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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When The End Comes

Unfortunately, one of the most critically-important things veterinary teams do is end the lives of suffering pets. I guess it goes without saying that we all hate that part of our jobs. Ironically, it often creates a lasting bond between us and the family who is losing their pet. I think this is because there is sincere grief and empathy on our part for the passing of one of God's valued creatures. People appreciate that we are grieving right along with them, and this helps to affirm that losing a pet can be incredibly painful. Our society is much more accepting of the bond between pets and people than it used to be. Still, some of us are ashamed to let others know just how much we love our furry family members. I have had people tell me that their human family members ridicule them for the love and attention they give and get from their dogs or cats. The decision to euthanize one's pet is often surrounded by guilt. We can feel like we're "killing" a family member. Most people want their veterinarian to tell them how to know when "it's time." Unfortunately, there is no black-and-white criteria for making this decision, and this makes the decision even more difficult. Most of us hope in vain that our pet will simply pass in their sleep. I usually tell people that "it's time" when the pet has suffering that can't be relieved, or the pet is causing significant quality of life issues for the owner which can't be alleviated. The pet's suffering is usually in the form of pain (old dogs with end-stage arthritis, cancer, or back disease), but can also be caused by a variety of medical symptoms (dimentia, wasting, seizures, respiratory compromise, etc...) The client may have significantly-compromised quality of life if a pet can no longer control their bladder or bowels, or a large pet that can't move without assistance, or a serious medical condition which is beyond the financial means of the owner. The knowledge that euthanasia is truly painless gives me comfort. As far as the pet is concerned, it is just another trip to the vet - they do not have the same anticipation (and anxiety) as the owner, who knows what's going to happen. So the mental anguish that we feel is blessedly absent for the patient, which along with the painlessness of the procedure makes it much better for the pet than the owner. When we built our new facility, we made a room especially for euthanasias. It has a comfortable couch, a rug, soft lighting, and window treatments. The fact is, these things are mostly for the benefit of the family. As a veterinarian, I envy the fact that we can painlessly end the suffering of patients who are beyond medical hope. Animals give us their best for the duration of their lives. They ask very little in return. Like all of us, they reach a point where quality of life is irreversibly compromised. Why should they continue to suffer when we can offer them something better?

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