Everyone gets excited about a new life.
I always jump at the opportunity to perform planned C-sections.
There is nothing better than the pride, awe, and joy in being able to introduce a new baby.
To the smells and sounds of life.
The fun continues when I’m able to meet the anxious new ‘grandpaw-rents’ (the pet owners).
And share with them just how many new lives were brought into the world.
I get to watch their anxieties melt away as their faces light up with excitement.
Everyone is happy.
This is the fun and easy part of veterinary medicine.
Unfortunately, my profession is one of few where I not only get to experience the start of a new life.
But more often, the end of a life once lived.
C-sections are uncommon, and while puppy and kitten exams are plentiful, they are easily overshadowed by the much more emotional experience of leading a pet from this life into the next.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I changed my mind because I couldn’t handle the death.”
I hear the above sentiment all the time.
Being a veterinarian does mean having to experience some very difficult things.
That’s the reason why TIME Magazine, the Washington Post, and NPR have all published articles about the high suicide rate within the veterinary profession.
Humanely euthanizing a beloved pet is never easy.
In fact, some seasoned veterinarians may find themselves ending the lives of those that they helped to start in the first place.
When it’s my job to do it, I not only feel sadness for the lives that are ending, but also for their family members.
As a pet owner myself, I know all too well that losing a pet can hurt just as much as losing another human.
How do we know it’s time?
Keeping an open dialogue is helpful in case there are any tests or treatments that can help.
I may also suggest what to look for to determine when that right time is.
However, unless it’s an acute illness (think situations of severe traumatic injury or illness), pet owners are usually best at determining when this time is themselves.
After all, you know your own beloved pet best.
When in doubt, however, it’s usually more humane to perform euthanasia a little early than too late — this saves your pet from needless suffering.
Keeping a journal at home is a good way to understand whether a pet is still experiencing a good quality of life.
Where you can write down everything your pet liked to do in their prime, such as eat, sleep, look out the window, chase a ball, bark at squirrels, etc…
Every day that your pet is able to do those things, a box should be checked next to the activity.
Every day that your pet is unable to do those things, the box should remain empty.
When it seems like there are more bad days — days that the boxes are empty — than good days, then it is likely time.
Why do I humanely euthanize?
Humane euthanasia is recommended when the alternative, natural death, is expected to be a painful process.
Certain illnesses are known to cause more pain than others.
Furthermore, with planned euthanasia, you can make sure that your pet does not have to walk across the rainbow bridge alone.
The process itself may vary slightly from hospital to hospital and veterinarian to veterinarian, but most have adopted a similar method for performing humane euthanasia.
This is what I usually say to prepare pet owners:
You’re welcome to stay with your pet during the entire process.
And you’re welcome to stay as long as you would like afterward.
First, I will place a catheter in one of your pet’s legs.
A catheter is a plastic tube that goes into the veins.
I place this so that I can deliver the necessary medications as quickly and painlessly as possible.
When you tell me that you are as ready as you can possibly be, I will come back with three syringes in my pocket.
The first syringe will just be filled with a saline solution.
I use this to confirm that the catheter is still in place.
The second syringe will be filled with either a pain reliever, a sedative medication, or both, which will remove any pain or anxiety your pet may be feeling.
I give your pet a little time to feel this second medication before I give the last medication.
The last syringe is filled with a very strong sedative that flows from your pet’s veins to the heart, slowly bringing it to a stop.
When I give this one, it takes effect very quickly, usually between five seconds to just a few minutes.
Your pet may sigh or release his or her bowels, but that is just the body’s way of letting go.
The body may continue to twitch occasionally afterward, but that is just its way of firing off any remaining energy.
There is no pain.
The entire procedure is actually very peaceful and almost looks like falling into a deep sleep.
Unfortunately, his or her eyes will not close completely, as that is usually only something we see in the movies.
You are free to hold, touch, and speak to your pet the entire time. It helps them to know that you are there with them.
When it’s time
At every step of the way, I explain exactly what it is that we are giving the pet so that you don’t need to guess what is happening.
After confirming that the heart has stopped, I give you time alone—one final time to hug, hold, and cry with your baby.
Having performed at least one euthanasia every week over the past few years.
I may outwardly appear professional, composed, and held together. In reality, I am holding back tears that I will only let out in private.
No matter how many pets I help across the rainbow bridge, it will never become easier.
I can only take solace in the fact that the pet is no longer suffering.
Nobody wants to lay a pet to rest, but at the same time, nobody wants to watch a pet suffer.
Humane euthanasia can be a very controversial topic as some may believe that euthanasia brings harm.
As a veterinarian, I have sworn to the ‘Veterinarian’s Oath’, which states that I must do everything I can to prevent and relieve animal suffering.
In the United States and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), this has generally been understood to mean acceptance of euthanasia under humane conditions.
For more details, please refer to the full AVMA guidelines for 2020
Dr. Deb, she is a dog and cat Veterinarian, avid traveler, and foodie.