My First Euthanasias Weren’t the Best, and That’s OK

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If you’ve spent enough time with me, you’ve likely heard about my first few euthanasia experiences, and how they weren’t my best. Compassionate yes, but technically challenging for me. My stories include such things as hard-to-find veins, not allowing a client to be in the room due to my inadequacies, a vomiting dog, diarrhea on the client’s lap, and too much crying (by me). These were not my proudest professional moments, but I kept at it and didn’t give up on the goal of lovely (dare I say perfect) euthanasia appointments. When you know better, you do better. My clients were grateful for my help and I suppose it’s what kept me going through those early learning days. 

Each of those early euthanasia appointments taught me something. All I had to do was listen and watch for the opportunity to do it better the next time. One of my first appointments as a private practitioner was right out of vet school. Beyond my nerves preparing to euthanize a little bichon frise, I was also very sad. I’d just gone through the loss of my own dog, a labrador named McKenzie, about 2 months earlier. This little dog’s owner was softly crying, a man whom I’d never met before. In my nervousness and own grief, I broke down crying too. We became quite the pair together. This was 20 years ago and I still remember it. I also remember how the little dog let loose a wave of diarrhea on the man’s lap without any towel or potty pad for protection. You don’t forget something like that either. The lessons learned? It’s ok to cry—just not harder than the client—and always get something absorbent under the pet for their passing. Diarrhea was not on the list of ailments for this dog, but there it was nonetheless. First euthanasia as a veterinarian complete.

Another tricky one occurred when I gave too much sedation to a very sick dog. I’d made the mistake of drawing up my drugs ahead of time, assuming the dog weighed what the owner thought. I gave a dose meant for a dog 20 pounds heavier. For some drugs, this wouldn’t have mattered, but it was xylazine, a drug notorious for causing vomiting. This poor boy felt miserable while clearing out his stomach on the exam room floor. The lesson learned here is to wait and see your patient before drawing up the drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) likes this, too.

For my first and second home euthanasia appointments, I was by myself without a veterinary technician to help. I was nervous about finding a vein to give the pentobarbital euthanasia solution so I opted to anesthetize them first, then use the intracardiac euthanasia method. I’m still proud of myself for knowing this technique was an option, but where I failed was insisting the owner leave the room. Recently we’ve learned how important it is to allow owners to be there as their pet dies and avoid separating them unless their safety is at risk (1). These days, I have to trust in my skill to deliver a peaceful death and allow all loved ones to remain present.

The common thread, between my earliest euthanasias and some of the challenging ones that came later in my career, is that compassion is king. My skills have evolved over the years, making me more confident and as a result, even more compassionate. It’s a beautiful thing when the medical skills become as familiar as breathing. The brain is allowed to focus on the other aspects of euthanasia like the human-animal bond, the emotions, and the significance of the loss. My best appointments are those where I can give equal attention to the client’s needs as well as my patient’s. I’m grateful for those early days of my euthanasia work and how they’ve led me to where I am today. I’m a better veterinarian because of them.

Worried about challenging euthanasia appointments and want to prevent them from becoming dysthanasias? Keep learning as much as you can about all aspects of the procedure, especially the technical parts, and your confidence will grow organically. Here at the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA), we are industry-leading professionals skilled in both the hospital and mobile settings. 

References

  1. Cooney, K., Kogan, L. “How Pet Owners Define a ‘Good Death’: New Study Reveals Some Surprising Facts.” DVM360 magazine 2022. 53.8: 12
  2. Cooney, K. Dysthanasia; A new meaning to a relatively new word. https://www.dvm360.com/view/dysthanasia-a-newer-meaning-to-a-relatively-new-word. 2020

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy