Thursday, March 2, 2017

Black Coat

Some days I feel like I should be wearing a black coat instead of a white one. Some days I feel like I am ending more lives than I am saving. Some days I really understand the people who tell me that they wanted to be a veterinarian until they learned that you have to euthanize pets.

After 26 years in practice, euthanasia is still the hardest thing I routinely do. I've gotten used to all manner of grim fluids and funky smells and chaotic days and wacky clients and freaked-out pets and hopeless cases, but I have not fully gotten used to euthanasia. Watching the light go out of an animal's eyes as their human companions dissolve into grief is not something that anyone should ever get used to, so it being hard will be a necessary and integral aspect of my job until I retire.

And it is a frequent part of my job as well. I think most of us average maybe two or three euthanasias a week. They tend to cluster so sometimes I can end up performing three or four on a single day. Those are the black coat days. Most pets, probably 80 - 90%, die of euthanasia rather than of "natural causes" at home. If you think about it it makes sense. How many people get to die in their beds at home? The majority of us will die in hospital or by slow degrees in palliative or chronic care facilities. There is no such place for a dog or cat to go once their quality of life is poor at home, and there is no longer any hope of it improving. There is no ward for demented pets to live out their last days, wearing a diaper, unable to walk, unable to feed themselves. There is only a reasonably good life at home, or death.

Seen this way euthanasia is of course, perhaps ironically, one of the best things we do as veterinarians. It allows us to fully focus on quality of life. No animal needs to suffer pointlessly the way some people do. It gives us a powerful tool many on the human side wish they had, if only they could find a clear path through the ethical minefield. We are still far more comfortable wielding the power of life and death over animals, but with that power comes responsibility, and with responsibility inevitably comes stress. It's just the way it is, and the way it must be.

It is interesting to note that I get far more thank you cards after a euthanasia than after any other procedure. Far far more. Some of this is thanks for service over the life of the pet, but some of it is also gratitude for the way the end of the pet's life was handled. It's funny, but veterinarians themselves are always most impressed by their colleague's diagnostic and surgical skills, by the cool cases they figured out and by the new treatments they mastered. Clients never are. They just assume we know how to do all that stuff. What they are most impressed by is our compassion and caring, especially in those terrible emotionally fraught moments at the end of the pet's life.

But all that said, my heart still sinks every time I see a euthanasia booked for me.


  1. Tears as I read but such a great compassionate blog. Love and hugs to you.❤

  2. Thank you for being there for us.

  3. So well said. I felt so bad for our vet when he told us, our 17 yr old Siamese, Prince, would not be able to make the move from Maine to North Carolina. We knew it was coming, but it was so hard to let go. I held Prince so he knew we were right there. I still miss him so much...

  4. This deeply compassionate and caring post brought me to tears and touched my heart in an extra personal way, having so recently gone thru this with you beside Roscoe and I every step of the way. I have to say again, that I cannot begin to imagine what this aspect of your job must do to your own heart....Or how heavy it must weigh on your soul on the days that you must perform euthanasias, let alone multiple ones in the same day... I don't know that there are words to adequately describe the deep gratitude and appreciation I, as a client, have for the very fact that you haven't ever 'gotten used' to watching the light go out of a pet's eyes and seeing their owners dissolve in grief...I feel strongly that anyone who COULD 'get used' to that, would not be someone that I would want with my pet and I in the final moments of their life...And the irony of being able to provide the care and compassion and guidance necessary for us to do right by our beloved companions, despite it being the most dreaded part of your job, was not lost on me.... I know you feel you should wear a black coat some days but I'm very glad you continue to provide the light that most of us need to get thru losing our pets. You wouldn't be the vets you are, if your hearts didn't sink, but please know that as heavy as your hearts feel each time, those hearts are the thing that help us to be able to let our pets go and know that peace will settle on our hearts eventually because you helped us do right by our loyal and faithful companions...
    Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt blog post and for being there for us, on the worst day of our can never truly know how it's the only thing that even comes close to making that worst day of our lives, almost bearable..