I'm embarrassed to say that I've probably euthanized over a thousand cats and dogs in my 14 year career as a veterinarian. Thankfully, most of these pets needed to be euthanized; they were suffering, were riddled with cancer, weren't eating, or had a poor quality of life.

As a veterinarian, I'm aware of the ethical debate that surrounds the topic of euthanasia. And I'm a huge proponent of quality of life. And I can empathize – I’ve been on the other side (see the horrible euthanasia story below). Know that we veterinarians don't talk about euthanasia very much (at least publicly), and it's hard for me to write this, but this event pained (dare I say, "scarred") me to the point that I felt I needed to blog about it.

A few years ago, I helped counsel my sister as she made the decision to humanely euthanize her beloved 15-year-old cat, who we’ll call "Monte" for the sake of anonymity. Monte was losing weight, not eating well, and breathing harder for 2-3 weeks. By the time I saw Monte, he had deteriorated quickly. After discussing Monte’s quality of life, my sister and I came to peace with the decision to euthanize him. I promptly took my sister to her feline veterinarian and accompanied her while Monte was euthanized. Boy, was that enlightening.

Once we arrived at the clinic, we were promptly brought into an exam room for privacy. The simple, kind gesture of pre-placing a blanket on the cold, steel table was highly appreciated. Next, a veterinary technician came in to deal with the dreaded paperwork, and once we got that out of the way, we waited for the veterinarian.

Upon entering the room a few minutes later, the veterinarian didn't even introduce herself to me. Secondly, she walked right in and stated, "Yup, he really is having difficulty breathing" (provoking horrible feelings of guilt that my sister really didn't need just then). She then promptly stated that she was giving Monte a shot to sedate him, and said she'd check back in a few minutes. Whoosh. Gone.

Now, I assumed she'd tell my sister about the process of euthanasia, like telling her about how the euthanasia drug would relax him, how he might urinate or defecate after he's gone, that his eyes would stay open after he's passed, that he might take one last deep breath during the process of euthanasia, that the process was pain-free but really fast. But no, that wasn’t the case. So I was left with that job, which likely oversteps sibling-to-sibling boundaries.

A few minutes later, the veterinarian checked back in and stated that Monte wasn't sedate enough. My sister (who was visibly upset) stated that his head was very heavy in her hands, and his pupils were really dilated (i.e., he was really, really sedate). The veterinarian disagreed, and said she'd come back in a few more minutes.

By this point, I was actually worried that Monte was so sedate that he was going to stop breathing and actually die before the veterinarian was able to euthanize him, so I stepped immediately outside and reiterated to a technician that Monte was very sedate and that we were ready (read: get your butt in here ASAP!).

After botching a clip job and taking several minutes to find Monte’s vein, the veterinarian started euthanizing Monte without any word. I turned to my sister (hiding my anxiety, gall and disgust) and told her that the veterinarian was euthanizing Monte and he would be gone in a few minutes.

After a few seconds of injecting, the veterinarian listened with her stethoscope and said, "His heart stopped."

That's it.

She started to walk out of the room when I stopped her to ask for a clay paw, some clippers for some hair, and some more details, like: "What's happening to his body?" or "When are you guys taking him out of the room?" or "When will his ashes be ready?" or "Who cremates him? Is it done here? How soon will his ashes be available?" And of course, the all important question, "Will they just be his ashes?"

I mean, we owners want to know this stuff, right? We want a clay paw. We want some compassion, some reassurance, some peace. A hug or hand on the shoulder.

I’m so grateful I was there for my sister. And I was grateful that my euthanasia "style" is different. And I was grateful for the compassionate, tender technicians who were there for Monte that day. The veterinarian, on the other hand, got two thumbs down from this veterinary specialist on how to demonstrate compassion during such a sensitive situation. For those of you weighing this terribly difficult decision, make sure you get exactly what you want when you go through this process. It's a difficult one, and shouldn't be made more difficult by your veterinarian. Most importantly, find a veterinarian who cares, and helps guide you through the toughest decision of your life.

What about you? Have you had any similar horror stories?

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Tired cat by protohiro