Your travels through social media may have brought you to a photojournalistic webpage of a dog named Duke’s final day of life (see: I Died Today. By Duke Roberts). If you not seen it before, I’ll issue a fair warning to be sure you have a handful of tissues nearby before opening the link. The images and words are guaranteed to cause the most stoic of souls to tear up, if even just a little.
I don’t remember how or when I first came across the story, but as I stared at the photographs and read and re-read the words on the site, I found myself thinking, “Even though I do not know this dog, I know this story.”
In my mind, Duke was previously diagnosed with a terminal cancer and his owner had recently made the most difficult of choices; that it was time to end his pain. The pictures clearly illustrate that though Duke’s disease was advanced enough to affect certain portions of his life, he still was able to face death with dignity and peace, enjoying his favorite things and people during his last day on Earth.
A factor particularly significant to me was that Duke’s euthanasia was performed not within the sterile and clinical confines of a veterinary hospital, but rather was done outdoors, in a tranquil and comfortable setting. Duke spent his final hours doing what he enjoyed most, surrounded by the people who cared for him the greatest, in a completely natural setting. The images tell us he passed serenely and calmly, outdoors on a beautiful summer day.
On a related note, you may have heard some of the buzz surrounding the “Veterinary Mobility Act.” This piece of legislation makes it legal for veterinarians to transport and use controlled substances beyond their primary places of registration and across state lines to treat patients. Much to the relief of veterinary professionals who have lobbied for this legislation since 2009, President Obama very recently signed the act into law.
Controlled substances include pain medications, anesthetics, and drugs used for euthanasia. For veterinarians who provide house call services, travel to farms or backyard barns, or work with wildlife and in the field of research, these are indispensible treatment options. Prior to the passing of this law, it would be illegal for those doctors to carry and use medications necessary for even the most rudimentary of treatments.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s press release regarding the law states:
By passing and signing this legislation, the president and our legislators recognize the critical role veterinarians play in treating sick animals and relieving their pain and suffering. The health and welfare of our nation’s wildlife, food animals, and even our companion animals depend on veterinarians being allowed to do their jobs wherever the need arises.
The importance of the Veterinary Mobility Act is obvious when we consider veterinarians practicing in rural areas, or those who run mobile or ambulatory services. These doctors need to be able to transport and administer controlled substances in order to perform their jobs. They also need to be able to do so without fear of breaking a law or losing their license.
What may not be obvious is why a veterinary oncologist would care about whether or not it would be legal to transport pain medication or euthanasia solution from their base hospital to another location or state.
I’ve written before about the “specifics” of the euthanasia process, with the details centering on the actual event occurring within the veterinary hospital. Though we make every effort to ensure pets are comfortable during this time, for some animals the simple act of traveling to the vet can be stressful and anxiety provoking. For many owners, there can be a “trickle-down” effect of increased strain and worry.
Some pets with end-stage cancer can be in so much pain or so debilitated from their disease that they are unable or unwilling to walk out of their homes. Some owners may not be able to carry their pets or lift them into their cars. I’ve even had some owners tell me their pets bit them out of fear or pain during attempts to transport them. Therefore, in certain cases, it truly is in the pet’s best interests to not spend their last moments in a veterinary hospital.
Owners have asked me if I could perform an at-home euthanasia and I know I’ve disappointed them with my answer. I’ve had to tell them that legally, I cannot do it. It’s typically a somewhat awkward conversation, where I think both the owner and I feel unsatisfied.
This isn’t to say I possess a strong desire to euthanize pets at home, and certainly it would not be practical to make such practice a routine part of my daily schedule. I’ll leave that up to those veterinarians who make this part of their professional services. But being able to provide this option for owners in particular cases would be invaluable.
Many pets with cancer will die from their disease. Veterinary oncologists are integral to the successful treatment of such cases. We are able to provide animals with longer and happier lives and manage their diagnosis as a chronic disease. Unfortunately, cures are uncommon and in most cases owners must consider euthanasia at some point. It is a part of our job and a part of our responsibility to always put our patients' needs first.
Duke’s story is just one of many, but I think it brilliantly outlines why the Veterinary Mobility Act is so important and how it provides owners and pets with additional options not previously established.
It’s wonderful to know that the president, an obvious animal lover, feels the same way.
Dr. Joanne Intile