Euthanasia: the Small, Almost Imperceptible Price a Vet Must Pay

Performing an act of euthanasia is a role that is unique to veterinarians.”

It’s a difficult job, which, in my experience, has two distinct components. On one hand, there is the physical task. On the other is the emotional component. Being able to do one, while deftly handling the other, is not easy. Obviously, there is a professional part.”

“You have a job to do and you’ve got to be emotionally stable enough to make it as pleasant an experience as possible for the animal and the owner. But you can’t shut your emotions down completely. As with most veterinarians, I have euthanised many animals I’ve looked after for a very long time and, though it is a sadevent, it can be a peaceful, almost beautiful moment of release if performed correctly.”

-Excerpt from Chapter 2, So You’re a Vet…Now What? by Dr Dave Nicol.

Death is an important subject to address for two reasons. Number one, it’s a big deal for a pet owner to have their pet euthanized and number two, it’s a big deal for you, as a veterinarian, to do it. There’s an awful lot of emotional baggage that goes with the act of euthanasia including angst, upset and trauma to the owner of the pet. 

The problem is, during university vets are taught to become desensitised to the procedure. Although this enables you to physically perform euthanasia, these unacknowledged emotions can build up in the back of your brain, only to emerge later down the line.

How can you deal with euthanasia in a holistic way? Read on to find out more… 

Approaching Euthanasia with Empathy, Reflection and Without Judgement

Foster Understanding, not Judgement

The Veterinary Record cites five reasons for euthanasia in dogs and cats: old age/senility, terminal illness, trauma, behavioural problems, and other. Now, all cases of euthanasia are incredibly sad, whatever the reason, and especially so as you gain in experience and build meaningful relationships with clients. However, it is this ‘other’ category where you may begin to judge the client, which could lead to frustration, anger and a sense of hopelessness. 

There will be times when you have to euthanize an animal that you know you can fix. Unfortunately, regardless of your personal values, sometimes you will be pushed into a corner. You have to be mentally prepared and not punish yourself for it. We don’t live in a perfect world, it’s not on you when other people don’t make choices you agree with. Economic euthanasia probably makes up most of this ‘other’ category. This is when someone opts to have their pet put down because they cannot afford treatment. 

Our advice on this matter is to bear these facts in mind: we do live in hard economic times and though our skills and technology are advancing fast, not everyone’s paycheck is doing the same thing. Though most people will find the money to help their pets, some will not and others cannot. In this circumstance, foster understanding instead of judgement. The client must feel awful that euthanasia is the only resort.

“Foster understanding instead of judgement”

Empathy

Instead of blocking out your emotions, channel them into showing empathy with the client. This does not mean weeping in front of them, but treating them with respect and care. Imagine how your client is feeling, talk them through the procedure and manage their expectations.

Carry your empathy into the bigger picture. This seems a strange thing to say, but try to consider the positives that could emerge from the situation. Let’s take an example of an untrained dog who attacked someone, who then was euthanized. Empathize with the client and the patient. What can you do to educate owners so that cases like this can be reduced? Perhaps you could educate clients better on the socialisation of puppies. You could start building up a relationship with a dog trainer or behavior expert to effect early interventions in at-risk dogs. Yes, it will feel bad and you lost one pet. But good can still come of it.

Struggling with compassion fatigue? Click here.

Reflection

Take the time you need to reflect on your emotions after performing euthanasia. Please don’t bottle them up.

One thing you will benefit from is exercise. This will give you the space and time to consider things in a mindful way, as opposed to wallowing in a self-loathing state. Taking exercise also means you will be way less likely to run to emotional crutches like drugs and alcohol – unhealthy habits that merely mask emotions. 

You may also wish to write your emotions down. This is a great method of release whilst tackling your feelings head on. Also, don’t hesitate to discuss your emotions with a mentor. They too will have been through euthanasia and can give you emotional support and techniques. Indeed, as you become more experienced, euthanasia by no means becomes easier. If you feel like you have become numb to the procedure, this is the sign of a deeper issue. It means you are storing your emotions as baggage and not reflecting on them properly.

The VetX community exists because we recognise that support is needed for veterinarians. If you benefited from this article, you may be interested in our Thrive program, where veterinarians learn the essential non-clinical skills to be successful and, most importantly, happy in their career.

Access a FREE taster of the Thrive programme here.

This post is based on an excerpt from Chapter 2, So You’re a Vet…Now What? by Dr Dave Nicol. The full book can be purchased on the drdavenicol website here: https://www.drdavenicol.com/so-youre-a-vet

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