Vet holding dog's paw

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.

For Relief of Pain and Suffering, Not Convenience

After a long respite from pondering euthanasia (it comes in cycles), I started thinking about this again following a recent house call: I’d made the mistake of allowing my significant other to drive me without thinking it through. (It was far, and the weather was bad.) Trouble is, he’s a sensitive guy. So how would he feel about waiting for me in the car while the deed was being done? How would he handle driving the body back to the hospital?

In the end, it worked out, but seeing the act from fresh eyes, as I’d been attempting more recently via my volunteer, allowed me to gain a strange new perspective: I’ve become so familiar with the act of euthanizing my patients as to appear perfectly comfortable performing it.

Being a “pro” at something as difficult and fraught as the euthanasia of a beloved companion is a somewhat discomfiting thought. But just because I’m comfortable offering death as a service doesn’t mean I’ve become desensitized to it.

Far from it! In fact, I believe that having so much experience offering death as an alternative to living with pain and terminal debilitation makes me even more sensitive to death’s many possible manifestations — good and bad.

For example, when last week’s client requested the unthinkable ­­— that we “euthanize” her 4-year-old cat because he “pees everywhere” and “refuses to live outside” — I quickly corrected her: “At this hospital we don’t call that euthanasia. And we don’t offer that service.”

(This perfectly healthy young kitty currently lives in our hospital and is awaiting his new forever home, in case you’re interested.)

Helping With a Sense of Purpose

So you know, most veterinarians seem to agree. Just because we’re no longer as emotionally tender doesn’t mean we’re detached or desensitized. In fact, the colleagues I’ve discussed this with at any length feel as if the rawness they once felt has been replaced with an overriding sense of usefulness.

Moreover, some argue that attenuating this emotional component has allowed them to become more helpful to owners and therefore, if anything, more engaged in the process. Which is quite the opposite of desensitization, I’d say.

Now, no one’s arguing the process is emotionally undemanding. Nor does being seasoned preclude the occasional tears. (They’re inevitable for me, anyway.) But that doesn’t mean I’m being dishonest whenever I’m able to comfort a volunteer with assurances that while it may never be easy, it does get better.