When I graduated from veterinary school, the year was 1986. At our graduation ceremony, one of the pledges really stood out for me: “I will use my veterinary knowledge and skills for the prevention and relief of needless animal suffering”. Of course, I wanted to do everything within my powers to prevent and end the suffering of my patients. The key word in the oath was “needless.” Let’s talk about that.
When I started my house call practice nearly two years ago, I knew I’d be talking with mostly distraught pet owners. Requests for euthanasia in the home environment had been growing over the last decade. As a result, I needed to add grief counselor to my skill set. After listening to their disturbing observations, I started asking my own questions with regards to appetite, mobility and other ‘quality of life’ issues. I needed to know more.
In these conversations, I sometimes hear the hopes that their failing pet will somehow “die in its sleep.” This is both evidence of poor judgment and proof that needless suffering has been going on for days if not weeks. Sudden death syndromes in humans are most often cardiovascular events like a heart attack – of which someone could actually die while sleeping and suffer little if any pain. Canines and felines suffering from debilitating illnesses or chronic pain (see osteoarthritis post) are very unlikely to drop dead while sleeping. In fact, an animal in distress is restless and may actually sleep very little.
Once it became clear that there was no reasonable expectation that the distressed pet would recover its appetite or its ability to move about with free will, I would need to speak for the pet. It became my job to help pet owners understand that their beloved pet was now suffering a miserable existence. The pleasures they once enjoyed – going for walks, playtime, sniffing things, mealtime, seeking out family companionship, going for car rides – will now be difficult if not impossible.
It pains me to say how often I need to tell people that things are only going to get worse for the pet – prompting them to take the right action. Time’s up. Please do not accept the soothing advice that others (including veterinarians!) may offer. It goes something like this … “your dog will let you know when it’s time”. If that were true, my calls would not include the disturbing sights of walking skeletons and lifeless lumps of fur. Our pets don’t count the days. They are not making a bucket list.
It’s most important to me that my beloved pets (three at the time of this writing: KitKat, BB Cole, and Bertha Buttercup) remain heathy enough to enjoy their favorite activities. They are living their bucket list – but would like a few more car rides. I count the days they enjoy their home cooked meals – mealtime is at the top of that list.