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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- You have a source to go to someday if and when that time arrives.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?