Compassion Fatigue: The New Buzzword in Vet Medicine
Euthanizing pets takes its toll. No one likes to do it but some of us deal with it better than others. My best friend, also a vet, cringes at the experience and it stays with him for days afterwards. I’m far more resilient on this front, partly because I do it far more often than he does. In part, I suspect he shaped his career to one as a specialist (he’s a surgeon) so he wouldn’t have to deal with the routine nature of euthanasia like we general practitioners do.
Compassion fatigue: that’s what they call it. The buzzword is new but it’s a feeling veterinarians have felt acutely since the dawn of the profession. In an increasingly pet-centric society, where humans` attachment to animals has resulted in a pets-as family mindset, the problem has become more pronounced. After all, grief is inevitably more severe when your pet is a loved one.
It’s hard to tell, but sufficient anecdotes exist to support that veterinary attrition is not uncommon subsequent to compassion fatigue. All of is in the field know at least one vet who has made a career change because of it.
Some vets have left the profession altogether after the euthanasia experience became so stressful. Others went on to other careers in vet medicine, some opting for desk jobs or specialty education in dermatology, ophthalmology, and others to avoid it altogether. And how can you blame them. I know a lot of people who tell me they became physicians or other health professionals because the couldn’t face the `euthanasia thing.`
We all know what it’s like to look a pet in the eye and think: `OK, buddy, it’s time. Here we go.` We all have different styles when we do this but I suspect we all feel the same thing at some level.
Some of us cry (usually when we’re newbies, but sometimes just when something sets us off like a child crying nearby or the look in our patient’s eyes). Others turn off altogether, preferring, consciously or not, to reject the pain of having to end a life, as appropriate as it may be. Regardless of approach, we all develop strategies to deal with it.
I can only tell you what I do: I remind myself that this is the best thing for the pet, no matter what. It’s rare for me to disagree with the owners. After all, the pet is their responsibility, their family, their loved one. And very few of my owners err on the side of euthanizing their pets too soon. The vast majority euthanizes appropriately or waits too long (50/50).
My other strategy: concentrate not on the loss of the animal but on providing the best possible experience for the family. Work on making it emotionally non-traumatic and supportive. There’s no doubt they will remember this for the rest of their lives. Make it a special moment they can remember with a bittersweet sadness. Make them feel like they did the right thing by allowing their pet to pass peacefully. What more could they ask for from an experience with death?
As long as I can practice (hopefully into my eighties or beyond), I plan to fight compassion fatigue with a complete arsenal of coping mechanisms. I don’t consider others to be lesser practitioners if they can’t bear the strain. We each have our own set of competencies that make us great practitioners.
I expect compassion fatigue to be a significant professional hazard as long as we have the ability to alleviate suffering through euthanasia. Despite the stress it brings, I’ll always be grateful we have that option.