Somewhere in the world, a family brings a wonderful new puppy into their life. It’s a joyous little thing, always willing to cover people in kisses, especially the family vet. The vet gets to know the family’s puppy, who in turn gets to know that the vet isn’t so scary, so long as there are treats somewhere in the corner of the vet’s office and there’s a cuddle at the end of every appointment. As the puppy grows into adulthood, it will no doubt see this same vet throughout the years, and although the vet has dozens of other patients and may forget human faces, they will never forget this family’s dog.
And then, one day, the family brings in their beloved dog. Something is wrong. The dog is very unwell, and in pain, but it’s still lavishing its family and vet friend with kisses.
The family makes the decision to say goodbye. They can’t bear to be present when their old dog is put to sleep. But their dog still looks for them, even when its last breath fades, and sleep takes its final hold. And the vet has to watch a life pass before their eyes. A life, a living soul, that was once so joyous and loving.
But the vet has no time to cry, no time to process any of this: the next patient is waiting…
There’s absolutely no doubt that euthanasia is a terribly sad thing to experience – no matter what side of the examination table you are on. And performing this routine day in and day out has a resounding effect on veterinarians everywhere.
Dr Teagan Lever is a veterinarian from Queensland who now resides in Victoria with her two staffies, Jatz and Lando. When asked about how performing euthanasia affects a vet, she stated, “as a profession, vets need to get better at debriefing and really processing these experiences to support our own mental health. I remember vividly performing the euthanasia of a patient I had treated and seen regularly through the last eighteen months of her life, only to have to turn from that consultation room and see my next patient presenting for an ear infection. While in the short term we may be able to push grief and sadness aside to carry on with day to day work, over time it can build up and bubble to the surface, either as compassion fatigue or a complete mental breakdown.”
With this grief can come terrible consequences. Vets are four times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of a population – an alarming statistic that shows the effects of a workplace filled with stress, loss, and (at times) emotionally manipulative clients. And while for many euthanasia is perceived as the good death, vets who are euthanizing pets day after day, for myriad of reasons, may come to see that death is the answer to all of life’s troubles. Other vets will struggle with what is called compassion fatigue, also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD).
Knowing this, being kind to and respective of your vet is one of the best things you can do for them – you never know what sort of day they’ve had. It’s also worth noting that, when a vet charges for treatment, their love for a pet hasn’t gone away. Often vets are guilted in to waiving the cost of treatment or, even more extreme, paying for it themselves. They set aside their feelings for the benefit of the owner and of course, their pet.
But while the act of euthanasia can be terribly upsetting, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in a way.
“It might sound weird, but some of the most rewarding interactions I have had with clients have been helping them through the decisions and actual process involved in the end of a pet’s life,” says Dr Teagan. “Of course it is incredibly emotionally taxing and very sad too, but a planned euthanasia for a very old or unwell pet when their quality of life is declining can be a powerful experience. Sometimes I truly am humbled to be present at such a major moment in a family or individual’s life.”
“I was taught at veterinary school that the word euthanasia literally means “a good death,” and I remember taking that to heart. For me, as for most veterinarians, when we are asked to euthanise a pet – whatever the circumstances – that is the aim. From my perspective I see that ensuring a pet’s last moments are painless, peaceful and spent in the presence of loved ones is like a final gift of gratitude and expression of love.”
Even with all the emotions that come with it, Dr Teagan still sees offering euthanasia as a necessary, important and at times rewarding aspect of clinical practice.
“If we had to plan it, of course we would all want our pets to live long, happy and full lives until they peacefully passed away in their sleep at a ripe old age – but unfortunately this is not always the reality. Pet parents often ask me, “How will I know when it’s time?” or “Am I doing the right thing?” There can be a lot of guilt associated with making – or not making – the decision to euthanise a pet.”
“My answer is to look at this decision in the context of their whole lives. The time your pet has had with you, and hopefully it has been many years, has been filled with love, dedication and just the everyday shared experiences that come with being a valued family member. If your pet is now in pain and unable to enjoy the simple things in life like time spent outside in the sunshine, a tasty meal or a quiet cuddle, it may be time to start thinking about that difficult decision. In fact, you probably already are.”
To find out more about vet wellness and the fight to destigmatise seeking help at Love Your Pet, Love Your Vet. You can also follow Dr Teagan for insightful vet tips (and cute dog photos!) on Teagan’s Instagram page.