Giving Good Death: My Version of Euthanasia In Veterinary Medicine
Nothing’s quite so heartrending as an arranged, family-style euthanasia of a beloved pet. The family arrives: parents, young adult children, friends. Some are crying. The tissue boxes get passed around. They’re often here to see their first dog or cat—the one they first experienced as a complete family—be humanely put to death.
I assess the scene: Fluffy’s wrapped in blankets on a table, or on a sofa if I’m making a special house call for this final event in her life. She looks bewildered by the attention and the behavior of her family.
I try to set everyone’s mind at ease with respect to their decision. I then explain the procedure and describe what they’re likely to expect. Two injections: one to thoroughly relax her, another to stop her heart. I wait until everyone seems ready and proceed.
It’s here that I say a little internal prayer. I pray for an uneventful experience: that the catheter goes in smoothly, that Fluffy doesn’t react in a way her family might consider painful or stressful, and that she stops breathing quietly without spasms or apparent distress.
I desperately want them to remember Fluffy’s death as a peaceful passing. It’s in some ways, the most important day of their lives with her and I know it.
99% of these procedures go smoothly. I pride myself on this. I always customize my medical protocol to suit the patient, the environment, and the people involved. This is when I know I’m good at what I do.
But when it goes wrong—it usually goes horribly bad—from the family’s point of view, that is. Like when you get a pet that refuses to go—even with all those drugs. I know the patient’s heavily anesthetized, but the family doesn’t understand that. They see their pet lingering in agony. And sometimes they get hysterical.
Or when the pet’s veins are inaccessible. This is the worst. Although the anesthetic’s working well, families can’t bear to watch the multiple needle pokes. And an Uma Thurman-in-Pulp Fiction-style heart stick is out of the question (though in a non-viewed euthanasia I’ll use this trick when necessary—it’s very effective).
When euthanasia goes bad it’s never painful to the animal. They’re always in a deep plane of anesthesia from the overdose of sedatives I give beforehand. Nonetheless, I feel like a failure. That’s when I think I must be the world’s worst clinician.
Typically, though, I’m aware that I’m in my zone when I kill animals. The irony never escapes me and it used to make me feel guilty—until I talked to another veterinarian and he spoke of how he "gives good death." He was proud, not flippant, when he said this. It made me feel more at ease with my skill.
It might sound unfeeling but euthanasia is a crucial skill to master. Human physicians would be well advised to seek out an experienced veterinarian before embarking on the process of euthanasia in humans, an inevitability in our society, as I see it.
It’s sad and stressful, but gloriously beautiful when all goes well. I’ll never tire of "giving good death." It’s the one procedure where I always know I’m doing my best and where there’s never any doubt that I’m alleviating suffering. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.