A common question posed to veterinarians at dinner parties, functions and in the consult room is how do you deal with putting animals down? The truth is we all have different ways of coping, but euthanasia can take its toll. There are a few factors that contribute to this, one is the physical act of knowingly taking a life, the second is the sadness for the animal and the third, and perhaps the most traumatic, is dealing with the human families of these pets.
I, like many vets, have become some what desensitised to euthanasia. It is not because I don't care anymore, quite the opposite, I care so much that if I didn't distance myself from what I was doing the emotional burden would eventually become to much. Every now and then when I have euthanised an animal the magnitude of what I have done hits me... Am I playing God by taking this animals life? Who am I to say that now is their time? Or am I simply helping them on a journey they were already about to take? The knowledge that what you have just done has ended a life can sometimes mess with your head. And we have to walk out of that room, with these questions weighing heavy on our mind, and put on a big smile while calling in our next patient with a happy family who are excited about their puppies first vaccination.
Then there is the animal itself... Sometimes they remind you of your own pet, or it's a patient you've been treating weekly for months. Good veterinarians do become attached to their patients and on some level we are also saying goodbye to them as the injection is given.
And finally we have the family. There are two parts to dealing with the human component of a euthanasia. The first is the IMMENSE pressure to ensure everything runs smoothly. An old veterinarian once said to me "Sheridan a family won't always remember what you did to treat their animal but they will always remember the way you put it down". Sometimes when the tip of your catheter just won't find that old, collapsed and stringy vein it just makes you want to sit down and cry yourself, and meanwhile the whole family is watching you, tears in their eyes, just waiting for it all to be over.
The second part is learning to be a counsellor with out taking on the emotional burden of every family you see. Many families want, no make that need, to know they have made the right decision for their pet. And sometimes our human clients will cry, and ask you why them, or tell you stories about how this pet saved their life when they were depressed, or helped them through divorce or was the last remaining memory of their late husband. To be honest as I write this tears come to my eyes thinking about some of the stories I have heard. But as a vet you can't take all of this emotion inside you or it will overwhelm you.
And finally some tips for new veterinarians... and everyone in the animal field who has to deal with euthanasia.
Firstly I have a somewhat set euthanasia spiel... I know that sounds horrible but knowing what to say can be very difficult and having a set plan before you go in helps you guide the family on this journey. I always start by explaining to people exactly what will happen so they are prepared for how quick the injection is and what you will be doing. No matter what I always tell EVERY family that they have made the right choice even though it is hard.
Secondly always remember you are helping these animals - allowing an old, painful and arthritic dog that can no longer stand up pass over to the other side quickly with his family is far kinder then doing nothing. Some days in my work as a wildlife vet I really feel like Dr Death, by the time I have euthanized the tenth animal of the day my emotions are running thin. But then I try to remind myself that this poor bird, koala or possum would have suffered in the wild for days, or even weeks, if we hadn't intervened.
Thirdly always talk to your colleagues, they all know how you feel. And finally take some time to be upset, and unfortunately that can't be in between the consults, but on the way home in the car play some sad music, think about what's happened and give yourself some time to heal
I apologize to everyone for the slightly down blog post tonight, but euthanasia is perhaps the most important job of a veterinarian and certainly the part that troubles us the most. For veterinary staff I hope this blog post helps you realize you are not alone, and for those of you who aren't vets - next time your in the clinic with your furry family member say some kind words to your vet and the staff - you never know what kind of day they have had :) and you might just make theirs a lot better.
If you have any questions please don't hesitate to comment or send me a message via the VetTails Facebook page.
Is this something that is important to you? You may like my blog post about animal shelters The Truth about Cats and Dogs.