Richard Murray BVSc, MSc, FAVA

I personally find the “absolute sanctity of life” argument unsupportable when no quality of life remains. I think it true to say that veterinarians (by and large) don’t have to struggle with their conscience over the euthanasia of pets when those animals are simply better off out of it. When peaceful release is a better option than struggling on in miserable circumstances, euthanasia is difficult to argue against.

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It is remarkable that so many pet owners spontaneously say, to me at least, how much they wished the same option could have been available for a friend or relative of their own when there was no way out and nothing to look forward to for them. My guess is that when the nonsense of “political correctness” surrounding human euthanasia is eventually replaced by reasonable common sense, community opinion will come to conditionally accommodate legal human euthanasia. But I diverge… Getting back to the pets now…

In some cases, for us, a decision for euthanasia is so direct and obvious that the call is easy to make - it is something that must be done – as soon as possible - and we get on with it - to the relief of everybody involved (including the animal). On other occasions however, while the decision itself may be equally straightforward (and it has to be done just the same), aspects relating to the grief and loss involved for the pet’s owner can make the procedure an emotionally tough one for everyone, though (once again), not for the animal itself.

Even when it is right and it needs doing performing euthanasias is a sobering business for veterinarians because it involves the taking of a life … and that is something that always weighs heavily. For us, in these situations, the stress is not so much about having to do the euthanasia procedure as it is about having empathy for the grief stricken client…. and that stress can be great.

Life lesson

A long time ago now, I can remember being with my uncle when he had to put down an old stock horse. There were a handful of “retired” stock horses on the station. They had their paddock that was called the retired horse paddock for obvious reasons. From time to time when the old fellows were handy, my uncle would make a detour from the station tasks in hand to speak with them while he checked them over and combed the burrs out of their tails and manes. On this occasion one of them was in bad shape.

The horse had been a good old work mate of my uncle and they had travelled lots together in the past, but he had clearly had enough and the job needed to be done. It was a quick kill, done cleanly, neatly and expertly. Better that than to go down and die slowly at the mercy of the crows that would be there waiting for the death and picking at his eyes while they did so. I’d seen that happen with dying sheep and knew all about that reality.

Though just a little nipper at the time, I understood the respect and care that was shown for that old horse by my uncle. I doubt I’ll ever forget it. We didn’t talk much in the truck going home after that. My uncle had his pipe going while I was just sitting there thinking “cripes”! There was no suggestion that he thought this was something I should not have witnessed and I am grateful for that to this day.

Hard calls

For mine, the toughest call of all with euthanasia involves those cases where a calculated decision for euthanasia has to be made. In these difficult circumstances, euthanasia has to be weighed up as one option along side of what other treatment options might also be available. When other options do exist, it becomes a matter of judgment as to what’s the best choice. This consideration can be complex and may involve aspects pertinent to prognosis (likelihood of good outcomes), remission periods (how long the mend will last), expense (what it is all going to cost) and quality of life (how much trauma is going to be involved). But in the end, if it’s a right call, then that’s where you have to be.

When helping clients with euthanasia decisions, a big part of our job involves reassuring them that it is not at all odd to struggle with the emotion of making this decision. We are always mindful of the wrench that separation may be going to cause even when it is a clearly necessary course of action and have a range of palliative care treatments that can very fairly postpone euthanasia for a while. This can be a blessing in a few ways other than the obvious one of providing pain relief etc. Probably greatest of these is the interval it allows for everyone to get ready and come to terms with what is an obvious and pending necessity.

Just before Christmas, I had to do the euthanasia job on my own old lab who was well past her fourteenth birthday and not going to reach her fifteenth. It was a combination of arthritis and cognitive dysfunction that gradually wore Min down and although we had done all the palliative care things, eventually the time came. That episode re-sharpened my appreciation of how important it is for us to be as considerate as we possibly can when handling euthanasias for our clients. As a consequence, we reviewed our clinic euthanasia procedure protocols and while there was nothing inadequate with what we had been doing to that point, we did find a couple of additional things that we could arrange, to do it better – and we have.