(Above: Alan (l), Rick (r) and a happy patient)
Q: Why are veterinarians the best doctors?
A: Because they can't ask the patient, "Where does it hurt?"
It's an old joke, but there's more than a grain of truth in it. And the best vet I know is Dr. Alan Shriro, co-owner (with another great vet, Dr. Rick Benjamin) of Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital, the oldest veterinary practice in the East Bay.
Berkeley Dog and Cat was founded in 1878 as an unnamed livery stable for Oakland Police and Fire Department horses. In 1907 it changed its mission to small animal practice and assumed its current name.
It's also the Tiffany's of local veterinary practices. It's no accident that some of the finest veterinarians in the Bay Area, including Dr. Gary Richter of Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Dr. Rene Gandolfi of Companion Animal Care Hospital in Castro Valley, got their start there.
Alan and Rick bought the practice from the legendary Dr. Fred Farr in 1976, and I started taking my cats to them a few years later. And they kept all of them alive far longer than I had any right to expect.
Partly it's because Alan is such a brilliant diagnostician. He diagnosed a tumor in my first cat, Eliza, without even seeing her. I happened to run into him at a party, and he asked how she was.
When I said she was meowing a little more than usual, he said, "Hmmmm. Better bring her in. That can be a sign of a thyroid tumor." Sure enough, it was. And because he caught it so early, it was easy to fix.
Best of all, he treats the patient, not the disease. He's guided by what's best for the animal, not what will make an interesting article in a medical journal.
And when the time finally comes to let go, as inevitably it must, he'll look you in the eye and level with you. And then he'll grieve with you afterward.
I've learned many things about animals from Alan, but the most important one is this: Go with the flow. I learned it by watching the way he treats his own pets, especially his late cat, Nigel.
Nigel was the fattest cat I ever met, and I mean obese - 30 lbs. at least.
"But you're a doctor, Alan" I said. "Aren't you afraid he'll get diabetes or a heart attack?"
"I figure it this way," he said. "I can have him absolutely miserable every day for 15 years. Or I can have him a year or two less, with every day a joy. It's a no-brainer."
Nigel died a few years later - of cancer, which meant Alan was right again: Putting him on a diet wouldn't have helped a bit.
Last week, Alan quietly retired without any fanfare. As much as he loved working, he's discovering how much fun it is to hang out with his wife Lorna, indulge his twin hobbies – skin diving and underwater photography – and play with the love of his life, his little granddaughter Flora.
But for me, it's the end of an era. I can never thank him enough for everything he's done for me, especially the kindness he showed me last spring when my cat Phoebe was dying. But let me say it anyway: Thank you, Alan.