Six euthanasia trends you didn’t know about
When I first started Lap of Love (which, for perspective, was three months out of veterinary school), I thought everyone made the decision to euthanize their pet the same way. In short, my lack of experience let me assume it was simply when the family couldn’t afford the care or the pet was actively dying. In many cases, this is true.
However, helping hundreds of families say goodbye to their pets in a very short amount of time did lend a certain insight into minute familial differences that allowed me to better predict problems, concerns and “blocks” owners face during the decision-making process. Understanding these trends quickly shaped how I communicate and coach families through the end-of-life experience with their pets.
1. First-timers make the decision “too late.” To be clear, this isn’t my opinion. Rather, it’s what the families tell me after we’ve said goodbye. Families that have never been through the process of euthanasia before tell me they’re waiting for “a sign” or “the right moment.” After the pet passes, however, they usually comment, “I don’t know what I was waiting for—she didn’t need to go through those last few days or weeks—I wish I would have called you sooner.”
We can all empathize—we know what it’s like to search the house looking for that handwritten (or paw-written) note that says, “Mom, I’m ready now.” But it never arrives. In fact, I’ve asked hundreds of veterinary professionals if they knew exactly when it was time for their own pets. Just 1 to 2 percent of us do.
The irony here is that often we tell clients to “go home and call me when you’re ready,” but we fail to understand the burden that places on the pet owner, especially those who have never been down that road before. When I tell families about this trend, their shoulders relax, they sigh and they hand over a bit of the burden to me—which, in my opinion, helps relieve the massive amount of guilt they’re already experiencing.
2. Clients make the decision sooner and sooner with their subsequent pets. This may not be true in every case, but I cannot emphasize enough how often I hear families say, “I did everything for my last pet, but it was extremely difficult for us emotionally, it was expensive, and we waited too long—I’m not doing that again.”
They cut back on advanced diagnostics, are more liberal with requests for pain medicine despite potential long-term problems, and request palliative care sooner. These families are the most open to early hospice care while remaining very grounded in their ability to define and accept a decreased quality of life.
3. The grief doesn’t get easier when you’ve had more pets. In the past nine years I’ve helped numerous families with five or more euthanasias each. In fact, many times it’s the only “meeting” I’ve ever had with them. Through my work with these incredible pet parents and my own personal experience, it’s obvious that the grief does not lessen. In fact, in my own experience, the grief of the loss of a personal pet seems to compound. Some report “feeling the loss of all my pets all at the same time” for each additional death.
4. Millennials and teenagers are the hardest to coach. Basically, this applies to anyone from 13 years of age up into the mid-30s. Often this is the pet they adopted in college or right when they moved out of their parents’ home. It’s the first time they were ever responsible for another soul outside of themselves. This dog or cat was there with them through boyfriends or girlfriends, through breakups, marriages and every other major lifechanging event that happens in young adulthood.
Saying goodbye to that first pet is saying goodbye, in a way, to their youth. To make matters worse, this young adult stage can sometimes come with an pessimistic view of society and of medicine in general. They can sometimes feel that death is happening because medicine failed in some way, or because someone didn’t “fight hard enough.” They may not have yet faced other major losses in their life and learned to come to terms with the finality of death. Whatever the reason, this age group can show signs of anger when faced with immense grief.
5. It has nothing to do with money. Walking into the homes of the families I serve has given me an immense insight into the economic status of veterinary clients. Yes, there are some massive mansions, but more than likely I’m walking into a home in a low- to middle-class neighborhood with a sign on the front door that reads, “Man’s best friend lives here.”
It’s not uncommon for the family to have not visited the veterinarian in the past five years, feed the least expensive dog food and have a completely unique view on hygiene. But let me tell you, these families love their pets like family members. Regardless of what things look like on the outside, the common denominator with all of our clients is that the pet is immensely loved.
These pets may not all have received the “gold standard” care we were taught in vet school, but they are absolutely, positively loved as a member of the family. One of my biggest lessons in the business of veterinary medicine is this: What someone can afford and what they’re willing to afford are two very different things.
6. Pet owners don’t want it to be their fault. Personally, this is the most important realization I learned about euthanasia in veterinary medicine. It breaks my heart to hear a family say, “I’m so sorry” to their pet, especially when saying goodbye in such a loving way! I want to take that “sorry” and say, “Don’t you see you did an amazing job? Don’t you realize how incredible you are? There’s nothing for you to be sorry about!”
When I started to evolve my statements from enforcing the “client’s choice” to taking more ownership over the euthanasia decision, owners seemed less burdened. Their guilt seemed minimized and they didn’t feel so alone. After all, my clients do not practice veterinary medicine; I do. I’m the one who pushes the plunger and delivers that life-ending medicine, not them. So yes, I must take full responsibility for the decision that they’re allowing me to make.
Sure, they must partner with me in that important choice, but I never say, “You’re making the right decision.” Instead I say, “We’re making the best choice together—what a lucky boy Max is to have a family that loves him so much.”
Identifying these trends has been an essential part of helping our Lap of Love team members guide families through the most important moments of their pet-parenting lives. Pet owners see themselves in the stories I share and are better equipped to make it through the experience peacefully. Their release from pain may be the greatest gift we give the pet, and the release from guilt is the greatest gift we give the family.