I have been wondering whether I should talk about euthanasia for a little while now. As you can probably tell, working in the clinic is mostly a joyous experience, but there are times when veterinary work can be very sad. It seems to me, after twenty years working as a vet, that death is as much a part of life as birth, but outside the clinic it is more hidden, less talked about. When it is discussed, it is done in a hushed reverential way.
From what I understand from talking to people, I believe that I have something of an unusual view. To me, death seems a peaceful thing, rather than something to be afraid of. Except in exceptional circumstances, most of the animals we put to sleep are old or very ill. There are occasions when, from seeming terribly distressed, breathless, weary or in pain, you can see your patient relax. The strain disappears and it is obvious that they have found peace.
For the owner of course, it’s a sad time: sometimes devastating. Many people feel their pets are members of their family, and so the loss is intense. For me it has always seemed somehow very intimate and it is important not to intrude, but even after all this time, with each ending, I continue to share the sorrow . I have read other vets saying that they try to keep things brisk and professional, but I have never been able to do that. Usually there are tears in my eyes.
For the animal, I try to make sure that the experience is as peaceful as I can make it. Most animals don’t enjoy going to the vets. It’s important to take my time, to talk to both the owner and their pet. With dogs, I usually try to inject them without lifting them up onto the table. I always feel they are more comfortable on the floor: more secure, though of course smaller dogs can sit on their owner’s knee.
The process is different here in Norway and actually I prefer it. In Britain, it was the norm to give an overdose of anaesthetic directly into the vein. Personal experience has taught me that when being anaesthetised, it is like a light going out. It’s very rapid and I usually explained that before beginning, but sometimes I could see it was a shock to the owner that the whole thing was over so fast. There were difficulties sometimes in finding the vein and in making sure the injection went in correctly, as otherwise the whole experience could cause unnecessary pain.
At Tu, it is the norm to sedate the animal: deep sedation, so that he or she becomes unaware of the surroundings and is profoundly calm. Often we leave the room so the pet can go to sleep in peace alone with the people they know best. Once the animal is sleeping, we return. Generally we encourage the owner to leave the room, though they are welcome to return afterwards if they wish. The final injection is usually given into the heart, which isn’t the most pleasant thing to watch, but I am comforted by the fact that the pet is wholly unaware.
Whichever way it is carried out, I try to make sure that the owner is not too distressed by the procedure itself. Euthanasia is the last and kindest gift that an owner can give to their pet if they are in pain. The last thing I want is for their memory to be of my incompetence or of something frightening happening they did not expect. I try to ensure that I explain everything thoroughly and work as efficiently as possible. Experience has taught me that when things go wrong, it feels desperately traumatic, and if it is that way for me, then it must be even more so for the loving owner.
This week I carried out my first fully solo euthanasia in Norwegian. I was concerned that language might be a barrier. All the things that came so easily in English would be no longer second nature. I was worried I would be unable to properly offer comfort, but in the event it was obvious that body language counted for so much that it was not important that the words were not perfect or sufficiently profound. It was still a sad experience, and yet I find it somehow uplifting. It is such a generous act on the part of the owner. I am glad if I can help them carry that burden, even if only a little.