Dog Euthanasia and Veterinary Responsibilties

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dog and leash

What responsibility does a veterinarian have to the client of a pet who is about to undergo euthanasia? This is a piece I have struggled to write for a number of months, as over five years have passed since having to make that decision for my last Cocker Spaniel. I have no idea how I got through the entire ordeal, and some days I think back and it’s as if it never happened at all; as if, perhaps, I dreamed it and it really happened to someone else.

No, cold reality, thanks for the slap, as I did walk that path, face that decision, and for the longest time I felt as if I murdered my dog. In my anatomy of a grieving dog mom post, the feelings associated with losing my dog from this life as she passed to another were explored. Now it’s time to discuss the role of your dog’s veterinarian when the time comes that you are faced with the decision. What I am about to tell you is not going to help you know “when” it’s time: only you can truly decide. For me, if every possible human effort has been made to make a dog comfortable and pain-free and there is no change and no hope despite all the medical advances, then and only then is a peaceful passing to the next life an option.

CarolBrandy

What I am about to share is what you should do (based on my experience) and what the role of a veterinarian should be when and if that time comes in your dog’s life. In a purely random poll, over the years when talking to fellow dog parents who have loved and lost a beloved canine family member, I ask how the dog passed: On his or her own, in her sleep, or with the assistance of a veterinarian and euthanasia. I can count the number of peaceful on their own passings on one hand. This is an all-too-real life altering decision that none of us takes pleasure in thinking about. We call ourselves Fidose of Reality, and this is a very real occurrence, so we face it together with you.

For me, the veterinarian should be as delicate and understanding as possible. According to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine website, one of the three basic tenets for someone considering a career in veterinary medicine is “Good Communication skills, including the ability to work well with a variety of people, particularly when dealing with an owner’s grief and loss of their pet.”

Carrying the weight of a client’s grief around in my heart is the main reason I chose not to become a veterinarian. Primarily, I have been told very kind, loving, and considerate tales of what the veterinarian did at the time of euthanasia and how he or she might have comforted the client. There is the occasional horror story, however, hence the purpose of this post.

fidose of reality

Do Now

There is one thing you should do either now or at some point soon: Write down somewhere what you want to happen if the day comes that you must euthanize a pet. All of my faculties and mental preparations went right out the window when the day came. I felt as if I were taking my dog to her execution and not to a place to relieve her of suffering. I could not drive, I could not think, I just prayed a miracle would happen: the miracle I knew did not exist.

Having a piece of paper ready with the actions you want to take place on that day serves a few purposes:

  1. You are able to write your intentions down and store them away. There is something very, “there I handled that and took care of business and now I don’t have to think about it” in doing so.
  2. You have a source to go to someday if and when that time arrives.
  3. You can hand that paper over to a family member or friend or even the veterinarian when emotions cloud your judgment and a darkness sweeps over your heart.
  4. Decide who will be with you, if possible, and if you want to be present. I have read time and again that dogs can still smell us despite any other senses being compromised. There is no way I personally would not be in that room with my baby girl. I would hope a loved one is by my side when my final breath is taken.

Can you imagine what a loving, caring, dedicated veterinarian must have to go through? I cannot imagine day in and day out not knowing what will be walking or running through the door.  Veterinarians must shatter lives and potentially make folks cry on a near daily basis.

cocker_veterinarian

Vets Who Do Right

My friend and fellow blogger, Dr. Lorie Huston, penned a post about sedation before euthanasia. Feel free to read it and see what she goes through, particularly in this one situation. Knowing Lorie for as many years as I have, I would feel very comfortable having someone with her compassion and skill set care for my beloved canine family members. She has the right attitude and has the empathy to back it up.

In my own personal situation, my dog’s veterinarian really had his hands full. Not only did he open his practice on a Saturday, but he cried with us, for us, and some of this is still a blur to me. I am told I collapsed in the waiting room and was visibly a mess. It’s who I am when I have to let someone go who is so innocent, and I am in charge of that moment. Did I do the right thing? There are days I still wonder. What is done, as the saying goes, is done. I am more accepting of it now than ever before. But it still sucks.

brandydog

Missing my little girl forever.

