Last week, I mentioned that I had to do a euthanasia where the owner chose not to be present, and it was a little emotionally challenging for me. I was more upset about the day than the fact that the owners left, and I mentioned it only to illustrate that I needed to lean on my techs to help me out with the part that I normally do without a problem (comforting the pet.)
I didn’t mean to set that up as a “oh no these irresponsible owners how could they” sort of thing, but it certainly opened up the discussion of what is and is not considered standard in that sort of situation.
The vast majority of owners choose to remain with their pets when they are euthanized. I do my very best to make the situation a calm and peaceful experience, and by and large it is. Sure people cry, but only twice have I seen someone truly freak out and start screaming. Not the pet, mind you- they were in a happy place by that point and beyond caring- but owners throwing themselves over the pet, yelling at me to stop (too late), that sort of thing.
People always worry that they are going to be that person, but you’re probably not. If you’re like most people, you’re probably going to cry a little, say goodbye to your pet, then go home and lose it.
I get that we, as a society, are not very good when it comes to this whole death and dying thing. People get really weird about it. Some people just cannot handle being there, and I am OK with that. My feeling is, well, we take pets in the back and give them injections without their owners present all the time. The pet is unaware of their mortality, or that this shot is any different from the vaccine or pre-anesthetic sedative.
We, as a staff, are efficient, respectful, and kind when we do euthanasias without the owners present. No pet has to wait, sick and alone in a cage while we do other things. We all get together as a group, and do what we need to do. One of my techs has a drawer of catnip she sprinkles on the blanket for the kitties; the dogs get pets and hugs and reassurance. It’s not ideal, but it is the best we can do.
I used to be a little more critical of people who chose not to be present with their pets at a euthanasia, but that was before I had to euthanize Charlie.
Many years ago, back near the start of my career, Charlie presented to my clinic for vaccines. The doctor who was working that day noted that Charlie, an adorable 2 month old kitten, had a little bit of a fever. “It’s probably nothing,” he told the owner, “but let’s wait a few days and try again.”
Several days later, Charlie came back- still with a fever, and no longer wanting to eat. I looked at his distended belly and frowned. “Where did you adopt him from?”
“The shelter,” replied the owner, as I withdrew several cc’s of straw colored fluid from his abdomen.
She looked at me in disbelief as I spoke to her about FIP, the poor prognosis, the fact that there was no way to have predicted Charlie would have this disease. She just stared as I watched her heart break behind her eyes.
“OK,” she finally replied in a near whisper. “I need to go home and talk to my husband.”
Two days later, Charlie’s dad arrived with Charlie for euthanasia. By this point Charlie was very ill. “Where is his wife?” I asked. The receptionist shook her head. “She didn’t come. He doesn’t want to be there for the euthanasia either.”
I went into the room to make sure Charlie’s dad understood what we were going to be doing. “Are you sure,” I asked as delicately as I could, “that you don’t want to be there with Charlie when we euthanize him?”
He sighed. Then he shook his head, and, staring at the floor between his feet, this is what he told me:
“Last year, our two year old son died of leukemia. My wife was by his side every day for two months. We were both with him when he died.
“Last month, I adopted this kitten for my wife to try and cheer her up a little bit. I just- I just can’t believe this is happening, again. It’s just so cruel.
“I want to be there, but- I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
So. Now I am standing there, with tears running down my face and a giant HEEL sign on my head, trying to reassure this person and telling him to please not worry, that I will take good care of Charlie. He nodded imperceptibly, with the stoic veneer of someone trying as mightily as they can to contain the unwanted intrusion of a memory I just cannot fathom having, and he left.
I don’t know why the universe works the way it does sometimes.
But yes, if someone tells me they can’t be there with their pet, I remember that day, how this passage often brings up memories and emotions that perhaps they are just not capable of facing there, with me next to them. I gather my technicians, and we hold the pet and let them know no matter what, they were loved.