I am often reminded that I am a part of a profession which so many people desired to do when they were young. I have had hundreds of clients, friends, and acquaintances over the years tell me that they “always wanted to be a vet”. To be a vet is often to be a trusted and kindly regarded professional member of a community. This sentiment makes me proud. Often though, the comment above is then followed by “But I could never put the animals to sleep”. Oddly enough, “Can you put animals to sleep?” was not a qualifying question on any test, assignment, or interview to get into or pass 8 years of university. It is unlikely the whole reason why a person did not pursue this profession. Someone once told me, when faced with this comment, that they respond “Yes, I’m a cold blooded killer.” but somehow I’ve never had the guts to try it out.
Euthanasia is one of the most misunderstood parts of this job. It is by far NOT the worst part of my job. There are vets and support staff that work in places where high numbers of healthy pets must be put down (ex. overcrowded shelters) and that can definitely be emotionally taxing and damaging. For me, the worst is not being able to fix a twelve week old puppy run over by it’s own owner by accident, the worst is seeing a three year old dog dumped at the shelter because it has bad skin, the worst is opening the crate of a cat that hasn’t urinated in three days only to find it already died in the waiting room. Even worse is having an owner repeatedly refuse euthanasia, preferring to allow the pet to suffer to death.
For most veterinarians euthanasia is reserved for those at the end of their natural lifespan or who are in pain and are suffering. If I allowed myself to become emotionally involved every time, well, I would have burnt out and walked away long long ago. There are times, especially around the holidays, that I have been asked to euthanize up to five animals in just one day. Other times that I have not done it for weeks. That’s not to say I don’t care. I care very much. I have empathy for almost every client who comes for euthanasia. I try to remember that although this is a normal day for me, this is often one of the worst days of an owner’s life. Likely a day that they will literally remember until they die. They will remember what I say, what I do, how I act. I try very hard to make these memories a little easier. Of course there are those where I get emotional, sometimes a pet I have fought long and hard to save, sometimes one that I have failed to save despite great effort, sometimes an owner that just pulls at my heartstrings. It’s ok to be sad, just not to be sad every day. It’s my job to be strong, to be in control, to provide reassurance.
Here in Belize I have had my fair share, some old, some young, some stray, some owned. It puts me at ease knowing that when the injuries are too severe, or the disease has won, that I have this option to end their suffering. The culture of dog ownership here is different than in north america, but it is also changing. Many pets are loved and cared for but still have a job to do, such as protecting the house and property. Even owners that try to act tough are still moved emotionally when it’s time to let go. Most people here choose not to stay, they say goodbye and let us look after the rest. I’ve learned over the years not to judge. You can stay, you can go, everyone chooses for their own reasons.
Many here (especially expats, but not all) have asked for home euthanasia, something I had never done. This had me on edge at first because it puts me in unfamiliar surroundings, but for many it is an easier emotional or logistical option. I’ve kneeled in the dirt, sat on porches, crouched on kitchen floors, and perched myself in front windows with tropical breezes off the ocean all to let owners say their final goodbyes at home. It’s become a regular part of my job here.
It is always hard to decide to say goodbye to a pet. We are often guilty of waiting too long because we love them so much. We have concerns of not knowing when is the right time. We have sadness about letting go. I know, I had all these feelings when my own cat Gator was dying of kidney failure at the age of ten. He was my first real pet as an adult. I feared what all clients fear. But when the day came, I was thankful that I was able to let him go. He deserved at least that.
So, to answer the question “I just don’t know how you do it?” I do it out of compassion, it’s my job.