On the loss of a Pet.
Liz Cuttino, DVM
June 16, 2017
Yesterday, I was asked a question commonly heard in the last moments of a pet’s life. “How do you do it, Doc? How do you come in every day and have to put pets to sleep?” A question almost as common as “I could never be a vet because I couldn’t stand to put animals down. How do you do it?” In this moment, I had no words. But the kind soul who was losing his canine companion offered up a lovely sentiment: “because you are a good, good person.”
The loss of a pet reaches our hearts in a unique way. I don’t feel that putting pets to sleep makes me a good person. This family did not know that I also lost a pet of my own yesterday. Like them, I also had to wrestle through the broken hopes and harsh reality, a storm of reason and emotion that always rushes in too fast, demanding the human heart to discern a right decision for a pet when everything feels wrong.
Usually, my core conviction to do what is best and kindest for a pet using all the resources available to me gives me the strength necessary when the time comes to end a life. I let my deepest conscience guide the needle in- only, ONLY when my medical knowledge, experience, and sympathetic understanding of the human-animal bond align to give a peace about making the ultimate decision between life and death. How do I do it? I am sworn to do what’s best for pets, and when the time comes for each pet, I will uphold that oath. I will give them the best death possible, a tribute to each animal’s life.
These are the things I reveal to clients when they ask. And every word is true. But there is another thing that happens with each and every euthanasia, and I have never revealed this before. I believe that my role in the euthanasia experience is to do my best to support the client and the pet through the process, to be kind, but unobtrusive, and to allow each human-pet pair honor the moment as they see fit. So I don’t talk about the other thing that happens, on my end of the the needle. This thing is for veterinarians to bear, for each of us who accept the call to give animals our best, through life and through the death. This thing is the Moment when a pet passes away, in our hands, from our fingers advancing the final medication. Every pet, whether stray or loved, old or young, mean or sweet, smelly or snuggly, songbird, hamster, German shepherd, or horse- with every single one, there is that moment of naked truth, knowing that the pet’s life is extinguished, and that it was at my hands. To paint a visual of how this feels, the moment a pet’s life leave its body, it cleaves off a small shard of my soul, and they fly away together, gone from this world.
Sometimes I cry, sometimes I don’t. But every time, my gut turns over inside me. Trust me, your pet’s life and death matter to me. Whether I knew y’all for years, or whether I met you just the once, for the euthanasia, it matters. Even when I have to dress my face and voice in a smile for the next puppy room that comes in, inside, in my heart, it matters.
Our pets are here for such a short time, yet we love and trust them so deeply. There are more lessons to be learned from our pets- from the lives they live that make them worthy of the best, most honorable death possible. I have had to euthanize three of my own pets in the last few months: my mare, my male German shepherd, and my beagle. Each under different circumstances. In the face of so much death, there is so much to be taken in of the life of each animal. So much to learn and digest. And I will learn from the lives of each of them, and by this I will honor them.
My patient yesterday was a kind soul. He was good and kind to his core, and anyone who laid hands on this sweet pet knew it. Let us be kind.
My Beagle Bagel lived her life exactly as she wanted to, and insisted on being a wanderer. She loved her explorations, which is likely why I originally found her miles and miles into the Wateree swamp, living on roadkill. She loved to eat, but only the foods that brought her joy. She loved to soak in sunshine. She hated to be bothered by cats. She loved her independence, didn’t like adults, but she adored tiny humans. She wasn’t into cuddling or making new friends, but children were her soft spot. Let us be true to ourselves, and let us let our calling and our passion drive us to kindness. Be good to the children. Also, eating all the sweet stuff can kill you (as a toxicity did her), so mind what you put in your body.
My Shepherd, Djembe, accepted and loved everyone he met. Unless it was a cat or a small bird. But otherwise, he was the epitome of unconditional love, even when his body was broken down. He loved the simple things in life, like riding in the car with the window down. He loved to put his big face under my arm whenever he needed cuddling- he asked for what he needed. Let us love with abandon and let us ask for what we need when we need a hug.
My mare, Jackie, was a difficult horse. She had high anxiety and fear about everything new she encountered- except for herding cattle. Who knew? The high-strung ex-racehorse was never happier than when she was focused on a cow, working as a team to push it where it needed to go. When her body was ready for pasture retirement, her idea of living life to the fullest was hanging in the pasture, day in and day out, with her pasture mates. Her idea of heaven was a place with complete predictability at all costs. “No, PLEASE don’t hang a stall fan in the summer, that is terrifying, even though I can’t sweat well.” Let us value our roots, our family, our home, and our traditions.
What life lessons have your pets taught you after they left your side?