When Veterinarians Are Faced With Euthanizing Their Own Pets

Bigfoot

Bigfoot

When I was a neophyte veterinarian, and fresh out of school, the veterinarian I went to work for used to always say that it was good for ALL veterinarians to periodically have to go through the euthanasia process with their own animals.  Though I think I understood the gist of what he was saying– that it keeps us in touch with the feelings our clients go through when faced with the difficult euthanasia decision– I also can’t think of a single veterinarian I’ve ever known who gets hardened to the act of euthanizing.

This morning I had to euthanize my beloved cat who I had for 19 1/2 years.  I’ve had him since he was 8 weeks old.  If the truth be told, it’s something I’ve dreaded and tried to prepare myself for for many years now.  After all, he was almost 20 years old and had already lived well past his average life span.  But there was no preparing for this.  I feel as though I have lost a child.

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I wrote a post back in March which dealt a little with aging pets and my anticipatory grief. You can click here if you care to read that and read more about Bigfoot.  Since writing that blog post, Bigfoot developed a sub-lingual (under his tongue) tumor which invaded his lower jawbone.  This tumor was aggressive. When my normally social cat started withdrawing from the family he loved, and started spending 99% of  his time under my bed, I knew it was time.  He’s always been a very vocal cat as far as purring and lately that beautiful purring sound I loved so much came to a screeching halt.  What made the decision so difficult was that he still had a good appetite.  But he was having an increasingly difficult time eating.  Eating became very laborious for him and he dropped more food than he was able to consume. My boy, who had always weighed-in at 9.5 lbs. most of his adult life, weighed only 6.3 lbs. today.  But he still ran and jumped and rubbed on my legs.

What I’m having a particularly hard time with tonight is knowing that I waited too long to end his suffering.  For some reason, that became clearly evident to me when I laid him on the examination table at the veterinary clinic and suddenly saw him with different eyes. With a veterinarian’s eyes instead of an attached pet owner’s eyes.  I saw the look on my veterinarian friend’s face (the one who would be performing the euthanasia) when he walked in the room and looked at my cat.  And I knew.  I’d waited too long.  Maybe I was in denial.  Maybe I was holding out for hope, or maybe even a miracle.  Or maybe love just got in the way.  Or worst case scenario, I was selfish and thinking about my needs more than his– the love I would miss out on if he were no longer here.  I don’t really know the reason, but I’m a little upset at myself for waiting too long.  He deserved better. After all, his owner was a vet.  But in the end, that wasn’t really in his favor.  I’ve seen this happen before with pets of veterinarian friends of mine.  It’s a phenomena I’m more than a little curious about and I wonder if anyone’s ever studied it.  It’s actually a little baffling to me.  It’s ironic.

I’ve always had a hard time when it comes to assessing my own animals.  I remember an incident when I was right out of veterinary school.  I had adopted a beautiful white German Shepherd while in school that I was still getting to know and who I was quite attached to.  My husband and I had just married and moved into our new home.  One evening, just before dusk, I put Tellico on his leash, and walked him out the backdoor into the yard so he could “do his business.” Even though he was an intact male dog, he always squatted when he urinated.  He was in mid-squat and was urinating when he suddenly had a petit mal seizure.  Petit mal seizures are mild generalized seizures which are extremely brief.  Brief but still scary.  I’m not even sure they refer to them as petit mal seizures anymore, but that’s what they were called back in my days of veterinary school.  When it happened, it terrified me.  All that went through my head was, I HAVE TO GET MY DOG TO A VET!   AND FAST!!!  Then as quickly as I said it, I remembered, and said to myself, “Oh wait, I AM a vet!”  That’s an honest to God true story and I always wonder if that has happened to other vets.

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I’ve never been comfortable treating my own animals and prefer NOT to if given the choice.  I don’t like giving my own animals their vaccinations (let someone else have the unpleasant task of jabbing them with a needle) and I especially hate performing surgery on them.  It’s hard to be objective when it’s your own animal.  I’ve learned over the years when it comes to my own animals and their problems, I have to step away and sort of “detach myself” from the situation, then ask myself: “O.K., if this were a CLIENT’S animal, what would I do?”  That adds clarity to the situation every time and I’m then good to go.  Yeah, sounds kinda silly I know.  But I do it.  Except in Bigfoot’s case this time.  I didn’t.

The veterinarian who performed the euthanasia on Bigfoot was a vet I used to work for briefly.  I consider him a friend.  His wife Cathy, the office manager, was in the room during the procedure.  I couldn’t be more grateful to both of them for their kindness and compassion.  I could not have asked for my cat to have been treated with more respect in his final moments.  I’ve been on the other side of the table where they stood today, and I know their job was not easy.  My sister was there with me.  She cried with me.  After all, Bigfoot was her longtime kitty nephew.  When it was all over and done, she asked if I was o.k. to drive home.  I assured her I was.  I lied.  The tears were blinding my eyes so bad that I almost crashed into another car when backing out of my parking space.  It’s hard…  This losing a four-legged child.

