Reading time: 5 min. 30 sec.
Audience: pet owners, animal lovers, veterinarians, veterinary nurses/technicians
When most people think of Christmas, they think of trees with ornaments, string lights, and boxes with bows. Stores play songs with lyrics like “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Christmas is a sad time of the year for veterinarians and their support staff. The number of euthanasias goes up the month leading to and after Christmas.
Before Christmas, people are busy shopping and preparing for guests or for travel to see friends and family. Some pet owners want to say goodbye to their terminally ill or geriatric pets before Christmas. Others want to spend one more Christmas with their pets. Either way, deciding when to say goodbye to a pet is one of the most difficult decisions a pet owner has to make.
Euthanasia is from Greek: εὐθανασία; “good death”: εὖ, eu; “well” or “good” – θάνατος, thanatos; “death”. When people I meet find out that I am a veterinarian, they often ask me how I do it. (It is not uncommon for animal-loving people to want to be veterinarians when they are young… until they find out that veterinarians have to put animals down.) My answer is: I would rather the animal not suffer.
The veterinary oath: As a member of the veterinary medical profession, I solemnly swear that I will use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society. I will strive to promote animal health and welfare, relieve animal suffering, protect the health of the public and environment, and advance comparative medical knowledge.
For more information on the history of animal euthanasia, visit https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-animal-euthanasia#id-2.
“Dogs do not have many advantages over people, but one of them is extremely important: euthanasia is not forbidden by law* in their case; animals have the right to a merciful death.”
*Unless they live in a liberal country (Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Canada, etc.) or state (Washington, Oregon, California, etc.)
I remember the very first animal that I euthanized: a pigeon that was part of study when I was a veterinary student. The attending veterinarian instructed me to give the injection and walked out of the room, leaving me with the pigeon. My heart was beating out of my chest as I gave the injection. I have a soft spot for pigeons. They have personalities and an internal compass that allows them to find their home even when they are miles away.
Since then, I have put down many more animals: fish, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs. One dog wagged his tail as I gave him the final injection. A cat regurgitated all over her owner’s shoes after I gave the final injection. Lots of tears: silent tears collecting on people’s eyeglass frames or loud sobbing, young or old, female or male…
As a veterinarian, I have seen many grown men cry. Sadly, the vet’s office is one of the few places where it is socially acceptable for grown men to cry. One of my former co-workers thinks that men cry about other things too when they are there, not just the death of their pets.
I’m pretty good at keeping it together
I hold my composure, for worse or for better
So I apologize if you don’t like what you see
But sometimes my emotions get the best of me
And falling apart is as human as it gets
You can’t hide it, you can’t fight what the truth is ―Cry Pretty by Carrie Underwood
The only euthanasia appointment that I ever had with a smiling man confused me. He said that he was honored to take care of his aging dog. After the appointment, the veterinary technician or nurse who helped me complimented me for being able to keep a straight face or to remain professional during the appointment.
I cannot hug people or promise them that everything will be okay. All I can do is offer them Kleenex and my condolences. It is really sad…
I may not be a religious person, but I wish there were a place that animals could go after they die where they are young, healthy, and happy again: whether it is heaven or the Land of the Dead like in the 2017 Disney • PIXAR animated movie, Coco.
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For ever if I’m far away
I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you
Each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you
The only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
―Remember Me, the soundtrack of Coco
Once in a while, people sing or play music when they say goodbye to their pets. I wish I remembered the name of the songs. There were times when I wished there was music playing so that their weeping did not echo throughout the clinic with thin walls. It is better to weep and grieve than to hold it in though.
One of the hardest euthanasias that I ever had to do involved a young child whose cat was hit by a car. The cat dragged itself home with broken bones. In an attempt to placate the child, the parents promised him another cat which only made the child cry even louder. “I do not want another cat. I want this one.”
After work, I was exhausted. Here are some things that I did to help myself relax:
- Read something unrelated to animals or pets. After work, I do not read veterinary journals. I read books about animals when I am on holiday away from my pets and patients. The brain needs breaks just like muscles need rest. Stress damages neurons in the brain and inhibits nerve growth (neurogenesis) in the brain.**
- Listen to music. You will notice that even though this is a pet/friendship blog, I include song lyrics in my blog posts.
“Whether a person is spiritual or not, we all seek to get away from the stress, anger, and anxiety of everyday life. Some people drink, do drugs, or do worse to escape, and they hurt themselves in the process. Some people listen to music, mine included, and feel better.” ―Yanni, Greek musician
- Bath with aromatherapy Epsom salts (with my cat sitting next to the tub)
If you do not have a bathtub or prefer showers, aromatherapy shower bombs are a good substitute.
- Cuddling my cat Boo – It will be a very sad day for me when he is gone. I keep a list of all the memorable sweet and laugh-out-loud moments with my cat: the time he went up to a balloon dog and sniffed its nose as if it were a real animal; the time he got his head stuck in a box of Christmas cards, so it looked like he was wearing a rectangular cardboard collar; the time he stole a big ball of hairbands from my bathroom drawer, carrying it in his mouth…
I have had people tell me that they do not want to get another pet again after having to say goodbye to a pet. It is like saying that you do want to make another friend after a friend passes away. Give it time. All the happy moments when the pet/friend was alive make the end, the grief worth it.
What was the hardest euthanasia that you had to do or be a part of? How did you take care of yourself afterward? 🐾
**Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):445-61. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/