Do Vets Become Desensitized to Euthanasia?

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I found this month’s newest volunteer curled up in a ball by the dryer, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, trying hard not to show she’d been crying. But I knew better. While euthanizing our last patient of the day, I’d been paying attention.

It might sound kind of strange, but I’m always curious to see how newbies react to euthanasia. Maybe it’s because I’m biased and like to think any pre-vet worth his or her salt comes into this profession with the same sensitivities I did — uncontrollable tears and all. But lately I’ve been wondering if it’s more because I’m trying to recall what it was like to be so sensitive to death in this context.

Avoiding Emotional Burnout

It’s true that veterinarians practiced in the art and science of euthanasia tend to lose that raw emotional quality that attends the first dozen or two we perform. In its place, our experience of compassion acquires a sort of patina. It’s still kindly and warm, but by now it has been weathered by a whole lot of practice watching pet owners say goodbye to their pets.

Which only makes sense. We would become emotionally exhausted if we didn’t. The compassion fatigue would take its toll and we would exit the profession or worse — we would suffer the kind of burnout usually relegated to those who feel compelled to seek self-destructive ways to manage their stress.

In my experience, colleagues who didn’t eventually find healthy and productive ways to handle the euthanasia of companion animals sought out a specialty in a non-euthanasia field (pathology or radiology, among others), pursued another profession or developed self-destructive behaviors.

I know that sounds harsh, but that’s the reality for any work in which the emotions that attend issues of life and death are routinely experienced. That’s why veterinarians must either come to accept our patients’ euthanasia and our clients’ reaction to it or otherwise find some way to tolerate it.

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