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I know my boy is at peace now and that brings me comfort.  I know it was the right thing to do, even though it feels like my heart has been ripped right out of my chest.  I’ve had waves of grief hit me all day and all night long.  And pangs of guilt for not doing it sooner.  I already miss that little gray and white furry body winding around my legs in figure 8 patterns when I open the refrigerator–knowing he was hoping my main goal in opening that refrigerator was to feed His Royal Highness.  I already miss hearing the bell on his little collar ring when he walked down the hall or through the house.  I miss his sweet little meow greeting.

I came home and started emptying his litter boxes and washed them all out.  I picked up his food and water bowls and washed them to put them away.  I took up his food mat. Looking around now, you would never know a much-loved cat lived in this house for the past 20 years.  Except maybe for his basket of toys and I’m leaving them be for now.  My house is deadly silent tonight and lonely and I can’t stand it.  I realized this is the first time in maybe my entire 54 years of living that I have been without a pet.  I will miss that little gray and white guy sitting on my belly tonight in bed when I read.  And in a few months I will miss him curling up at my feet keeping me warm on long winter nights.  I will miss all the routines we had for the past almost 20 years.  Our walks outside, our “love-times” as I called them when we would sit on the couch together and watch TV, with me petting him or brushing him.  Him purring loudly all the way.

Yet, while I grieve for him tonight, another overwhelming feeling I’ve had (and I must admit a little surprising),  has been a very grateful, thankful feeling to God for the gift of this creature who has been the most wonderful companion for almost 20 years.  I wouldn’t trade the joy and happiness he brought to me for all the money in the world right now.   I am ever so thankful for the gift of love he gave to me.  And I mean that with all my heart.

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The prayer I pray tonight is a prayer for an animal that has died or is about to die.  I prayed this prayer aloud while holding Bigfoot in my arms in the car just before walking into the veterinary clinic.  I will pray it at his burial.   It goes something like this:

Loving God, 

My beloved pet and companion, Bigfoot, is on his final journey.

I will miss Bigfoot dearly because of the joy and affection he has given to me.  

Bless Bigfoot and give him peace.  

May your care for him never die.  I thank you for the gift that Bigfoot has been to me.  

Give me hope that in your great kindness you may restore Bigfoot in your heavenly kingdom according to your wisdom, which goes beyond our human understanding.  Amen.  

Bigfoot, I will love you forever.  Rest in peace my sweet boy.

Gail ♥

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About Gail

I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, veterinarian, and wanna be writer. I love nature and animals of all kinds, music, cooking, and spending time with my family.
This entry was posted in Animals, cats and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to When Veterinarians Are Faced With Euthanizing Their Own Pets

  1. Sorry for your loss. It’s a very sad story.. I must admit I read 2/3 of it and had to stop as my tears were becoming too obvious for my colleagues to not notice! He was such a beautiful boy! I often cry for a certain pup and foal that I lost a year ago this month. It is like losing a family member. Hope peace finds you soon 🙂

  2. Gail says:

    Thank you for your expression of sympathy and your kind words! I’m sorry I made you cry! It most definitely is like losing a family member.

  3. Jaye says:

    I extend my condolences to you as well Gail. It is always so painful to say good-bye (or ‘until we meet again’) to our beloved pets. May God surround you with his comforting presence and love in this very difficult time.

  4. Relax says:

    I’m so sorry (((((Gail))))). And what a gorgeous cat! I don’t know what makes you think you waited too long to euthanize.. I wonder what Bigfoot would say of it. Maybe he’d say, “It was just right, my people-mama. It was just right.”

    Yeah, you made me cry, too. It’s not just because of a known sadness (and knowing we can’t share in it with you, other than with words and far-off hugs), it’s also because you’re a good writer.

    Prayers goin’ up for you and for all who are missing a special, irreplaceable cuddler tonight.

  5. Gail says:

    Thanks for your nice words and also for the prayers. I missed him so much today.

  6. TrishaDM says:

    I am so sorry to hear about you loss. Bigfoot is adorable and I know he will be terribly missed!

    I can’t speak for the vet side of things, but I know that I am a terrible judge of the medical needs of myself or my immediate family. I promptly worse-case or best-case scenario everything. I have to step back (okay, usually Patrick tells me to step back) and say “what would I do if this were a patient in my clinic?” Often that changes things a bit. In some situations, though, that personal connection is key to helping you understand and empathize better with others. But still, it is a huge struggle.

    I think having that personal connection helped you to know what Bigfoot needed at that time. You did the best you could for him and I am sure he knows it!

    • Gail says:

      Thanks Trisha. I think that is very common in the medical profession. My husband is an RN and he’s the same way with his own healthcare.

      As far as veterinarians go, I really do see this quite commonly in veterinarian’s pets. While it’s disturbing to me, it also intrigues me and makes me wonder why it happens. I’ve often wondered if euthanasia is something we “avoid” in our own pets because we think we can heal everything. But I know that’s not it. I think many things play into this “waiting too long.”

      Like you say, it does help to step back and look at it from a patient’s view. It does change things and clarifies the situation.

  7. PJ says:

    I know you miss Bigfoot terribly now. He was such a sweet boy. I love all the pics you posted. He had a good life with you and the boys.

  8. Wendy Reasoner says:

    Thanks for writing this, Gail. I also am very thankful for the gift that Bigfoot was to your family. What a blessing he was!

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