- The death of a dog often provokes feelings of sadness in people, even if the dog is not their own.
- Some veterinarians feel emotional distress when they are required to euthanize a dog and also deal with a grieving pet owner.
- Data show that most veterinary colleges do not train their students effectively to deal with the emotional consequences of euthanasia.
It is now just two weeks since my silly old cavalier King Charles spaniel, Ripley, passed away. He was 13 years old, which is a really good run for cavaliers, since they usually topple over at age 10. He had many jobs in life. He was an obedience competitor who won several degrees (CD, Rally Advanced, CGN—any title that didn't require retrieving since that skill eluded him all of his life). He was often my demonstrator dog in dog obedience classes, and, for many years, he was a very effective therapy dog working with groups of stressed individuals including kids and seniors. Mostly, however, he was a gentle and affectionate companion. After his long and useful life, the sad fact was that, at the end, he needed help to peacefully pass on.
In Ripley's case, when the ultimate crisis came, his breathing was noticeably labored and distressed, he had lost his ability to stand up, he wouldn't take food or water, and his heart was failing him. His veterinarian informed me that she was having difficulties stabilizing him and, at best, if they acted heroically, his time could be extended by only a few days—with little quality of life. The thought of him suffering for many days longer was unbearable and so I elected to have him euthanized.
I stood by him, with my hand resting on his shoulder, fighting back the tears, while first a sedative was injected and he seemed to go to sleep. After that, he was administered the lethal drug dose and he almost immediately stopped breathing. The veterinarian had known Ripley all of his life (and I had known her since she was in high school, when she and her mother brought a lovely flat-coated retriever to my dog class). She looked regretful as we stood next to Ripley, but was very quiet and professional. She gently patted my hand and said, "If you want to spend a bit more time with him, I'll leave you for now."
I stayed with him a while longer, sadly thinking to myself that one of the candles that illuminated my life had now just been snuffed out.
How We Deal With the Death of a Dog
A short while later, I found myself back home, sitting on the sofa with my Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, Ranger, beside me. I was drawing comfort from his warmth and the sound of his breathing. I was sadly musing about the way humans respond to the death of a dog. Typically, we tend to feel sorrow even when the dog that died is not our own. We have a similar response even if the dog that has passed is fictional, such as being a character in a film or a book. There is actually a Web site to help you avoid the distress of seeing even a cinematic dog die. Doesthedogdie.com is designed to warn its readers if a movie contains the death of a dog. Sometimes it even gives the time codes so that you can skip over that section of the video when watching the movie and, thus, avoid the stressful part.
Veterinarians often are faced with the fact that ailing dogs that they are treating die, despite their best efforts. It seems reasonable to assume that this saddens them. It would seem that the emotional response would even be worse when a dog dies because has been euthanized and the veterinarian has played an active role in its death. If merely watching a dog that is a character in a movie die causes an emotional response, the psychologist in me could not help but ask the question, "How are veterinarians trained to cope with the distress of having to euthanize a dog?"
Do Veterinary Schools Prepare Their Students to Deal With the Distress of Euthanasia?
Searching through the scientific literature, I found a number of studies from the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, which surprisingly conclude that veterinary schools don't really give their students much preparation for these emotional situations.
The most recent study on this topic comes from a team of researchers headed by Maureen Gates at the School of Veterinary Science at Massey University in New Zealand. It involved a survey of 361 veterinarians in companion animal or mixed animal practices. In this sample, the number of animals euthanized each month averaged a bit over seven.
When asked about the training that they received in veterinary school, 84 percent reported that they had not performed euthanasia on a dog before graduation, and 13 percent reported that they had not even observed a canine euthanasia as part of their education.
When asked about training in other aspects associated with euthanasia at veterinary college, approximately one-third of the respondents indicated that they had received no training at all in dealing with emotional clients, disposing of remains, euthanasia sedation protocols, and managing compassion fatigue. Furthermore, 74 percent indicated that they had received no additional formal training in euthanasia after graduation and most of their later instruction was by colleagues or their employer. One of them acknowledged that a lot of learning occurred on the job after they entered clinical practice as new graduates, and noted that this was "an area where senior veterinarians can have a massive influence on the way a new graduate develops their soft skills in regards to euthanasia."
One of those "soft skills" involves dealing with grieving by the dog owner who has just lost their companion. In this study, almost 80 percent of respondents indicated that they had never discussed options for grief counseling and support with pet owners. As an interesting aside, 78 percent of veterinarians reported experience with having their own dog euthanized, either by themselves or by another veterinarian. Of these, 30 percent indicated that it had an impact on how they subsequently dealt with euthanasia. One veterinarian stated, "There needs to be more practical experience for students surrounding euthanasia rather than just rote learning. I thought I was okay until I came out and realised how inexperienced and unconfident I was when it was just me."
Euthanasia often takes a psychological toll on veterinarians. One stated, "I feel there is a huge psychic and emotional cost to regularly taking life, even if it is to prevent suffering. Though usually I feel little during the procedure (other than the pressure to make everything go as smoothly as possible), later I feel hugely drained."
A Personal Note
One comment from a veterinarian in this study that did strike home was, "The hardest for me were my elderly clients that depended on their pets for companionship, who knew they wouldn't get another one after this one had gone, due to their own age."
I am now 80 years of age with emerging mobility problems. Now after watching my beloved little spaniel die, I also have to ask the question, "Can I restart the cycle with a new puppy?" At the moment, I really don't know the answer.
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.
Gates MC, Kells NJ, Kongara KK & Littlewood KE (2023) Euthanasia of dogs and cats by veterinarians in New Zealand: protocols, procedures and experiences. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, DOI: 10.1080/00480169.2023.2194687
Moses L, Malowney MJ, Wesley Boyd J. (2018) Ethical conflict and moral distress in veterinary practice: A survey of North American veterinarians. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 32: 2115–2122. https://doi.org/10.1111/jvim.15315
Matte AR, Khosa DK, Coe JB, Meehan M, Niel L. (2020). Exploring veterinarians’ use of practices aimed at understanding and providing emotional support to clients during companion animal euthanasia in Ontario, Canada. Veterinary Record 187, e74. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.105659