What a Veterinarian Should Do If the Time Comes for Euthanasia

  • Discuss ahead of time what the process involves. The last thing you want is to be taken off guard as to what is going to happen when you walk in that room.
  • Have a conversation with the client of what to do with the remains: i.e., cremation,  etc.
  • Allow the client to pre-pay the bill or mail it to them. I was a wreck when the bill arrived. I found out how much death costs in terms of dollar value. It took a while to realize that vets run a business, so of course there is a cost: to life and to death. Just like with people.
  • Offer grief counseling services: I know that some may shake their head and say this is well beyond the scope of what a veterinarian should do. After all, a veterinarian’s client is an animal. Animals are like family, so when an animal dies, a little empathy and recommendation of a local good grief counselor, book, video, etc would seriously help. Having sought the help of a trained grief counselor who understood that I felt as if my guts were torn from my insides and tossed across the floor, leaving me as a walking resemblance of who I once was: Well, let’s just say without her help, I’d probably still be curled up in a ball, heaving, and regretting that I stood idly by while my dog was murdered by someone I trusted. Yes, that is a very long sentence but it runs on like my ache.
  • Be compassionate above all.  I know you might have just done this, and I know you might have to do it again that same day or tomorrow and/or the day after. Just know that my heart is being left on that table, so allow me to stay behind with the body and temporarily step outside myself.

Is it worth it, this short life span filled with tremendous unwavering love? I could never not love this way in my life, over and over and over. Yes, my heart beats dog, as that very heart breaks into millions of microscopic pieces knowing I will face the pain in order to relish the love. Indeed, it is worth it.

fidose of reality

Have you ever faced this decision and wonder if you made the right one? Did you have a caring veterinarian help you along in the process?

 

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Comments

  1. I wish I could say that I never had to make that decision. Unfortunately, we had to make that decision twice last year. It was horrible to lose two of our senior dogs within a few months of each other. With one, it happened so fast. It seemed like one day he was fine and the next day he couldn’t get up. It makes me cry just to think back. I actually emailed the vet because I knew they were closed and we were not sure what to do. She was so wonderful and caring with us. She opened her office on a Wednesday night.

    I consider her a friend she was there when we needed her and she gave us all the time we needed with our baby. One of the sweetest things she does for her clients that lose a pet, is take a paw print in clay. We have one for George and for Elmo. I don’t know what it would have been like if we didn’t have the Vet that we do. We have had lots of Vets over the years but she is by far and away the best one!

    • Carol Bryant says:

      I am so so sorry, Liz, and I can totally empathize with you. I thank Dawg that we have a wonderful vet who understands and cares.

  2. Unfortunately, I have had several experiences. The first, was maybe the easiest, if that is possible. I chose the day and the vet to put down our 19-1/2 yr Silky we had taken care of for 8 yrs. He was great, but the experience of standing at a counter and having someone tell me to pay before services were rendered wasn’t the best. Especially since I had been a client for 8 yrs. The 2nd was had an emergency vet and they were fantastic. They were very understanding. When I called my vet’s office the next morning (not the same vet as the 1st dog), the receptionist cried with me. When I picked up the ashes the vet handed me a box of tissues and cried with me. With our Libby and our Stan we were able to go to our vet (who knew the dogs and us), the staff cried with us, hugged us, gave us time to say good bye, talked with us. No mention of fees, when we asked they said not to worry it about on those particular days, hugged us and sent us home. These folks are our friends, not only our vet and their staff. And I may add, they have helped us heal and also find new paws to fill our home.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      That’s the worst – when you have to pay for death. I realize it’s a business but there must be another way to do this. Maybe just have a credit card on hand and tell them to bill you so you don’t have to deal with it. I remember how I felt and that sinking horrid feeling.

      It helps when the vet and staff are there and caring and considerate.

