I have a terrible job — at least that’s what many of my clients say after I’ve arrived at their doors. When I’m not writing about all things veterinary, I make house calls as an in-home euthanasia and hospice care provider. I wouldn’t call the job "terrible." Emotional and at times draining, sure, but it has its own rewards. I feel honored to be helping people and animals when they are going through an exceptionally difficult time.
I’ve been called the grim-reaper and Dr. Death. More pleasantly, I’ve also been referred to as an Angel of Mercy and a midwife, helping spirits transition from one stage to another (I really liked that one).
My job is not especially demanding from a technical point of view, although I have gotten very good at placing intravenous catheters under less than ideal conditions — in the dark, in the snow, squeezed into a tiny dog house — you name it, I’ve probably done it. The challenges arise when I am called on to counsel owners whether and when to euthanize their beloved companions. These are by far the hardest conversations veterinarians ever have with clients.
My veterinary practice helped a dog owner in Lyons, CO a few years back. Her name is Jessica Pierce; her dog’s name was Ody. Jessica is a bioethicist, and she has written a wonderful opinion piece (and a book) on the subject of end of life decision making for pets. The article is entitled Deciding When a Pet Has Suffered Too Much. It appeared in the New York Times on September 23.
I agree with almost everything that Jessica has to say in her commentary. It is an illuminating look into a difficult subject from a devoted pet caretaker who is also an expert on morality as it applies to the biomedical sciences. My only point of contention surrounds this statement:
Euthanasia is typically thought of as a choice between suffering and death — and, indeed, it can offer relief from unyielding pain. But death is too often prescribed as a de facto treatment for suffering when much less aggressive possibilities exist. We can ease our animals into the valley of death, rather than abruptly shoving them off the cliff.
In my experience, doing nothing (or at least too little) is the most common response to an animal’s suffering, not leaping towards the option of euthanasia. Many owners have said to me that they think they waited too long to euthanize. I understand; I’ve been there with my own pets. But, after the heat of the moment has passed, I have never had a single owner tell me that they think they stepped in too soon. Not one.
I beg of you, if your pet is suffering, do something about it. As Jessica says, "Untreated or undertreated pain is epidemic among companion animals." And remember that suffering is not limited to pain. If your pet’s poor health is preventing him from living the life he wants to lead, he is suffering. Relief may come in the form of a medical and/or surgical cure, disease management, hospice care, and eventually euthanasia. There is an option out there that is right for the both of you.
Dr. Jennifer Coates