‘KEIRA TAUGHT ME LOVE IS ALL THAT MATTERS’
When TV’S Supervet NOEL FITZPATRICK adopted a border terrier rescue, he was unprepared for the huge impact the dog would have on his life
id you know that when we cuddle an animal we love, the chemical reaction produced in our bodies dilates our blood vessels and can reduce our blood pressure? Our animal companions can literally save our lives.
For the past 20 years, I’ve run a veterinary surgery in Surrey called Fitzpatrick Referrals. I treat hundreds of animals a year and have a team of more than 170 people. I mostly see dogs and cats, with a rabbit or tortoise every now and then, too. I prefer to call them ‘companions’ rather than pets, and
I don’t use the term ‘owner’. Animals give us far more in love than we can ever give them in terms of guardianship. Explaining the unconditional bond between animal and human is nigh-on impossible to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. There’s a particular type of this love that only a creature, rather than a human, can share with us.
In 2007, I and a good friend who was working with me as a nurse decided we would share the companionship of a border terrier puppy together. We called her Keira. I was 40 years old and working all hours in a small wooden building in the woods – the original Fitzpatrick Referrals – so co-parenting worked well.
With her barley-straw hair and massive, sticky-out eyebrows, Keira was my companion for nearly 14 years. She never ceased to radiate happiness into my world. I do not exaggerate when I say that Keira’s friendship, and our shared compassion for each other, were sometimes the difference between my surviving or slipping into depression. I didn’t know how I would cope when Keira was no longer around.
One evening in September 2020, I was leaving my practice as I always did by the back door. I never had Keira on a lead at that time because we had a routine – I would hold the door for her ladyship and she’d go through, across the driveway, to have a pee by the bushes. Then she would wait patiently for me to open the car, I’d pop her on her blanket, strap her harness in, and off we’d go home. I was halfway across the driveway, leaving the practice, when lights came around the corner of the building to my left at great speed.
Keira didn’t see or hear anything until it was too late. The van drove over her. I scooped her up and ran back into the building. She was in horrendous
Dagony. The team began stabilising her with drugs, oxygen and pain relief so they could assess the damage. I was inconsolable. Keira suffered a crushed pelvis, multiple fractures of her sacrum, a dislocated hip joint and a ruptured urinary bladder as well as rips to the lining of her abdomen. The team performed abdominal surgery and, a few days later, I carried out her fracture repairs. It’s my area of expertise and delegating was just not an option, no matter how terrified I was.
It all went well and Keira’s injuries, though traumatic, were reparable. I monitored her progress every single day and she did recover. She was older and more frail, but she filled every day with ebullient joy.
A year later, Keira was at my practice in a hydrotherapy pool – a swimming pool that helps relieve joint pain – when
‘MY FINGERS FUMBLED ON HER LITTLE HAIRY CHEST, SEARCHING FOR A HEARTBEAT’
she collapsed. I rushed downstairs and found her already on an operating table. My fingers fumbled on her little hairy chest, frantically searching for a heartbeat. Everyone in my team worked in synchrony, but all I could hear was the thud, thud… thud of her slowing heart. I had to cut open her chest and compress her heart manually, feeling for movement and frantically watching the monitor. Her heart stopped beating in my hand.
Keira, like most dogs, had liked the taste of salt. If she had been able to, she would have licked the tears from my face to tell me everything was going to be OK.
Keira wasn’t always good; in fact, she was often naughty, in myriad funny ways. The half-chewed slipper, the bin liner torn apart, the tap turned on and the bathroom flooded. But with her bristly eyes looking up at me, I always forgave her. She taught me about forgiveness of others, and of myself, too. She was truth and reconciliation all wrapped up in one boisterous bundle of bristles. I often felt I was not good enough, but she was always ‘enough’, even when she wasn’t good.
Until Keira, I hadn’t fully realised the pain my clients experienced, waiting on news of their animal friend’s progress. Because of her, my empathy and compassion for them deepened.
I see life unravel for the families of animals every day in my consulting room – when the unconditional love they share with their companion is perched on the precipice. I have held a thousand hands and a thousand paws. Recently, a man in his late 40s wept in my arms; the dog he loved was in grievous danger. He told me: ‘She unlocked a part of my heart I didn’t even know existed.’ He said that he had never cried before in his life. I believed him.
On Christmas morning a year ago, I woke up crying. It seemed like everything I cared about was drifting inexorably away and I wanted to drift away, too. I buried my head in my pillow and then I sensed Keira’s presence. It was as if there were words coming from her, through the ether, into my ears. I wrote the thoughts down in a continuous stream of consciousness, then tweaked and organised them later. That is how my new book, Keira & Me, was written.
It’s too soon for me to have another canine companion. Since 2020, I’ve been lucky to share my life with two Maine Coon cats, Ricochet and Excalibur, who co-existed happily with Keira. They are extraordinary companions, purring loudly when asking to pop up on to my knee, rolling on their back to enjoy endless tummy tickles with one hand while I type at my reports and papers with the other. When I’m sad, Ricochet senses it immediately and throws his big paws around my neck, rubbing his face against mine. They calm me down no matter how stressful the day.
Keira taught me more virtues than I could ever list: patience, tolerance, empathy, tenacity. She also taught me that love really is the only thing that matters.
The night before she died in September 2021, Keira was rustling for ‘treasure’ in a clump of packing material on the floor of my office and found a scented candle in a small glass votive. She rolled it along the floor with her paw to show me her latest discovery. Little did I know that the following day I would light that same little candle and bury it with her in her little grave outside the window of my practice. She chose the light to take with her, but she has left a far greater light behind.
Keira & Me by Noel Fitzpatrick is published by Seven Dials, £18.99*
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