  3. When we had to put our Toby down last year, both my husband and I were a mess. When we were getting ready to leave, our Vet asked who was driving and we both looked at each other because we hadn’t though of it. Our mission had been to ease Toby’s pain and we hadn’t really thought any farther than that. It was around noon and our wonderful Vet insisted we go to lunch where he did everything in his power to calm us down. He was so worried about us wrecking our car while driving home that he kept us busy until we got a hold of ourselves and then asked us to call him as soon as we got home.
    Since we recently moved, I have to drive over 50 miles for my dog to see this Vet but I will gladly make the trip to have a Vet that cares, not only about my animals, but our well being.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      Stacey, I totally understand and I am so glad I did not have to drive. You obviously have a very caring vet. I am very sorry for your loss and can understand what you went through.

      We travel 90 minutes + each way, so I get what you are saying. Thanks for sharing.

  4. You are spot on with all of your commentary here. It is because of you that helped me deal with the loss of my fur kid. Your article on The Anatomy of a Grieving Mom made me realize I wasn’t alone. I hope more people will look at your suggestions before their pet gets to the point of when a decision to euthanize needs to be made. Preparing ahead of time is so important.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      Thanks, Diane. I wish everyone who shares life with a pet could take a peek at this article, too. I wish I knew these things ahead of time.

  5. Carol, great piece. We’ve unfortunately had to face this three times in the last few years – something I don’t relish being an expert at. We are fortunate enough to work with a holistic vet for acupuncture and she came to our house for Tino & Becca. It allowed us to be prepared and to do it in an environment they were comfortable with. For our Sally (the first to go) it was unfortunately more traumatic and we weren’t prepared, but the emergency vet we took her to was wonderful, very thoughtful and caring of our heartbreak. You are right though that as hard as it is, folks should prepare themselves. It did get easier because I knew what I wanted and what to expect. The decision of when never gets easier. While I want them with me as long as possible, dogs are so stoic you don’t know how much pain they are in and that makes it hard to judge.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      Exactly – and the knowing if I made the right decision at the right time and if this is what was best for Brandy – that haunted me for so long. I still look back and wonder. Many hugs.

  6. It sounds horrible, but we’ve also found an wonderful couple who offer services after and I encourage folks to think of the option when planning. Thankfully, people are becoming aware that animals are family members. They offer cremation services, with such a personal touch. We actually had a viewing, just like a human’s wake.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      We had our Brandy cremated, and they asked if we wanted to be present. We did not, but trusted the place where we went – it was in a chapel and everything. They gave us a DVD of the process – yes an actual DVD. Our vet told me that it was best to destroy it because some day I might think I am “ready” and watch it. It took years and tears, but one New Year’s Eve I did that and cried so very much. I am glad I never watched it. I have her cremains here at home with me and want any dog I share my life with to be scattered with my own ashes someday.

  7. No, and though Bella may be have crossed the double-digit threshold, I’m hoping it will be many many years before we ever have to face this reality. Have you read “Unsaid?” This post for some reason reminded me of that book which was excellent.

  8. Christine Hoy says:

    I think this is a difficult subject, but such a good post. I too, can only count a handful of pets that have quietly passed in their sleep. Euthanasia is one of the most difficult things for a Veterinarian and their staff, especially when you have been treating the animal all their life & the owners are like family. I agree that Vets need to be honest with the owners about what to expect, and compassionate. Ask up front about cremation, and have the people pay before or send a bill. I would hate to have to see someone standing in a reception area sobbing while trying to pay a bill. Some people might be surprised at how fast it happens, or if there are reflex movements after. Some Vets will put an IV catheter in and sedate the dog or cat first. This generally makes the transition much smoother. Often they will take the dog “to the back” to put in the IV, and people might get upset about this. But trust me, it’s often a difficult task to try to put an IV in a pet that may be ill (and therefore have poor circulation and veins) in front of a grieving owner in a poorly lit exam room. When we sold our Vet practice and moved to CA, I had to be on the other end of this process when our dogs got old and had incurable diseases. Our vet at the time was wonderful. Even though I knew what to expect, they did a good job of explaining everything they were doing. Softly lit room, he lit some incense and said a little prayer for our beloved pet and his departing soul. Even if you’re a non religious, it was quite appropriate and very comforting. Last year when our cat, Domino was dying from pancreatic cancer, we were lucky enough to have him at home and in the comfort of our own bedroom. Some people might have a hard time with that because there will always be the final memory of him there. But for cats who hate to drive and howl the whole way in the car, I just couldn’t bear the thought of how difficult that car ride would be for him and us. There are many people who either change Vets or take a very long time to go back to the same Vet after losing their precious fur baby. I now understand why. I know many people want to avoid thinking about this subject, but I think it’s much easier to think and plan when you are not emotional.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      I have tears as I read that, Christine. Our dog didn’t have an IV but had the “two needles.” I will never forget that pink liquid. Always one of my favorite colors and then to see it in that needle, well you know.

