One of the most notable parts of a vet’s job is euthanasia or, to most people; putting an animal to sleep. Euthanasia translates to “a good death” and it is something we strive to achieve, after all, it’s what everyone hopes for in the end, right? Some see it as playing god, others see it as the ultimate kindness. Many may not have really thought about it in that much detail at all, nor maybe want to. However, it’s something as vets we come to contemplate regularly and “playing God” can really take its toll. One thing I would say is that euthanasia is never without emotion, be it sadness, stress, relief, and sometimes anger. People always think about the toll both physical and emotional that euthanasia has on the animal and on the owner, but today I want to talk about the toll it can have on your vet.
As a mixed vet in the UK, I experience euthanasia from all sides. I am the ultimate angel of death. From authorising and witnessing the emergency slaughter of injured farm animals to being the kind guiding presence as someone says goodbye to a beloved pet. I witness the apparent indifference of some owners to the complete breakdown and heartache of others and every emotion on the spectrum you can imagine in between.
To some the farming way may seem brutal, unfeeling, day in day out many farmers witness both life and death and many people have a hard time with the efficient approach taken to euthanasia in farming. But as vets we are taught to never view euthanasia as a welfare issue; that animal is no longer in pain, it will not suffer and it has died a good death. When taking all into consideration, that doesn’t seem so bad to me. Additionally, just because a tear isn’t shed over every casualty, every death, it doesn’t mean there is no grief there. I’ve seen the sadness on farmer’s faces when one of their animals has to be euthanised and also the joy when I find myself at the beginning of the cycle bringing new life into the world. I think that farmers are often the people who feel euthanasia the most.
On the flip side, sometimes love can get in the way of doing what’s right; the number of difficult conversations and quality of life discussions vets have in a lifetime warrants a degree in the subject. On many occasions it’s we as vets who have to steer the conversation to discuss how euthanasia at this point would be the kindest thing. All vets will have these difficult conversations many harrowing times over in their career.
So what does “playing God” feel like? Well… The ability to euthanise is both a blessing and a curse for a vet. Having the ability to put an animal out of its pain and misery is something I am so glad we have the power to do and (though many may disagree) is something I feel we are most definitely lacking in people. However, the curse to accompany this ability is that each euthanasia adds weight to your sub-conscience. Being the angel of death is something all vets have to live with and at points will be something each and every one of us struggles with. Many vets gain the ability to switch off to the emotions involved in euthanasias and in some ways, for self-preservation, this is necessary. However, it can also be very dangerous…. The veterinary profession has some of the highest suicide rates of any other job in the UK. Now, this is of course down to a plethora of reasons but research has shown that our ability to euthanise plays a significant part in it. Now I don’t claim to be an expert on this and I have most certainly not read all the research but personally, I think part of this may be because many vets who are suffering with their mental health rationalise, as they have done with many patients before, that their quality of life isn’t good enough to warrant existence any longer. The regularity and continued rationale of euthanasia in a vet’s day to day life can certainly take a heavy toll on our psyche, sometimes and unfortunately leading to irreparable decision and action.
One of the comments I continually get is “I don’t know how you do it” …. Well sometimes neither do I. It’s most certainly not an easy part of the job and some days it can be soul destroying. We are put in so many difficult situations; we become invested in you and invested in your pet and want to do right by you both and our own conscience. But no matter what situation you find us in, know that we care so so much, it’s why we do this job, it’s why work often comes home with us, it’s why many of us suffer from mental illness and have days where we can’t help but cry. I have cried over so many animals lost, sometimes with the owner, sometimes I hold it together until afterwards and on a few occasions I’ll think I’m fine only to find I’m somehow crying over a cup of tea later in the day.
Some euthanasias don’t go to plan, it’s like anything else in the world, sometimes things go wrong and it’s the absolute worst time for things to become difficult. I know it may be hard and incredibly traumatic in that moment when you’re saying goodbye to a part of your family, a lifelong companion or an animal that is suffering but try to remember, or at least reflect afterwards that we wish, hope and pray to any and all Gods listening for euthanasias to go well, to be dignified, to run smoothly and to be the least upsetting as possible. If something goes wrong we feel horrible, it will eat at us likely long after it’s ebbed from your mind and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be anyone’s fault, but as the header of the operation, we will often take the fall.
Sorry, this is a little heavy-going and not the light-hearted vetty banter and frivolities or travel inspiration you are used to but I feel it’s important. With so many in my profession leaving for another career, getting burnt out, suffering from mental health issues and worryingly, with the highest rates of suicide of any profession in the UK, I think it’s something I need to share. I think we all benefit from stepping into other people’s shoes every once in a while so I have resolved to post the good with the bad, the ugly with the beautiful and share that with you so that hopefully you can appreciate how damn hard your vets work and how much we care, often almost to a fault.
So next time you see your vet, try to be kind, which most of you are. And lend a thought to what else they may have dealt with that day or that week. We are often emotionally spent but slap a smile on our faces and plough through the day in order to help the many other animals that come through our doors day and night. Sometimes something as simple as a thank you can go a long way to lifting spirits, and on a bad day making us see our worth and that maybe we aren’t doing such a bad job after all.
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***DISCLAIMER; For all of you who know him and may panic at this accompanying picture with this post title, Fred is very much still with us! ***