Saturday, February 20, 2010

Deciding on Euthanasia

This is the most difficult decision a pet owner faces in the lifetime of their pets (and sometimes in their own!)
Don't we wish our pets lived longer? We, as veterinarians, are working on that but there's only so much we can do to change nature. We all die sooner or later and pets in many ways bring that reality back to us. We tend to put off thinking seriously about our own death until we have to face the death of those we love, especially when it has to be our own decision to end that life. So pets die and it's not just the death of our beloved companions but the reality of death itself that sets off deep feelings of loss, fear and the unknown.
But, back to pets. When do we decide? How do we know? Is now the right time? Should I wait a bit longer and see if my friend gets better? I don't want to make this decision prematurely. I don't want to prolong suffering. I don't want to come home a pet who passed away alone, possibly afraid, possibly in pain. So many questions and absolutely no way to predict the future. So what do I recommend as a veterinarian? I try to put myself in your shoes, where you are, what your family situation is and how you handle personal loss.
I like to have the family in agreement. Often, if the decision is clear cut to me, ie, the pet is in pain, not treatable and no hope of recovery, I will step in and say it's time. But often it's not that easy. Often, pets hang on, day after day, one day acting better than yesterday, giving us hope that tomorrow will be even better. We get on a rollercoaster of inaction due to changing forces over which we have no control. In some cases owners are going on vacation and don't want to leave their pets in a kennel or with strangers when their last days or near, or they don't want to contribute to the pet's stress by leaving. I know families who have not been on vacation for years because of the guilt they would feel. I know in my own case with 4 cats and 2 dogs, I am not comfortable leaving for more than a few days for fear something might happen in my absence.
I've had clients who were traveling overseas or somewhere they could not be contacted give the the "power of attorney" to me to make the decision to euthanize their pet if illness was so severe I felt it was the right thing to do. That's a lot of responsibilty even for an experienced veterinarian to take on. Bottom line is there is no easy answer. You need to have an honest conversation with your veterinarian who will be gentle and understanding of your emotions regarding what you want for your pet. Some people can never make the decision to euthanize in which case I do my best to keep that animal pain free until they pass away.
Most people hope and pray that their pet will go to sleep on their own so that they will not have to make that awful decision. I'm here to tell you that almost never happens. Pets have a strong will to live and they will
valiantly make every effort to fight death even in pain. It's your responsibility as a loving, mature and responsible pet owner and as the guardian of this wonderful friend who has been by your side through thick and thin, to not allow suffering, to make that decision no matter how much it hurts you, no matter what your 5 year old wants or even your teenager. Most children cannot make such a decision and even some teenagers will want you to hang on forever, so you may not get a consensus at home. At least try to and if you have to blame it on the vet. (Don't say anything bad about me to your children, just that I had to make the pain go away). Thanks.