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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Death, Death, And More Death

I think that some people look at veterinarians and imagine us playing with cute puppies and kittens every day.  They think about all of the "warm, fuzzy" feelings of making animals better and saving lives.  Some of those people would likely be surprised with what actually happens sometimes.

Last week was pretty tough for me.  In the middle of the week I had several dogs scheduled who were old or sick.  To make a long story short I ended up having to euthanize three dogs in a row.  Yes, that's right, three back-to-back.  At one point I had some of my staff placing an IV catheter in one dog while I euthanized the one before it, then went straight into the next room to euthanize that one.  

Each of these situations were very justifiable as the dogs were suffering.  The decision to euthanize was the right one in each case, though it was emotionally hard for the owner.  And each one went to sleep very peacefully and quickly, making it easy for me and the owner.  I hated doing so many so close together, but there really wasn't a good reason to wait on any of them.

The next day my first appointment of the morning was another euthanasia.  Then a few hours later I had yet another one.  Once again these were all pets that were suffering and needed to be gently eased into a painless death.  But I hated being the one to do so many in such a short period of time.

Losing a pet is always hardest on the pet owner.  They are making an emotionally difficult decision, no matter how justified it may be.  No matter how close a vet may be to the client and patient, their sadness is nothing compared to the sorrow of the owner who is going to be mourning their pet.  But that doesn't mean that it's easy for the vet.

Most of the five pets I euthanized over those two days I didn't know well, and some of them I hadn't seen before.  But it's emotionally draining to end an animal's life.  It can also be draining to handle the human grief that is inevitable in these situations.  Whenever you try to comfort someone who is grieving it takes some of your own emotions and energy.  Both of these factors make every euthanasia somewhat difficult for the vet, and can affect our feelings for a while.

Now do that three times in the span of an hour without even a few minutes break between them.

Then do it again the next day.

I was exhausted after the third euthanasia on the first day.  I really did feel physically tired from the emotions and sadness that happened in such a short period of time.  By the time I came in the next morning I had regained my normal energy, but that quickly left me when I saw my first appointment.  Because of the events of the previous afternoon I was drained more quickly than I would have been otherwise.  When it happened once again the same day I was bordering on becoming truly depressed.

Thankfully this many terminal patients is rare, and it's been many years since I had to perform more than two euthanasias in one day.  And my days since these two have been pretty routine, which is good because I wouldn't have had to try to handle similar set of days.

Being a veterinarian isn't all cute animals and fuzzy snuggles.  It has many ups and downs and a vet will often see tragedy.  It takes great emotional strength to succeed in this profession.


  1. Sorry to hear that Chris - it never gets easier. It is even worse when they are your patients you have known since they first came in as puppies etc.. and have got to know the clients so well. Sigh.
    After our earthquakes here many clinics were having to put about five dogs down a day because no one could get a rental house with a dog. Soul destroying times.

    1. Wow, Fi, that's rough! I'm so sorry to hear that is happening. That is even harder because I'm sure many of those dogs are healthy.

      I completely agree that it's worse when you do have a bond with the client and pet. I've had many patients over the years where I have been crying right alongside the owner because I had known them for so long.

    2. Yes they were healthy family pets. A little known problem until you have to live it. We think as home owners we are ok, but when your house fails you can't buy another until the money is settled so many had to rent and pay a mortgage. So yes, it can happen to any of us anytime and it devastated people, and the vet clinics, SPCA etc etc. Been six years now.... but could happen again any time, as it has a little north of us this week. Anyway - it is still true about the impact it has on us as vets..... definitely need emotional strength and life balance.

  2. Hi Chris, thanks so much for the post. It really hit home because I had to have my 17-year old Chihuahua Milo euthanized 6 weeks ago. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. I have had other dogs that were euthanized either when I wasn't around or were handed over to the vet, because I couldn't stand the thought of being there. But Milo was very special - I just adored him, and I held him in my lap as the "pink stuff" went into his veins. His little head flopped down, and he was gone. Afterward I went thru the stage of "I could have kept him alive longer, was it too soon?" for quite a while.

    It didn't occur to me that the vet who put Milo down may have been affected by it, or by my constant tears at the time. Thank you for showing the other side of this most difficult procedure. Best, Roberta in Half Moon Bay, California

    1. I'm so sorry for your loss, Roberta. And don't feel bad for considering what the vet may have been feeling. Our primary focus in these cases is on the patient and client, and your grief takes priority. It is your loss, not ours, so please don't feel bad for crying and being upset. Most of us in the profession are used to this and have learned to handle it, but when it happens so many times in such a short period of time it can really drain us. As part of the point of my blog is to give people a peek behind the scenes of being a vet, I felt it was important to share this side of things.


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