The hardest thing that I do as a vet is participate in the decision to put a pet to sleep.
My first experience with this professionally was when I volunteered at a local animal shelter in Maryland that saw many homeless pets euthanized. I was 16 years old and I knew that I wanted to be a vet. I didn’t know if I could handle the emotional part of the job.
Nothing scared me more than euthanasia. In retrospect, I jumped into the deep end of the pool by volunteering at a county shelter. Perhaps some of my passion now toward helping homeless pets came from the helplessness I felt as a teenager participating in the euthanasia of pets solely because there were too many pets and not enough homes.
That was 30 years ago. I have had alot more experience with putting pets to sleep. I don’t feel as helpless as I did then. But then again, I only put a pet to sleep when I feel like its the right thing to do. When there is a tough call now, I have a community that I can send out a picture and a story to, and invariably someone steps from the crowd and opens their heart to a pet who still has love to give. I write this with gratitude to each of you for being part of that community.
Each time I help someone make the decision to let their pet go, I do it with mindfulness of the relationship they have shared, and use what I know medically to make the best decision at the best time. I would love to make it a black and white, all or nothing decision, but more commonly we struggle together.
Some people have told me that they knew when it was time. Some people have been forced to make the decision quickly because of an acute medical condition or serious trauma. But many folks begin to ask the question slowly and over time as they watch their pet age and begin to question their quality of life. I envy the people who “just know”. I help the people who must make the decision to relieve pain and suffering. But I agonize with the people who watch their good friend decline and wonder when the right time will be. In this last group especially, I have come up with a few questions to assess the situation and help weigh in on a heavy decision.
Does you pet show signs of pain, and does it affect their day to day life?
As pets age, it is common to have pain from arthritic changes. We now have many medications, supplements and now alternative treatments like acupuncture and chiropractic to help painful patients. We all experience days when we are sore and as we age that becomes more frequent. Animals are no different. But when that pain is unrelenting, and they can no longer get around, letting a pet go may be the only option.
How has your pet’s quality of life been for the past week, month, or 6 months?
As we look over time, we can sometimes see the decline more clearly. Age is not a disease, but some of the degenerative conditions are more common in aging pets. Most people who have had a pet in their lives 10 – 15 years see decline slowly at the end and often adjust for it without recognizing the cumulative effect. Age can bring a list of problems on the medical problem list, so the complaints can become very specific. I encourage pet owners to consider that the ability to see the big picture sometimes requires a bit of distance. Imagine looking at a painting. If you look very closely you can just see the colors and the brushstrokes. As you step back a bit you can see that the brushstrokes make a pastoral scene, or a portrait. Sometimes others can help you see the larger picture. The reason I think there is no substitute to knowing your patient throughout a very long time is because in the end, part of what you can expect from me is to help with seeing that picture.
Letting others influence the decision to euthanize though can be a mixed blessing. They can lend some objectivity, but they can often bring their preconceptions. I can tell you from experience that there is nothing worse during such a difficult time that a friend or family member who offers support by saying “its just a cat/dog, I don’t know why you are so upset.”
How has this affected your life?
This is the one most of my clients want to disregard in the decision to put a pet to sleep. As pets slowly decline, we tend to adjust to the new demands that our pets have put upon us. Cleaning up after errant urine or feces, soothing an agitated deaf/blind pet, watching to make sure he/she has eaten, staying up at night because the pet cannot get comfortable. We adjust our schedules, our vacations, our lives to nurse an ailing pet. Many people would gladly do whatever is necessary to help their pets after a lifetime of loyalty. What starts though as a little effort on a bad day though can end up with a consuming way of life with no way out for the pet or the pet owner. I see many people, unable to leave their aging pets without tremendous anxiety (usually justified) that their pet needs such specific nursing care that no one else can do it.
No matter what, the decision to put a pet to sleep is a huge one. It is normal to have a tremendous amount of emotion around it. Many people I have worked with have commented that losing a pet was harder than losing a human family member. Support from friends and family is so important in processing such a huge loss.
When I look back at that 16 year old kid who wondered whether he could handle euthanasia, its a wonder I became a vet at all. The decision to euthanize stands as the most difficult part of what I do today. But each time I do, whether it be at a client’s home or in the office; I know that patient, the relationships that made his/her life fulfilled….and that it truly is time.
That, along with you all taking all the pets that aren’t ready to be euthanized, surpasses my teenage expectations of what this would be like.