In Diaries of a Veterinarian, my human mom, Dr. Dunn, discusses life as a vet, gives vet tips, and discusses all things vet related as a guest on my blog.
I look into your eyes. Your fur is no longer shiny, your muscles are weak and atrophied. You have lost a significant amount of weight. And yet in your eyes I can see the trust you have for your human companion. The bond you share is strong.
And as I look into your eyes I know that it is going to be me. I am about to take your life. I wasn’t the one who fed you and loved you daily, who cared for you during your final days, who made the final decision. But I am the one who is going to kill you. And even though you may welcome the relief, the burden of the act weighs heavily on my soul.
“I could never do what you do.” “I’m so sorry you have to do this.” “I know this has to be the worst part of your job.”
Those are actual statements frequently made to me by clients in a room as I am performing the euthanasia of their cherished companion. It never ceases to amaze me that during their darkest hour, so many people are trying to comfort me. Euthanasia is such a normal part of my life that I guess it never occurred to me that very few people will ever know what it’s like to actually look at an animal and know that your job is to end its life. Even the techs and assistants (although a vital part of the process) don’t have to be responsible for taking that life with their own hands.
So how does it affect veterinarians? Do we ever become numb to the process?
I will never forget my first time to intentionally kill an animal. I was in vet school on the ICU rotation. It was early one morning after a long and busy night shift. The students and interns were filtering in to check on their patients. I was so glad to be going home. And then it happened.
“Koda’s owners have decided to put him down,” the intern informed me. I don’t remember why the fuzzy little dog was there in ICU, but I do remember taking his vitals all night as he lay comatose thinking he really wasn’t going to get better. “So, have you ever euthanized before, Megan?”
I was about to go for the day. This really caught me off guard. I didn’t even really have time to process it. The intern continued, “As a student they encouraged me to perform euthanasia every chance I got, so I would understand and be prepared for when I had to do it.” This made sense, but I was not excited. But, like all things in vet school, I just smiled confidently like I had it all under control.
The process was extremely simple. The owner didn’t want to be there. The animal didn’t need a tranquilizer as he was already comatose. He had an IV catheter in place. All I had to do was inject the thick, pink fluid into the catheter. I looked at his face, his breathing, thinking he was alive right at that moment, and I was about to stop his heart, his breathing, and take his life from him forever. I only paused for a second because I knew that even though this was best for him, I would back out if I thought too much. Then I injected. The euthanasia solution was much thicker and slower than I expected. It was almost like pulling up bright pink honey and injecting it into a tiny vein.
Koda’s breathing stopped suddenly. No jerking, no after reflexes. Just like that, he was gone. And I moved on, somehow feeling like I had just crossed a major threshold.
Every clinic has a different protocol for euthanasia. Most sedate, some don’t. Some people place IV catheters. Some have separate euthanasia rooms.
At our clinic emergencies get top priority and euthanasias are a close second. When someone comes in, whether they had an appointment or not, we make room for them quickly. The receptionist takes the owner into a room and has them sign the authorization form. They discuss details of if the owner wants to be present, options for the body (take home, public cremation, or private cremation), and they try to get the payment out of the way so that we can focus on the unpleasant task at hand.
Then the door closes. The back of a vet hospital is usually a noisy place. Machines are running, dogs are barking, music is softly playing in the background, and we are all chatting either about a case or our own pets or the latest episode of The Bachelor (don’t blame me – it happens!). But when that door closes we put up a sign with angel wings and the letter E. That means be quiet and respectful.
The receptionist tells me who it is, if they want to stay, and what to do with the body after. Even after doing it so many times, my heart still sinks. I never know what to expect. It is very different every time. Some people I’ve never met before, some I’ve known since they brought their dog in for a first puppy visit. Some are a surprise, some I have known were coming for a while.
What makes every situation very different are the owners and their response to what is happening. The worst and most depressing to me are the people who act like they don’t really care. “Oh, it’s just a cat. They get dropped off at our house all the time.” Some people are so distraught that they literally fall over and weep over the body, unable to stand. Most people are somewhere in the middle.
