One of the things I hear most frequently from pet owners is “I could never be a veterinarian because I could never put an animal down.”. They are not totally wrong because it is one of the most difficult parts of my job but it is not the worst part of my job. Each pet I put down, takes a little piece of my heart with them. I often wonder how did I get so lucky to be a fur mom? I mean dogs are THE best. I don’t think we deserve their love. Sometimes I put myself in the owner’s shoes and think about when I will have to make that end of life decision for my own personal pets. I tear up just thinking about it and can’t imagine a life without them. I only hope I am strong enough to make that decision when the time comes. I then wonder, will I push the plunger or will I have a colleague do it? This is what I think about late at night while I’m trying to fall asleep.
I get the pleasure of seeing pets through all life stages. I often laugh with clients when they are bringing in their puppies and compare it to having an infant. Although super cute and cuddly, at the end of the day, I get my fix at work and then get to return them back to the owners. Let’s be honest, raising a puppy is tough work! But puppy breath is THE best…
I wish owners realized how invested we become in their pets. We see the puppy through their booster immunizations roughly every month for 4 months. You may not even realize how much your pup is growing because you see them daily, but I do. We then get to see them again for their spay or neuter, annual wellness appointments and all the “sick” appointments in between. Some pets live a relatively healthy life and only come in once a year, then you have those pets that are coming in every couple of weeks. And then, we see those pets through their very last appointments, the euthanasia.
I’ve euthanized pets of all ages and stages in their life. My job as a veterinarian is to be a voice for the pet. My job is to make it clear to owners when their pet’s quality of life is no longer great. And boy, is it hard. Can you imagine having to deliver the news that their pet has terminal cancer that has now spread to the chest? That their pet has a giant tumor on their spleen that is due to rupture at any second? That their pet is not an ideal candidate for surgery for a 5th foreign body removal but we have to do it anyway? That their brand new puppy now has parvovirus? These are all conversations I have on a day to day basis.
I’m often stuck in this limbo of having to be a professional and hold it together for the client, yet at the same time, my heart is breaking in a million pieces. I have to pick who I can cry in front of and those that I save the tears for my car. These clients need me during one of the most difficult times of their lives. They don’t need me having a breakdown, instead, they need to see someone compassionate, firm and confident that this is the right decision for their pet. If they see me having a breakdown, then they get second thoughts. Nothing is worse when you’re a pet owner and you’re conflicting with yourself if this is the right time. It is a mentally exhausting roller coaster. If you’re thinking about it deep in the back of your mind, it is probably time.
There are a lot of reasons why I don’t always cry during euthanasias. Most of the time, that pet genuinely needs it. I have the dog looking at me- grey in the face, walking stiff-legged, breathing heavily. I just know looking in their eyes that it is time. Those are the “easy” ones. I know I’m giving them a special gift, a peaceful death. They no longer have to walk around in pain anymore. Then, I have those unexpected diagnoses that the owners were not prepared for. Just because I do not cry, doesn’t mean I don’t care. In fact, I care so much for your pet and this final moment you get to spend with them, that I do everything I can to hold it together.
I’ve done euthanasias through facetime, in the back of a car, on the floor of an exam room, on the table in surgery and in the treatment area in the back of the hospital. The hardest euthanasia for me, are the ones where the owners leave. Everyone handles grief differently. I understand that it can be traumatizing for some people to watch their pet take their last breath so do not get upset when I say the following. If I can offer one piece of advice, please stay for the first part. Euthanasia is a two injection process, the first is for sedation while the second is the euthanasia solution. I want your face to be the last thing the pet sees before they drift off to sleep. Your face gives the pet comfort, not mine. Your face triggers all the happy memories you’ve shared together. I don’t want those last moments to be fear, surrounded by people the pet doesn’t know. They deserve to be with their loved ones. Pets are the best because they’ve been there through all our ups and downs of our everyday lives. They’ve been there for our first heartbreaks, our first job promotions, moving across the country and everything in between. Animals are so selfless, loyal and have so much love to give. Although difficult, be there for them when they need you the most. But again, I also understand if you can’t be present.
I have to believe that we get to see all our pets again. That they are running around somewhere with unlimited treats and squeaky balls, waiting for us. That they live in a world without pain or fear and miss us just as much as we miss them. All dogs have to go to heaven.