Before the title scares you away, I’ll tell you the reason I chose this grim subject before the holidays.
Albeit strange, we experience an influx of small animal euthanasia appointments right before Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think this phenomenon is because most owners do not want family members to see their pet suffering. But how does a pet owner, or even a livestock producer, know it’s the right time? And what does euthanasia mean for the veterinarian, owner, and animal?
“… I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for ... the relief of animal suffering …” The Veterinarian’s Oath that we all take at graduation describes euthanasia as part of our duty as a veterinarian.
For me, it is one of the toughest parts of my job. It’s bitter sweet. We are blessed to be able to end animal suffering humanely, yet, the emotional pain that the owners and we ourselves experience can be excruciating.
Veterinarians have the highest suicide rate of all professions; twice as high as medical professionals and four times as high as the general population. One in six veterinarians have considered suicide. The reason for these sad statistics is multifactorial but a few of them include the stress of euthanasias, frequency of patient deaths, student debt, compassion fatigue, stress, and isolation. So how do we deal with this on a personal level?
My first euthanasia as a veterinarian was hard. I had a huge part of my heart and soul devoted to the treatment of this patient. When she was not getting better, her owners decided it was time. I cried so hard that I couldn’t place her IV catheter. I was heartbroken. This was the moment I realized that I had to put up walls around my heart so that I could do my job. Since then, I have not cried during a euthanasia. It is not because I don’t love your animal – in fact, it’s the exact opposite. I love your animal so much that I want this procedure to go perfectly. What you don’t see as an owner is the tears that we cry after you leave, or after we get in our pickup, or in the arms of our significant other, as we recount the day’s events.
At the end of the day, it is up to the owner to decide when the right time is for their animal but as a veterinarian, we often guide owners through the decision-making process. Here are the questions that I ask my clients: Is your animal able to do the activities that they enjoy? Does your animal want to eat and drink, keep body condition, and stay hydrated? Can your animal urinate and defecate appropriately? Are you willing to take care of your animal in its current state of health? Do you have the financial means to try to cure or improve your animal’s condition? If the majority of these questions are answered “no”, then it is time.
There are a few humane ways to euthanize an animal. For pets and horses, we use an injectable euthanasia solution. For livestock, we commonly use gunshot to the brain, although if the animal is able to be disposed of properly and the producer can justify the cost of euthanasia solution, we may choose the latter.
Every end-of-life discussion is specific to the animal, the owner, the situation, and the veterinarian. We, as your veterinarian and friend, are always here for you. Don’t hesitate to call.