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“Have you ever had an animal die in your arms?”
In the course of my career, I've taught folks of all ages. Currently, my students are all graduate level ones, some just out of undergraduate and others coming back for another degree later in life. At other times, I've spoken to kids, from kindergarteners up to high schoolers. Over the years, I've been asked many questions, but that one – a question from a 5th grader – sticks with me after many, many years.
In that moment, all I said was, “Yes, many times,” and moved on. What could I really say about the experience to 5th graders that wouldn't have upset the kids and probably some parents? But I've thought about it a lot, so here's what I would have said if I could have.
“Yes, I've had many animals die in my arms. Well, maybe not in my arms, because they were usually on a table or maybe in the lap of the owner, but certainly it was by my hands. See, I'm the one who pushes the plunger. I'm the one who sends the euthanasia solution into the vein. It's a very surreal moment, like playing God. I always hope I'm doing it well, that the pet doesn't really feel anything when it happens, like being put under anesthesia, only it never wakes up. I hope I'm relieving the suffering. But sometimes, it doesn't feel that way for me.
“On some days, I've cried. Maybe it was an animal where I'd tried my best to make it well again, but my best wasn't good enough. At other times, it was simply a patient I'd known for a while, one with whom I'd grown close (and possibly the owner as well). I knew I would miss seeing it (and possibly the owner as well). Then there were the days where there were just so many. You see, the holidays are a notoriously bad time of year for euthanasias. They are mostly justifiable ones, for old and loved pets. But doing several in a day is just plain hard. The worst of it is the feeling that I shouldn't cry in the room. I would try to hold it in, to remain professional and do the job that needs to be done. But sometimes, I couldn't help it. The tears would come and sometimes fall, especially when listening to the heart stop.
“Sometimes I haven't really known why I was doing a euthanasia. The owner just dropped the pet off and I was told to euthanize it, the bill had already been paid. I hated those. I hated feeling like a pawn in someone else's game. Maybe there was a good reason for the euthanasia and I just didn't know what it was. Part of me wanted to go looking for that reason, but what good would it do? If I didn't find anything really wrong with the pet, then what? I would likely just feel more guilty. Because of that, I stopped allowing drop-offs for euthanasias unless the pet had been seen previously and a note was in the record indicating a terminal condition, like with hospice-type cases.
“Later, I transitioned from private practice to shelter work. While I was not the one who did the majority of the euthanasias, I did occasionally have to decide that a given animal should no longer be amongst the living because there were not enough resources to take care of it. Maybe it needed expensive diagnostics to learn the extent of its ailment, and even then, it may not be treatable. Maybe it needed medications the shelter didn't carry or couldn't administer (very few shelters can give medications properly around the clock). Maybe there simply wasn't enough staff to give the pet the nursing care it needed. Without other good and immediate options, sometimes the best we could do for the animal was to euthanize it so it wouldn't just languish in the system.
“Don't get me wrong. Much of the time, the option to end suffering through euthanasia is a gift. I won't say I ever felt good about doing a euthanasia, but there were many times when it felt right. I may not have been able to do much, but at least I could stop the pain.
“So, yes, I've had many animals die in my arms. Some have left more of a scar on my heart than others. At times, the ability to euthanize an animal has been a blessing and at other times a curse. Thank you for your question, insightful 5th grader. It will stay with me for a long time.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.