Before I pull up any drugs I enter the room, greet the owner, and get a feel for the situation. As I look at the animal, I tell the owner (honestly) of the beauty I see in their pet. I do this because so often they are sick, emaciated, and urine-soiled from chronic disease. The owner needs to know that I do, indeed, see past that to the lovely animal they share a bond with. I tell the owner, “I am so sorry you are having to go through this. I can see how much you love her.”
Then I explain the process to the owner. Some people think they want to leave. I encourage staying at least until the animal falls asleep. It is heartbreaking to watch the owner walk out of the room while their old dog pulls and tries to follow, knowing they will never see them again. I can barely stand it, truthfully. The sedative is so easy. If the owner chooses to leave after that the animal won’t know the difference.
After the owner makes their wishes known, I leave the room and pull up the sedative. I always give a slightly larger dose than normal. Sometimes animals don’t get sleepy with a regular dose, and I DO NOT want to have to go back and give more to drag out the process.
As the pet becomes drowsy, I encourage the owners to pet and talk to them, give their last bit of comfort. As the animal falls asleep I go to the back to give them “alone time”, but I am also pulling up the thick, pink solution. This is also frequently a time when I can catch up on a quick procedure in the back (cat neuter, okaying prescription refills, reviewing lab results). When I think the drugs have had time to take effect I return to check on the patient. Sometimes they (or the owner) need a few more minutes.
But the time always comes. The process can sometimes be nerve-racking for me as the veterinarian. We don’t routinely place IV’s. we just give the injection IV. This can save a stressful step for the animal and owner (and is cheaper for the owner). But that means I have to find a vein in a sedate, debilitated, often dehydrated little animal with the owner present in a very emotional state. Additionally, some people don’t know what to expect. I usually explain the process and possible reactions the animal may have.
I take a deep breath, say a silent prayer, and the technician clips the hair on the leg and rolls the vein for me. The injection takes slightly longer than some IV injections due to the thickness of the solution. If the owner seems willing, I like to engage them in sharing their memories or stories of their dear one, but each situation is different.
Often the animal simply stops breathing before I even remove the needle. I then listen to the heart and pronounce them dead. Sometimes after they will take deep “breaths”, which is actually just a diaphragmatic reflex. They may also urinate or defecate. I warn owners of these possibilities if they elect to stay. Unfortunately, nothing goes perfectly 100% of the time. Some animals are impossible to find a vein in and may take multiple attempts. Rarely, some will have ugly reactions when administered the euthanasia solution. The animal is sedated and therefore does not feel any of this. But believe me when I say that these situations are traumatizing to ALL veterinarians, and we secretly fear those situations at every euthanasia.
Every euthanasia is as different as every individual animal and owner. Sometimes it is honestly not a huge deal. It is an unfortunate and sad blip of a busy, stressful day. Sometimes it is absolutely heart-wrenching. I carry many of those with me often. It has always been difficult for me, but not until I lost my dear cats, Pinkie and Rose, (and many others since) was I truly able to empathize with the owners.
So as you look into your sweet baby’s eyes, stroke their fur one last time, and try to find the courage to let them go, just know that I am here for you. It is not an act, no fake sympathy. God gave all life, and I take it very seriously when I have to end that life. I have been there and know the unbearable heartbreak that comes with this final act of compassion.
I have killed more animals by my own hand than many people will hold in their lifetime. And I have tried to give a listening ear to their grieving human companions. But this is by no means the hardest part of my job. I am glad to be there, in some small way, at those last moments, during those sacred last heartbeats. Because I know that even when that dear pet has taken the last breath, the love remains. And that, my friends, will never die.
Note: The American Veterinary Medical Association provides a list of pet loss support lines and euthanasia support for individuals struggling with this difficult decision.
In Diaries of a Veterinarian, my mom, Dr. Dunn, discusses life as a vet, gives…