Hi, I’m Dr. Karyn! Read my introduction to learn more about me and meet my five hilarious cats: Clutch, Cyril, Alex, Zelda, and Zazzles.
This is going to be hard for me to write, so bear with me.
My pets are sometimes the one thing that gets me through the day; theirs is the definition of unconditional love. Sure, sometimes they’re demanding, and some cynical people might say that their affection is given purely in exchange for food. I feel sorry for those people, because they have clearly never experienced what I have, and I know that most of you have too.
In four decades, I have only lived 18 months without a cat in my life, and it sucked. But with all the joy, comfort, and companionship, comes the sad fact that the lifespan of our pets is only a fraction of our own (with the exception of some parrots and tortoises!). This means that at some point, we have to say goodbye.
Euthanasia in my work
I’ve always wanted to be a vet; there was never anything else I wanted to do. But in my teens, I started to worry about how I would handle the emotion around euthanasia, and I actually delayed my veterinary training, instead doing a science degree and working for a few years. Fast forward ten years, and not only was I emotionally mature enough to cope with euthanizing pets, I came to appreciate what a gift it really was.
People often ask if I find euthanasia difficult, but I truthfully answer that, in the vast majority of cases, it is a blessing to be able to help take away an animal’s suffering. When we have reached a point where we can no longer help them medically, it is honestly a wonderful thing that we can let our pets go in a quick, peaceful, and painless way. I don’t want to open a can of worms about human euthanasia, but I personally think that it’s horrible, even ludicrous, that we are not legally able to have the same experience, without journeying to another country whose laws allow it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not indifferent to the passing of my patients, and there have been many, many times where I have been holding back tears as I gave the injection, and others where I was blubbering right alongside the owner. Sometimes the worst ones weren’t difficult just because of the pet, but the people left behind, because I know, all too well, how they feel.
Although there are rare situations where a euthanasia doesn’t go as smoothly as we would all like, such as pets that need sedation before we can place an IV, or the animals that involuntarily vocalize as they pass (a reflex that sounds awful, but not something the pet is aware of), in the vast majority of cases, euthanasia is a calm, peaceful procedure, which can take place in a veterinary practice or sometimes at your home. When euthanasia comes at the end of a long life, or a long and difficult illness, the most common emotions I see expressed once a pet has passed away are grief, gratitude, and relief. Gratitude for having shared their life with such a beautiful soul, and being able to spare them any future pain or indignity, and relief that their pet died quickly, peacefully, and cradled by loved ones, and is no longer suffering.
Staying with your pet
Some people prefer not to stay when their pet is put to sleep, and that is okay. That is a personal choice. Rest assured that they will still be held and soothed and showered with affection as they pass. Whenever an owner is on the fence about whether or not they want to be present, I always encourage them to stay with their pet. If things get too difficult, they can always leave the room, but if you regret not staying, you can’t get that back.
I once went to the home of an elderly chap who had some health problems of his own, and he had finally made the decision to say goodbye to his collie, who had been by his side for 16 years, seeing him through some really tough times. He was, understandably, very emotional, and thought that he couldn’t stay in the room, but kept changing his mind, and his dog, Molly, was clearly worried about her distressed owner. In the end, we had a chat outside and I asked him to come and stay with her, just as she had been beside him all her life. And he did. He held her head and cried into her neck as she slipped away in his arms.
A few days later, he came into the vet clinic to shake my hand and thank me for “making him stay.” He was so grateful to have been there for Molly in her final moments, and bear witness to how peaceful her death was. Even though it had been a really difficult day for him, it was made a little bit easier by knowing that he’d done the right thing by Molly, and that he was with her at the very end.
Euthanasia and me
Of course, I have had my fair share of pets leave me over the years, and there have been a couple of situations that have solidified for me, just what a blessing it can be to be by your pet’s side when they die. I often hear people say that they would prefer that their pet pass away naturally, in their sleep, at home. And you know what, sometimes this does happen. But often, especially when it comes to illnesses like kidney disease or cancer, it can take a long time for death to come, and there may be a lot of suffering before it takes them. The privilege, which is what I believe it to be, of being able to take control of that final journey and make it as warm and loving as possible, is something I have envied on more than one occasion.
Twice in my life I have had pets pass away suddenly, unexpectedly, while I wasn’t home. On the positive side, I knew that neither my elderly cat or epileptic dog had been in pain or suffering prior to their deaths, and both had been enjoying life as normal on the mornings I left them, but they were dead before I came home. I know that there is nothing I could have done, but I am still haunted by the fact that I don’t know if they were scared, or in pain, or how quickly death took them. I just know that they were alone.
For this reason, when I am counseling people about making that final decision, when we know that there are no other options left, I encourage them to choose euthanasia, and choose it before it’s too late.
Sullivan (Sully for short) flew all the way from Australia when she was 14 to live with me in the UK, which she did happily for almost two years. She had shown no signs of heart problems prior to her death.
Tate (short for Potato) had joined our family when his previous owner could no longer take care of him, and he had been so stable on his medication, I couldn’t have predicted or planned for his death, which came suddenly one evening while I was at work.
I have to take comfort in knowing that they had not suffered in the days leading up to the one that would be their last. But if I had known, I would want to be there to hold them and comfort them and show them that they were so loved.
If you are struggling with the euthanasia decision, of knowing when the time is right, of knowing if you will be able to stay, I will leave you with this advice:
- I have never seen the decision to euthanize a sick or suffering pet too early, but I have definitely seen it made too late.
- It is better to say goodbye when there is still some joy left, than to wait until there is none.
- It is unlikely that you will regret staying with your pet, but you might regret leaving.
- You are not killing your pet. You are not giving up or ending their life. You are ending their suffering and preventing any more. You are allowing them to pass away quickly and painlessly, in your arms.
We don’t always get to make the decision, and the death of our pets is never easy. But if euthanasia becomes the only real option in front of you, please do not think of it as something to feel shame or guilt over. Euthanasia is the last thing we can do to show our pets how much we love them; that we put their needs before our own. When suffering becomes inevitable, euthanasia is the gift that takes it away.