Veterinary life is not glamorous and rarely involves playing with cute puppies and kittens – no, it can be tough and emotionally draining at times. I definitely enjoy the high that comes with helping a very sick or injured animal return to good health, the challenges of fixing the trauma and saving those close to dying. But sometimes I need to end the suffering of a patient and while this is accepted as part of the job, it is not an easy part of the job. There really is no euthanasia debate in the veterinary profession in Australia, but that does not always make it right.
Euthanasia is a very difficult decision for pet owners to make. Saying goodbye to a pet who has provided a tonne of love, emotional support and friendship to their human companions is extremely tough. Our job is to make this time a little less traumatic, try to make it as easy and comfortable for all concerned and provide a supportive and caring ear for those who wish to tell the last stories of their beloved companion.
Euthanasia impacts on all concerned including the vets and technicians involved, who do what they can to help ease the final moments. In emergency practice, we don’t tend to have the close relationship with our patients that general practitioners may, but that is not to say we are less affected by performing the task of ending a life. Emergencies are often animals that are more severely injured, suffering from more advanced illnesses or more acutely serious illnesses, or pets whose owners were trying to get through the weekend to see their vet but just can’t hold on any longer. Emergencies are often more financially prohibitive to treat in some cases and in others, the end point is not clear and the outcome uncertain. So tough decisions need to be made and in many cases, a range of unexpected emotions are felt by owners who are suddenly facing responsibility for their pet’s fate.
There are times when our heart goes out to the financially strapped owner who just cannot afford a lifesaving procedure for their pet. While we try our best to work around finances and offer alternatives that may be acceptable and humane, it is not always possible. A bloat, for example, needs to have surgery ASAP, and is several thousands of dollars of unexpected expenditure for the owner. Having pet insurance can sometimes help in these circumstances, so of course we urge owners to consider insurance or at least a high interest savings account for their pet’s health. Euthanasing a patient with a treatable condition is sometimes difficult for us to accept. On the flip side, there are times when we feel humane euthanasia may be the kindest option for the patient. Counselling owners to ensure the right decision is made for both the patient and owner is not something we take lightly.
There are days when the job can be frustrating and sad, and I think this is an important point for those who are keen to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. I will never forget one Christmas morning I worked that was extremely busy. Three of my first four consultations that morning were put to sleep and I was ready to give it all up there and then. It is well known in our industry that many pet owners will try to get their beloved through Christmas before saying goodbye, but in some instances this is not possible. However, this particular morning, all of the euthanasias I performed were for horrible, traumatic and very unexpected issues – a dog caught under a boat propeller, nearly drowned and badly wounded; a dog who had been found hanging by a hind leg in a fence during a storm for a couple of hours, suffering badly from the struggle; and the third was a dog missing for two days and found trapped in a drain with severe spinal trauma. All of these cases could have potentially been treated but at great expense with guarded to poor outcomes, but the decision is not always based on finances.
Spare a thought for those of us who have spent time working in animal shelters where euthanasia policies have been in place. As a new graduate I spent a soul destroying day euthanasing stray cats and kittens at a shelter. There are some days we never forget.
It’s days like these that lead to compassion fatigue amongst vets, and may be why some vets appear to have a less caring attitude than others. Compassion fatigue is a real condition, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder, and is quite common among caregivers, nurses and veterinarians, amongst others. A survey of medical physicians showed that 54% felt that at least one time in their career they’d had nothing left to give even after a restful weekend off duty. For further information on compassion fatigue, I found a really interesting article at: http://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html. Unfortunately, suicide rates amongst vets are amongst the highest of any profession and I am sure compassion fatigue contributes to these rates. The veterinary profession tries to put support structures in place to help but those heading down those paths don’t always seek support.
The hope lies in remembering the reasons why we are performing this duty. In the majority of cases, it is a kind and humane way to end the suffering of the poor creatures we see with advanced injuries and illnesses. Sometimes, I do feel there is a relief for the owners and the pet, an end to the emotional distress and an end to the needles, procedures and nauseating medications. And maybe they are out there and running over the rainbow bridge, chasing other pets, chasing their tails and finding their loved ones and peace on the other side.