When Veterinary Professionals Euthanize Their Own Pets

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It’s been 3 years since I euthanized my Daisy, a sweet old Jack Russell Terrier with a love for chasing bunnies and keeping a watchful eye on her family.  As a veterinarian, what I remember of that day was my need to play two different roles. On the one hand, I was loving mother, having cared for Daisy since her adoption at age 9 (she made it to 17.5 years). On the other hand, I was her veterinarian, facilitating her death like I’d done for so many other pets over the years, my own and my clients’. It’s hard to say goodbye and extra hard to do the act yourself, however that’s what many veterinary professionals choose to do. 

What I recall about Daisy’s euthanasia, and what I hear shared by colleagues euthanizing their own pets, is that it’s hard to focus on the medical aspect. The emotions of the moment want desperately to take over and block out everything else. I remember euthanizing my yellow Labrador, Sally, back in 2010 and how copious amounts of tears, and yes I’ll say it, snot, just poured out of me. I thought “Now I understand exactly how my clients feel when I see them do the same”.  In such a state of grief, it’s challenging to remain focused on the necessary steps of a gentle, skilled euthanasia.  There’s the drug calculations, ensuring all supplies are ready, deciding how to administer the euthanasia solution, addressing other loved ones’ needs, and then the act itself….giving the injection.  Veterinary professionals, both veterinarians and licensed technicians, may also feel the compounding emotional weight of other recent euthanasias they’ve performed.

We want everything to be perfect. That can feel like a lot for someone in a normal frame of mind.  Now add in the fog of sadness and grief and you’ve got a perilous situation.  A few years back, a veterinary colleague reached out while she was actively euthanizing her dog,  and things weren’t going well.  The dog wasn’t passing as expected and the veterinarian wasn’t sure how best to proceed.  The panic in her voice stays with me.  I could have gone right into telling her to draw up more drug and how to give it, but instead I paused and gave more attention to her emotional state.  We took a deep breath together. The dog was sound asleep from pre-euthanasia sedatives so he was peaceful and pain free.  That gave us time to review what had already been tried and what she should do next.   It reminds me how much veterinarians put into their patient’s euthanasia appointments and how preplanning for their own pet’s passing adds a ton of pressure.  My advice is to preplan but then on the day, relax and relinquish some control.  When it comes to death, we can only control so much.

Probably wiser veterinarians than myself ask a colleague to assist when needing to euthanize their own pet.  How nice it is to play the role of pet owner and let someone else handle the medical stuff. I’m not aware of much data on the mental health aspects of euthanizing your own pet but it would be interesting to learn the psychological pros and cons.  Perhaps another CAETA research project for the New Year.  

The take away….if it feels like an overwhelming task to euthanize your own pet, it probably is.  Find a trusted colleague who can help. Preplan for things the way you want them, but remember that the death of your pet is theirs, and that you are witness and supporter alone.  That should help remove some of that ‘control everything’ aspect.  If you decide to perform the procedure yourself, have patience and give ample time to grieve in the moment.  There is no need to rush. 

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

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