People often tell me that they think putting pets to sleep must be the worst part of my job but in many ways, it is one of the easiest. Yes it is sad, letting a beloved animal go, but in the majority of cases we are doing it for very good reasons; releasing them from a life that has become more about pain and suffering than the joy it should be.
A couple of years ago it was time to put our family labrador to sleep. Molly had reached the grand old age of 14 and had been struggling with arthritis for many years. Although her mind was still willing, her body had let her down and no amount of drugs would help her to be able to walk again.
What was interesting was my mother’s attitude. She is a GP and admitted that in her job death can be seen as a failure, rather than a release. She agreed with my decision but it was a totally different mind set to the one she was used to.
When patients come towards the end of their lives, in many ways the decisions that doctors and vets take are very similar, it is just that vets have an extra option; euthanasia.
Obviously with animals we don’t, and shouldn’t, take things to the levels that human medicine can. It often isn’t appropriate to put a pet through painful surgeries or medical treatments, especially if it will only result it a short period of extra life. Also, although it can be tempting to think an immobile pet could be kept going with nursing care, it simply isn’t fair. We can’t explain why their lives are so restricted, they find it distressing and complications including urine scaling and bed sores are common and very painful.
End of life care in people is very different and is an extremely sophisticated process, often involving several teams of people, and usually relies on attentive and intimate nursing care. It allows us to give our dying a peaceful, pain free end, often at home, with their family with them.
However, there are many people who believe this can sometimes prolong the inevitable and increase suffering and that we should have the option for human euthanasia in the UK. Certainly I have lost count of the number of clients who comment “I wish we could do this for people” when I put their pets to sleep.
The debate surrounding this issue is a passionate one with contentious opinions on both sides. I can certainly understand why some people diagnosed with degenerative or terminal conditions wish to be able to have control over their death and the option to end their lives before their suffering becomes extreme.
At least in veterinary medicine we don’t have this issue. Animals have no understanding of their illnesses or how they will progress. It saves them from the mental distress of their decline or the fact they will die. These are the burdens their owners have to bear instead.
Despite this I feel extremely fortunate to have euthanasia as an option for my patients. It is never a decision taken lightly, is always upsetting but I know it is a peaceful, pain free process which brings an end to suffering and distress.
However, if it did become available for my colleagues in the medical profession, I would not envy them. Not only would it be the polar opposite of everything they trained for but to take that decision for another human being, even if they were supportive of it, would be a responsibility that I would not wish on anyone.
Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com