now, we all know this story. Veterinarians are in short supply — so short, in fact, that even a pet in terrible distress has no guarantee of getting seen in time to save its life. 


All across the country, people are losing pets in this way. It haunts those pet owners, surely.  

But it also haunts those who have dedicated their lives to helping animals. 

“There are those cases that keep you up at night,” said one woman who works at a veterinary hospital.  

She told me a story of a woman who came into the hospital with a cat that was gravely ill and getting worse by the second. But the vets at this hospital were already hard at work on other animals and there was nobody available to tend to the cat. 

The frantic woman was advised to seek an emergency animal clinic in Freeport, which would be open at that time of day. So off to Freeport the desperate woman went, but because she had no appointment there, the cat, sicker now than ever, could not be seen. 

The woman was directed to the animal clinic in Lewiston, which opens later in the day. 


“The cat didn’t make it,” my friend told me, “and died before they even opened.” 

These days, sad stories like this abound. I heard a slew of them when I started asking around. Pet owners with dogs struck by cars and no place to take them for care. Cats dead after frantic calls to one vet after another, all with the same result. There was even a sad story of a sick bunny in there.

The problem? Not enough veterinarians.

The reason for it? 

Well, that depends on who you ask. The most common explanation is that longtime vets are retiring and there aren’t enough people entering the field to make up for it. A lot of the locally owned veterinary hospitals have been bought out by corporations that don’t necessarily do things the same way.

Whatever the case, those who are still working in animal hospitals are feeling the strain of not being able to help everybody who comes along with an animal that needs help sooner than later. They do everything they can possibly do and yet are still sometimes portrayed as villains in this epidemic of sad pet stories. 


“Many hospitals operate on a skeleton crew,” my friend told me. “Sure, they get it done each and every day, but to do this day after day, month after month is not sustainable, and really wears one down more than a fully staffed hospital environment would. So employees end up leaving. Some have left the field altogether.” 

We all know how passionately people bond with their animals. For many, household cats become surrogate children. I know men who are closer to their dogs than they are to any humans alive.  

Losing a pet is an emotional trauma no matter what the circumstances. But lose one when maybe a simple shot, pill or surgery could have saved the animal and now you can add elements of guilt, failure and terrible “what-if” moments to that pile of grief. 

“There is much anxiety associated with this for pet owners who are trying, but find that they can’t be seen anywhere,” my friend, the veterinary assistant, said. “And, there are those that DO have an established veterinarian, yet they are booked full for the entire day and still can’t be seen. Gone are the days when one would call and get an appointment the same day or even in the same week, for that matter.” 

Gone and very likely never coming back. Nobody foresees an end to this vet shortage, so what we face is an age where that beloved household tomcat might live 10 years instead of 17 or 18 or 20. 

The faithful dog that sleeps on the foot of your bed might perish from the bad fish it ate from the trash instead of living another five years with the help of medication and professional attention. 


Pet owners have to resign themselves to grief. They keep shovels handy in case more holes are needed in the backyard. 

The veterinary hospitals are doing what they can to see more pets, that needs to be said. Some have cut back on services like nail trimming in order to carve out more slots for pet owners with emergencies. And the emergency clinics in places such as Lewiston, Freeport and Brewer have been picking up the slack. Without those clinics, it is generally agreed, there would be many more holes in many more yards. 

But the numbers are grim. There are too many pets in need of attention and not enough people trained to provide it. The result is an ocean of anguish for pet owners and perhaps a decline in the quality of life of pets in general. 

“I really feel that animals/pets are suffering more, especially cats,” the veterinary assistant said. “I say cats because they can mask their illnesses until it is almost too late, and then they really do need to be seen immediately. Dogs suffer too — they may have an ear infection but are not able to be seen for a few days and next thing you know, they scratched up and bloodied their ears. Things like tooth abscesses, urinary blockages, lacerations, dog fights, animals hit by a car, porcupine quills … these things need to be seen right away and people who do not have an established veterinarian are left calling around frantically, trying to get their pet seen.” 

Meanwhile, if you’re lucky enough to get in to see a vet, you can expect a hit to your wallet — most pet owners can tell you how the cost of veterinary services has soared in recent years. Gone are the days when you might get in and out the door for under a hundred bucks. Dental procedures alone, considered vital for a dog or cat’s health, will cost between $800 and $3,000. The prices have become so extreme, most veterinarians now encourage their clients to apply for pet insurance.

We may be reaching an era where pet ownership is considered a luxury that only the well-heeled and well-connected can manage. And who among us saw THAT coming?


What exactly it was that felled my cat brother Sparky remains a mystery. Maybe he was riddled with cancer and no amount of medical attention could have saved him. Or maybe it was a simple infection and with antibiotics, he’d still be chasing foam mice all over the house. 

At any rate, my mother swears she will never have another pet. Who wants to fall in love all over again only to face the same desperate ordeal at a later date?  

She’s not alone in that mind-set, either. In these strange and frustrating times, swearing off pets appears to be a new trend. 

“All this is the reason I decided on not getting another dog after my beloved Pinta passed four years ago,” said a woman named Sheila. “If they were ill and l couldn’t get them proper care, then having to watch them suffer for lack of care would be to much to take.” 

An appointment for animal care used to be such a simple thing. Now it’s a precious commodity, just one more thing we took for granted and now may have lost forever.

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