Oxytocin and Euthanasia; An important combination to get right

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Recently I have fallen in love with the love hormone oxytocin. While learning ways to establish rapport and build trust with pet owners, this ‘moral molecule’ as it’s sometimes called was just begging to be explored further.  Many of us know oxytocin as the hormone that promotes prosocial behavior such as bonding, wanting to be together, and empathy.  It’s what bonds parents to offspring and even humans to animals like our beloved pets.  Based on my research through the CAETA program, I believe oxytocin can make or break a successful euthanasia appointment so perhaps it’s time to take a closer look.

Saying goodbye to a pet is a stressful experience.  While some stress can be beneficial to understanding and memory, too much can be detrimental during euthanasia.   In a calm and loving environment, oxytocin can be released and should help bond caregivers with veterinary staff, increasing trust and a sense of fellowship in the experience.  During euthanasia, it is difficult to know how much oxytocin and other endorphins may be present in caregivers and pet patients themselves, therefore it becomes beneficial to approach each appointment gently so as to set the right tone for its release. CAETA’s entire educational program is designed to do just this.

Oxytocin is a complex molecule and can lead to negative caregiver reactions too.  In the wrong environment, oxytocin has a Jekyll and Hyde effect.  While it can be very useful to insight trust, it may trigger aggression and strong defensive behavior when trust is not present and when fear is.  If caregivers are feeling stressed and unsafe during the procedure, such as when they see their pet in pain or distress, their circulating oxytocin can elicit negative emotions like distrust, hostility, and anxiousness (through the activation of vasopressin).  This is one of the main reasons establishing rapport with caregivers is so important before and during euthanasia.  Increasing preplanning and speaking with caregivers about what is important to them should desculate stress.  Sadness will always be present during euthanasia but crippling levels of stress can be avoided.

Oxytocin Boosters

~ Touch
~ Sunlight
~ Biophilic elements (nature)
~ Familiar pleasing smells
~ Pheromones
~ Favorite foods

Understanding the influence of oxytocin leads to understanding that this hormone is present in all euthanasia participants (pet owners/caregivers, pet patient, veterinary team) at varying levels.  The goal is to harness the positive effects and stave off the negative.  Rushing, improper technique, lack of sincerity, saying the wrong thing, etc., can all amplify distrust.  Instead, slowing down, taking deep breaths, delivering proper technique, hearing stories, etc., can increase safety and nurture confidence.  Oxytocin production can be increased by providing outdoor or home euthanasias, and including items that bring comfort. The more physically relaxed everyone is, the more oxytocin will be flowing and generate positive effects.  My favorite phrase is “When in doubt, ask yourself what’s the most loving thing I can do right now.”  The answer is always to do what can be done to generate trust, and the spark is oxytocin.

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

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