People often ask me how I can “be a vet” and save lives on the one hand, and euthanize animals on the other. The truth is, oddly, that the best and worst parts of my job surround the end of a pet’s life.
On the one hand, it’s a heartbreaking time. Any time a life ends, there is sadness. If the pet was well loved and will be missed beyond words, I feel bad for the owners and the grief they are going through. I’ve been there many times myself, and I know how it feels not only to lose a dear friend and family member, but to have to make the decision to end that life. The sense of loss and emptiness is overwhelming.
Sad in a different way are the times when pet is alone and without family to hold him and comfort him at the end. Although I really do understand why this happens and why people cannot stay with their pets, the animal’s aloneness carries a poignancy that is heartbreaking. My staff and I try to stand in for the people who can’t be there, and make the process as peaceful as we can, but we are not mom and dad, and it’s not the same. This makes me feel as though we have failed that pet in some way, small as it is.
Hardest of all is ending the life of an animal that I have come to love myself, in the less-than-parent but much-more-than-a-stranger way that vets do. These are pets that I first met as kittens and puppies, watched grow through the silly youngster years and develop into diverse and interesting adults with their own quirks and personalities, and then age and gradually decline in their senior years. These pets have added to my enjoyment of life, made me smile and laugh, given me experience that I can use to help other pets, and allowed me to get to know their owners and their families. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, too.
Despite the pervasive sadness surrounding the death of a pet, there is also an incredible sense of responsibility and gratitude. I am very grateful that we have the option of euthanasia for pets. (Whether this is a good idea when it comes to people is a discussion I am not interested in getting into.) I have seen animal die naturally, and it generally isn’t like Hollywood, or what we all wish would happen (peacefully dying in their sleep). Nature can be cruel, and “dying naturally” can mean “with unnecessary distress”.
Euthanasia allows us to end pain and distress that we can’t otherwise relieve, and allows us to step in before our beloved pets reach the point of suffering. It is a sign of the degree of love we have for our pets that we are willing to accept the emotional pain of this loss so that they do not have to endure the physical suffering of their infirmity. As a veterinarian I am glad to be able to let a pet go peacefully into death, and free him from the distresses of the moment. It’s the final, greatest good I can do for him. That’s what makes the whole thing tolerable.
In a way, it’s good that this process is so upsetting and sad; if we ever find it easy, it means that we don’t have a real sense of connection with our pets. That would be a bigger tragedy.