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Euthanasia, A Vet’s Perspective (Part One)

With few exceptions, most people become veterinarians because they love animals. That certainly was true in my case. I was five years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a vet. I have lived with at least one dog since I was an infant. Under no circumstances could I imagine my life without a dog. 

Like most of you, my dogs, cats and horses are members of my family. They are immensely important to me, and when I lose one, it is devastating. I have a perspective on euthanasia that exists on both sides of the exam table… as an owner and as a veterinarian.

Currently, I work very part-time. The full-time vet employed at the clinic where I work is about half my age. He spent a couple of years in an ER setting, pulling some animals back from the brink of death. We have different perspectives, I think, about what constitutes “quality of life”. 

Recently, he left me a note about a patient coming in on his day off. The note included treatment recommendations. When I saw the client and the dog, I immediately had a different opinion about what could and should be done for this dog. The client was a total sweetheart. She and her husband loved this dog immensely. In their effort not to make a decision “too soon” or “for the wrong reasons”, they were struggling with figuring out, “When is the right time?”

I observed a very debilitated dog. She appeared to be in significant pain from severe osteoarthritis. We were already prescribing medications to hopefully alleviate some of her pain. I questioned the dog’s ability to squat to urinate or defecate. Clearly, the pup’s ability to be active, pain-free, and happy was severely compromised. However, she was still eating, and that factor often drives an owner’s perspective of just how bad it really is.

Assessing quality of life

I gently approached the topic of assessing quality of life. Immediately, her owner’s eyes filled with tears, and she asked, “What would you do if she were your dog?” I replied that I, personally, have a very tough time seeing my beloved animals so compromised. 

Additionally, I stated that if anything, I tend to err on the side of potentially “too soon” rather than “too late”. In other words, I might make a decision for my own animals that, in theory, “robs” them of some “good” days. But when I make that call, I do it because I know that my animals really struggle on their increasingly common bad days.

What constitutes a “good day” anyway? On their best day, are they in pain? Are they sleeping all day? Or are they struggling to get up on painful legs so they can follow you from room to room like they used to do? If they can no longer follow you around, is that a good day?

Recently, a client called the clinic first thing in the morning and requested the ability to drop off their old dog for some treatment that would “get him through Thanksgiving”. About the best thing we could offer was to run some fluids, as I have no magic cures. 

Euthanasia, a very tough decision

When I first went to examine the tiny 5-pound Yorkie, I found him circling in the cage. He was blind from cataracts, thin as a rail, and very disoriented. We ran some Sub-Q fluids, but immediately following his treatment I called his mom. After a brief discussion about how little I had to offer, she said she would call her husband and they would discuss what to do. Soon after, she called and scheduled a visit a couple of hours later, for euthanasia.

I totally understood her hope that he would make it through a holiday. The holidays are about family, and our pets are family. But he was in bad shape. By the time she arrived two hours later, he was lying on his side and virtually comatose. He crossed the Rainbow Bridge peacefully.

It will take several blogs to fully explain my thoughts on this topic. In future installments, I will discuss handouts and resources I provide my clients to help them make an informed decision.

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7 thoughts on “Euthanasia, A Vet’s Perspective (Part One)”

  1. Thank you for sharing this difficult kind of information. I am at an age where I can now agree to err on too early, rather than too late. Physical suffering, trumps everything else. I just pray, there will be options for us when we are reaching final days.

    1. It doesn’t seem right that we can help relieve our beloved pet family but not be allowed that same dignity.

      1. Obviously, I have a perspective more unique than most since I have put animals to sleep. But humans, that’s a sticky wicket. I don’t necessarily disagree with you but I haven’t a clue how that would be regulated, monitored, whatever. Humans are far too complex in their relationships and decisions for that to unfold the same way it does when we humans make decisions for our more concrete thinking pets.

  2. Its 1 of the toughest things you have to do for your fur babies, i had to put down my horses and dogs in my life time. I do take it seriously at what is best for my babies. And i am always there with them holding and talking to them. While im balling my eyes out
    All my fur babies i have had at young ages and you know when its time. Thats way i dont understand these people who give up there pets just because their moving or new baby new job. Whatever i dont know how they can just get rid of them

  3. Your pet will let you know when it is time. The kindest and most compassionate thing we can do for our pets is to take away their pain, when they give us “that look”. We should always keep in mind what is best for the pet, and not make them stay alive just for us.

  4. Mary Jean Caldwell

    Thank you for sharing this. Right now we are facing this difficult decision. Will look forward to the next part.

  5. My experience with this subject is horses. Starting about 1995 with my best girl Pepper.. I have had few day old die in my arms on my living room floor. On June14, 2010 I had to put my best girl down. She had the worst founder the vet seen that year from green onions. I did all I was told to do for 2.5 months. I had to watch this mare loose from a massive 1,200 pounds to about 950 in no time. I saw her sides concave every time she tried to and did stand while using pain meds.
    I went to her vet to get more meds, and I asked him what am I to expect? Is she going to get better? Am I ever going to get to ride her again? Pepper and I were gone every weekend camping an thats not to mention riding at home weekdays. My world imploded when he answered me as we walked to the clinic from a stud neuter he was doing. He said, Sharon, I just figured she would have laid down and died! Well I left there devasted that he knew that night at one oclock in the morning when we were working on her feet that he knew then that my girl would never be sound again. So I had to leave there with that knowledge. I went home and laid with her. I loved her and watched her how she was suffering. Friends that would camp and ride with us visited and we took pictures and remembered what a best friend she was. I had are hard time but I made the decision to end her suffering. I knew the pain meds would or could eventually ruin her stomach lining, her quality of life, and the fact that the other horses either ignored her or attacked her. Law of the land. dont hang with the sick. . I never cried and wailed like that before or since. For all that day I knew it was coming but for three hours that evening waiting on the vet to get there and the backhoe was there and me knowing what was gooing to be the eRiond result..
    It has been over 12 years now and I still have to stop typing to wipe the tears out of my eyes for Pepper. She gets flowers on her grave. I get to mow over her and talk to her. sometimes I put up my tiki torches on her death day and camp with her..
    I have had to put a gelding down in 2018 due to aspirated pnuemonia that kept happening. Was hard but not like my girl.
    I have her daddy here that is 24 and he has empysema which I control when its bad with steroid pills. I may have another decision. sometimes when he is bad I want to do it my self but then he loves on me and I just can not let him go yet. Lucky is my best boy. He was born her. His daughter and son are here. Pepper was the momma. Sweet Pea is 21 years old and her brother Spirit is 19 years old now. I had a family of horses. Just like a human family, mom, dad, bubby and sissy. Mom has passed, may be dad next. Family.
    I am their steward. Pepper was not born her but I did get her when she was 15 months old. Lucky, Sweet Pea and Spirit were born here because of me. I am their caretaker till death.

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