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Most veterinarians will be involved with hundreds, even thousands, of deaths in a career. In fact, it would be unusual for one of us to go a single week without witnessing or assisting in a pet’s passing, and we are there from the proverbial cradle to grave with the beloved pets of countless people. I can tell you from experience that this part of our work is wearing on veterinarians, both physically and emotionally.
When I graduated from veterinary school in 1980 and started practicing in Twin Falls, Idaho, a woman came rushing into the practice late in the day, got right up in my face and practically yelled, “You’ve got to stop the way they’re putting pets to sleep at the city pound!” Bobbi Wolverton went on to explain that the city pound was killing pets with carbon monoxide in a gruesome gas chamber.
Wolverton had been going from practice to practice and pleading with veterinarians to stop what happening, but no one had stepped forward until I did. That same day I went with her to the shelter, witnessed the suffering and pledged that I would help see that the animals would be killed humanely if they had to be killed. That meant more than just having an opinion: For two years, I took turns with my partner, Dr. Bill Strobel, going to the shelter to provide the animals with a pain-free death by lethal injection.
I will never forget those days, and even though I am proud that I was able to make the final moments of those pets' lives free of pain and fear, it helped make me the strong and vocal advocate I am now when it comes to reducing the killing of pets for population control.
Even for those veterinarians who have never worked in a shelter, though, death is always part of our lives. In our daily work, we always have pets who have been critically injured, are in pain we cannot treat or who have an illness or condition that cannot be effectively treated. And, of course, we also have pets who are simply at the end of their natural lifespan. Sometimes we are there to comfort the pet and the owners. Other times we cheat death of its ability to cause great suffering with that lethal injection.
So many times we have pulled pets wiggling from their mothers, seen them grow into adults and then grow old. We witness the human-animal health connection, and we know how important a pet is to a person’s physical, emotional and social well-being. We’ve celebrated, protected and nurtured the human-animal bond, and, in fact, we have been privy and partner to it. And unlike physicians, who tend to track into specialties, as the ultimate general practitioners we veterinarians have frequent, friendly visits with pets and their people for a lifetime. We are almost all emotionally invested in both pets and people, and we mourn the losses as our own.
The worst days are when you — as a veterinarian, technician or veterinary team member — have to say goodbye to your own pets. Imagine the sorrow that comes from the loss of a four-legged family member magnified by all the tears held back from the hundreds of deaths that preceded it. I know every time I’ve had to say goodbye to one of our pets, I’ve also mourned for all the pets whose lives and deaths I’d been part of. I have cried buckets of tears, and I sure didn’t bounce back quickly.
After a pet dies is typically the only time we get a personalized, hand-written letter or card from our clients. If your pet is healthy now, I ask that you send that card now and thank your veterinary team. In doing so, you’ll help give the veterinarian and all of those who care for your pet the strength to continue helping.
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