      I am sorry for the loss of Domino as well.

  9. To your questions, yes and yes. Without going into too much detail, there was one thing I always wanted for Jasmine which did not happen. I always wanted her to have her last frolic in the woods, or at least some nice time outside and for her to pass out in the nature. So it happened that she could not walk at all and it was a day with freezing rain and all ground covered with ice.

  10. Kathy Plouffe says:

    I have had my share of experiences with making the horrible decision to put my animals to sleep, often wondering if I had even made the right one. I refuse to let my babies be alone when the time comes and even though it is hardest thing in my life to do, I am right there with them. I have been fortunate to have very good veterinary care for my animals and each time it was very smooth and I was prepared for what to expect and given as much time with my pet as I needed. The only really bad experience I had was when my hubby and son were out of town and I woke up to our 15 year old baby, Cody struggling to breathe. We knew it probably wouldn’t be much longer before the decision needed to be made to put her down but I never dreamed I would have to do it all on my own. I took her to an Emergency Vet Clinic where they put her on oxygen but said she was basically suffocating and there was nothing they could do for her. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe I was by myself and had to make the decision to put her to sleep without the rest of my family there to say goodbye. The clinic offered to take a paw print for me and send it to me in the mail. (Which I now have as a tattoo on my left foot). I was so distraught. I don’t even know how I was able to drive home. It was the absolute worst day ever. There was a song playing on the radio while I was on my way to the clinic with Cody. It is called “Not Alone” by the group Red. I cannot listen to that song without thinking of that day. I have been very lucky to have always had wonderful vets and staff who seemed to know exactly what I needed and how to treat me during such difficult times. Thank you to all of them for what they do and the comfort they provide in our most desperate hour.

  11. Great post Carol. When I worked as a technician, I helped with so many euthanasias. I don’t think there were many days that went by where we did not have to euthanize a pet, but when these days happened we always rejoiced in some way. It takes a special kind of person to be able to help others go through the passing of their pet. I was always horrible at the comforting part. Something I always wanted to be better at, but just didn’t know how. At least not with the humans. Mostly, I just tried to be quiet and gentle with the animals while I held them. Try to offer the clients any help I could. But I never really knew what to say most of the time.

  12. Jackie Preas says:

    The article brought back so many memories and tears.It will be a year for us on 4/11 and I am ever so grateful that we had such a caring clinic.I had spoken with them often during Riley’s final 3 1/2 months.I would get calls from both vets and techs at least once a week just checking on how he was doing and they always ended it with they were there when we needed them.On the morning of the 11th when I called,I found I was helpless and couldn’t say anything understandable for bawling like a baby…they got me through that by knowing what to say to calm me down.When we got there late that afternoon,they immediately took us to a room and went over everything before taking him back to be sedated…they allowed us to bring a special baby(a lobster he had gotten his 1st Christmas) and a blanket he loved laying on.Riley yelped and seemed to try to get away….that about killed me and made me second guess whether or not it had been the time.We were left alone with him as long as we wanted and we put his baby under his head and wrapped him up in his blanket.He was our beautiful,sweet Cocker boy who will be Forever in Our Hearts.Caring Vets help an awful lot.Riley lived exactly 11 years and 3 mos.I constantly tell our little Beauregard about his big brother,while he is the same breed,he is nothing at all like Riley was…thank goodness.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      Many hugs, Jackie, and thank you for sharing the story. I know exactly how you feel. It also is so amazing that you had caring, kind folks there to comfort you and Riley during this most difficult process. My heart goes out to you. I am sure Beauregard knows how loved he is.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this, I agree this is so important for vets to remember. I always try and let our pet owners know they have choices including at home euthanasia, and what to do and where to go if, god forbid, for some reason they can’t get in touch with us.

