Animal Euthanasia and Traumatic Stress

An underexplored area of suffering?

Posted Oct 15, 2013

Research has suggested that people whose work requires them to kill animals suffer from occupational stress.  Studies of shelter staff [1], veterinary professionals [2], and laboratory animal technicians [3] have consistently shown that these people experience a higher than usual rate number of physical and psychological symptoms of stress—including high blood pressure, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse—related to their job. 

Several studies published over the past few years have gone one step further, and explored whether those whose work involves euthanizing animals might suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress which psychologist Rachael MacNair has labeled perpetration-induced traumatic stress (or PITS) [4]. In PITS, the traumatic event is one in which the person has not just been a witness to or a victim of but in which they actively participated, and in which the act of killing was the source of trauma. MacNair’s research ocused particularly on veterans of the Vietnam war who killed in the line of duty; later research came to similar conclusions about veterans of the Iraq war.

A study by Vanessa Rohlf and Pauleen Bennett, published in the journal Animals & Society, suggests that workers whose occupations involve euthanizing animals may also suffer from mild to moderate symptoms of PITS [5].  Rohlf and Bennett surveyed 148 animal workers whose jobs involved euthanasia, including veterinarians, shelter workers, and animal researchers. They found that 39% of the participants reported mild symptoms of euthanasia-related traumatic stress, and 11% reported moderate symptoms.

Rohlf and Bennett also tried to measure whether social support, various types of training (including grief management and euthanasia techniques), and concern over animal death influenced the presence and severity of traumatic stress. They tried to determine whether several “event-related” risk factors influenced levels of stress: the context in which the killing occurs (were the animals sick, experimental, old, healthy?), how often the person is required to kill and how many animals, the nature of exposure, and the availability of social support. One particularly interesting finding was that stress-symptoms diminished with time spent killing animals. Rolfe and Bennett speculate that people may become “inoculated” to stress over time, and that exposure to stress fosters the development of coping strategies. It might also be that those who are excessively troubled by exposure to euthanasia opt out. Almost 3/4ths of the study participants reported that a love of animals had influenced their choice of profession (what Arnold Arluke calls the Killing-Caring Paradox).

Rolfe and Bennett concluded:

“Very little quantitative research has been conducted in this area. However, preliminary evidence suggests that people who look after animals and, as part of their occupation, are required to euthanize them should be regarded as an at-risk population for post-traumatic stress (PTS).”

Rolfe and Bennett’s research was published in 2006. As far as I know, there have not been any follow-up studies, although a 2011 essay in the Canadian Veterinary Journal highlighted, again, the risk of PITS in veterinarians involved in the killing of healthy animals [5]. This is an area in which further research is extremely important, in order to raise awareness that the work of humanely killing animals has significant mental health implications.

What remains totally unexplored, to date, is whether some individual pet owners who choose to euthanize an animal also suffer from mild or moderate traumatic stress. I am not claiming that pet owners suffer from PITS or PTSD—there is, as of yet, no research to support such an assertion. But based on conversations with a many pet owners, mental health professionals, and veterinarians, I believe that people who decide to euthanize a companion animal sometimes experience profound distress which can last for months or even years. Of course the situation of pet owners is different from that of veterinarians or shelter workers, because we rarely, if ever, actually perform the euthanasia procedure; we don’t push down the syringe of Fatal Plus. But we are responsible for the decision to euthanize, which is in some ways even worse than simply being the technician who carries out the request. We hold our animal’s life and death in our hands and “play God.” 

Euthanasia-related distress is not the same as grieving over the death of a pet—which is yet another huge area of concern. But euthanasia and grieving can become embroiled in a complex mixture. For example, if a person feels uncomfortable with the euthanasia decision (maybe they felt pressured by a vet or by family members into choosing euthanasia; maybe they were made to feel guilty for “killing” their animal; maybe the euthanasia procedure was distressing for the animal in unexpected ways) their grieving may be complicated by feelings of guilt or uncertainty. People who are traumatized by the euthanasia of a pet sometimes fall into serious depression and even have suicidal thoughts. And this distress goes largely unacknowledged, so that people suffer without social support or professional help.

The traumatic after-effects of euthanizing a beloved pet are a significant source of suffering. Perhaps some of this suffering could be avoided, or at the least given the attention it deserves, if we could develop a greater awareness and understanding of the mental health effects of euthanizing animals, both among veterinary professionals and particularly among pet owners, and encourage the involvement of mental health professionals in end-of-life care for our companion animals. 

References:

[1] Arluke, A. (1991). “Coping with euthanasia: a case study of shelter culture.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 198 (7), 1176-1180.

[2] American Veterinary Medical Association—Committee on the human-animal bond (1995). “Euthanasia and stress for the vet team,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 206 (7), 965.

[3] American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. The cost of caring: recognizing human emotions in the care of laboratory animals. http://www.aalas.org/pdf/06-00006.pdf.

[4] MacNair, R.M. (2002). Perpetration-induced traumatic stress. London: Praeger Publishers.

[5] Whiting, T. and C. Marion (2011). “Perpetration-induced traumatic stress—A risk for veterinarians involved in the destruction of healthy animals,” Canadian Veterinary Journal, 52, 794-796.