When I tell people what I do for a living, a response I often hear is “I would have loved to be a vet but I don’t think I could cope with putting animals to sleep”. It’s certainly true that the reality of death as part of the job doesn’t often feature in the ever-present vet TV shows as it isn’t probably isn’t as palatable as the more dramatic, cute or feel-good stories. But strangely, while euthanasia is a difficult topic and is, of course, is extremely challenging, I find it can be one of the most rewarding parts of the job.
I recently experienced this subject as a pet owner, as we had to put to sleep one of our beloved cats, Jinx, at the age of 16. It occurred to me that, while I have performed euthanasia hundreds of times for my patients, this was actually the first time I have had to make this decision for one of my own pets.
Thankfully, Jinx was not poorly for very long. He had a long and happy life, he was very much loved and had spent his last few weeks still actively exploring outside or fast asleep curled up on the sofa. We realised fairly recently that something wasn’t quite right with him, so we were in the process of investigating his symptoms when he suddenly became very ill. His organs were failing and although we were able to keep him comfortable with supportive treatment, we knew that as soon as we brought him home he would go downhill again and start to suffer. We discussed the situation as a family and made the decision to say goodbye to Jinx and let him go to sleep peacefully while he was still feeling as comfortable as possible. He was put to sleep in my arms and with the family all around him.
Despite this being a peaceful goodbye, I won’t pretend that it was easy. Although I was sure we were making the right decision, it was still heart-breaking. Jinx had been with us since before we had children and he’d been ever-present through three house-moves, getting married and settling at Shepton Vets. He was affectionate and fun, full of character and gentle with the kids. Losing him had a huge impact on us all and there have inevitably been a lot of tears in our house over the last few weeks.
I have also experienced first-hand the many feelings that I commonly discuss with owners at this tricky time – guilt about making the decision or that I hadn’t given him enough of a chance, worry that I had let him go on too long or that I hadn’t realised he had been suffering before, frustrated that we never got a diagnosis and the sense of loss that we wouldn’t have him for another Christmas, let alone another few years as I had hoped. None of these came as a surprise to me but it was still tough.
So why would I consider such a difficult process to be a rewarding part of my job? Because I feel that it is so important for us to try to get this right for our patients and their owners. If we do it well, it will help owners face their grief and overcome those negative feelings, and ensure the happy memories are the ones they take forward. And because, for children, losing a pet is often the first experience of death, approaching it in the right way can help build their resilience for the future. So rather than gloss over this important part of being a vet, I feel we should take pride in doing it as well as possible and part of this means having honest discussions with our clients.
Of course, sometimes we are unable to prepare for the loss of a pet, which in itself is heartbreaking. But otherwise, if you are concerned that this is something you will have to face soon, I would encourage you to think about it before you have to make the decision. Discuss it with your vet and consider how you want the end to be. Please don’t worry that we will judge you and don’t feel any guilt – we won’t think you are ‘giving up’ or being unkind. We will be glad that you are considering your pet’s welfare and preparing yourself.
Many owners worry that they won’t know when is the ‘right’ time. Having conversations first will help you judge this and we can help by offering an objective view. I will often advise owners to grade good days and bad days to help track wellbeing, and we can discuss the more subjective signs of a happy dog or cat.
It is important also to consider practical and financial aspects of the decision. If we have agreed that the end will come soon, there is nothing wrong with choosing a time that will be easier, or making the decision before spending lots of money on further treatment just to buy more time, if that is what is right for you and your pet.
Having these early discussions also helps us plan how it will happen at the end, so that you don’t have to make sudden and unexpected decisions at a traumatic time. We can discuss when, how and who will be involved. Many owners want to be with their pet as they slip away, which can be a very special moment, and some choose to have the whole family around. But if you feel you cannot be present at the end you must not feel guilty. If you know you are going to struggle then the chances are that your pet would pick up on this distress, and if you choose to say goodbye beforehand you can rest assured that they will still be handled with love and care by the team in the practice.
You can also prepare by considering what will happen with your pet afterwards and you will be able to discuss the option that is right for you.
Pets play such an important role in our lives – we take full responsibility for all their needs from the beginning and in return they give us fun, companionship, emotional support and love. So we owe it to them to take responsibility for their wellbeing right at the end of their life and make good decisions for them. As vets, we know that this is the most difficult part of being a pet owner, and that each individual case is different, so we will try our best to do what’s right for you and your pet. Yes this is a challenging part of my job but, now more than ever, I know what a difference it can make when we do it well.
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