    Fortunately there is more education out there than ever for veterinarians to help them be the people we all need during that difficult moment. Dr. Dani McVety especially is doing a great job helping veterinarians learn how to do it right for the pet and their family. We care so much about you and your pets, and we all have been there with our own pets, and we want to do whatever we can to soften the blow of having to make that choice. Again, thank you for posting.

  14. Carol, thank you for writing this. I can imagine how hard it was for you… your pain is evident in every line.

    This post is very timely for me, in a way, although my story began almost 12 years ago. My beloved heart cat, Spooky, had grown too weak to carry on. My veterinarian had taken excellent care of Spook through his illness of almost a year, and he told me that he felt it was time. Wouldn’t you know it, my husband was out of town for business for the entire week, but the vet was amazing. He did everything right to get me through this terrible thing, including hugging me when it was over.

    Although the practice included 2 other doctors, from that day on I wanted my pets to see only this particular doc. In the last 12 years he’s seen us through the death (by euthanasia) of our first dog 2 years ago, a hard-to-diagnose and even harder to manage illness of our current cat, our doxie’s broken foot, and various other maladies. We kept him on as our vet even when we moved to a different town, more than willing to drive 25 miles for a doctor we trusted.

    But when I took Nike in a couple of weeks ago to have a lump removed from her hind leg, I was told my doc had left the practice. When I asked where he went, they said they weren’t allowed to say. When I googled him, I found nothing. It’s as though he vanished into thin air. I feel silly saying that my heart is broken, but to say anything else would be a lie.

    I’m so sorry now that I never told him exactly how much I appreciated everything he did for me and my babies.

    • Carol Bryant says:

      Oh no – I feel your ache, Christina. I would be so devastated if that happened to me. I wonder why he couldn’t reach out to you. I’d seriously be so upset. And I can tell that your heart is broken, even though you said so as well. I wonder where he is these days. I am also sorry you never got a chance to tell him how much he meant to you. Our vet is a great distance from us (90 minutes without traffic each way) and we have followed him for many years. I’d be a wreck without him.

      My condolences on your losses, and I feel as if I have gotten to know you over these months…. thanks for opening your heart and sharing your story.

  15. I know it’ll be hard to believe when I say this, but I’ve never had to go through this. I have had many dogs and cats live into old age, and for some reason they were taken from me and died at home right before I was about to make the final decision. I remember with my dog, Timba, it was a holiday weekend and I had planned to call the vet first thing Monday morning. She died in the middle of the night on Sunday night. With Hector, I called the vet, and we were doing a “wait and see” thing overnight (during a major storm). Hector died in the middle of the night. It was a similar situation with each of our cats Pointy, Mr. Kitty, Filkin and Maggie who all died at home either the day euthanasia was to be scheduled, or right before I called to make the appointment. Sam still lived with my parents and they had her euthanized, and called me after the fact. I was living away from home, married, in college. I feel terrible that they didn’t call me to come be with her, but it is what it is. I suppose they were trying to protect me, who knows. My other pets died suddenly and much too young of various causes — mostly accidents. Here I sit, wondering whether my beloved Hobie, the one who owns my heart, will be the first one I’ll have to “make a decision” about. I dread that. I can’t believe I have reached middle age and have never had to euthanize any of my many pets. I would say that somebody up there likes me, but I’m not sure this is a good thing. I don’t know why I’ve been spared this experience as a pet owner, but I have. Thank you for the great suggestions.

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