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Euthanasia in Vet Practices: Care & Resources to Help Clients

As vets, we always do anything within our power to heal and save the animals we treat. Whether it's a routine check-up, a minor injury, a serious illness, or anything in between, we do everything we can to see our patients improve.

Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that we aren't always going to be successful. Sometimes, an injury is too serious, a poisoning is too advanced, or an illness is reaching its breaking point. There's also the always-distressing prospect of a treatment that is just too expensive for the client to afford. Sooner or later, every vet is going to have to practice euthanasia.

In some places around the world, death is an accepted part of life, and can be cause to celebrate the life a patient had. In America, it's a lot less openly discussed, a lot more private, and a lot less well-portrayed in media. It can be difficult to handle, not just for the animals but for the clients and for the vet as well.

There are three key aspects of the discussion surrounding euthanasia in veterinary care that are worth talking about. As a vet, you strive to do right by your patients in every way you can. You want to help and heal animals and help your clients have long and happy lives with their assorted pets. In times when that isn't possible, it's important to know the options and support available to both you and your clients.

Facet 1: Privacy, Comfort, and Support

No one likes having to put down their beloved family pet. Unfortunately, when the quality of life for the animal in question degrades too far, euthanasia is often a humane option. When a dog or a cat loses mobility, loses the ability to eat, or is in pain that isn't treatable, it's better to let them go than it is to prolong their suffering.

Where the line is drawn will vary from patient to patient and from vet to vet. We all want to provide the best possible care for our patients, but even modern medical science has limits.

This is, understandably, an extremely stressful time for most pet owners. They want the best for their animals, but they may not have realistic expectations. American medical dramas often portray doctors (and vets) as miracle workers, able to bring back and heal nearly anything, but the truth is it's often impossible or would involve such a poor quality of life that it's not ethical to do so. Fortunately, vet care isn't given quite the same miracle worker treatment as human medical care in media.

Regardless, as a vet, you're faced with a challenge every time you find a patient you can't treat. If an animal has no alternative but to be put down, how do you handle it?

Young vets often struggle with this, and emotions run high. Your client is under stress, emotionally and often financially, and they're struggling with the decision. You, too, may be having a difficult time. While there's nothing wrong with empathizing with your patients, heightened emotions can lead to poor decision-making.

One challenge you will face is that many animals – and many pet owners – are not comfortable with the vet clinic as a place of endings. One possible way to help with this issue is by working with a service like Lap of Love.

Lap of Love is an in-home euthanasia service, among other things. Veterinarians who work as part of the program provide in-home visits for pets at the end of their lives. These visits include explanations of the process if the client desires it and a comfortable, compassionate, and empathetic appointment. When it's time to go, isn't it better for the pet to be in a comfortable place, surrounded by the things they love?

As a vet, you have two options relating to services like Lap of Love. The first is to keep them on hand; while you can provide euthanasia in your practice, if your client doesn't want to bring their animal to the less familiar surroundings, you can recommend Lap of Love as an option. This can also be a good option if your emotions run high and you're not necessarily comfortable providing euthanasia services yourself.

The second option is to work with Lap of Love yourself and be a provider for those in-home appointments. Chances are, if you have your own practice, you won't have the time to do this, but for some vets, providing comfortable and compassionate euthanasia can be a calling.

We're not affiliated with Lap of Love, and they aren't the only organization providing in-home euthanasia services; they just work as a prime example of the situation and the discussion you'll face as part of regular veterinary work.

Facet 2: Additional Options

The end of life for a pet is an event that brings into stark focus the limitations of veterinary care. Moreover, it's not necessarily the limits of medical science; it's the limits of available medications, technology, and expertise.

As a vet, you know a lot about how to care for animals, especially the pets or livestock that form the core of your interest. But you can't know everything. Generalist veterinarians know a lot about most things but may not know the intricacies and depths of the field where specialists reside. You may know, for example, the basics of canine and feline cancers, but you don't necessarily know all of their mechanics, all of the variations, and every possible treatment option. Only a specialized veterinary oncologist comes close to that level of expertise.

For example, you might know how to recognize when a lump or tumor in a dog's mouth is cause for concern, but without a specialty, you can't know for sure how to interpret pathology. You might have heard of new cancer vaccines but may not know how they work or how to access them. You may know many of your canine patients have some form of sarcoma, but not necessarily the best ways to treat each individual patient. You may or may not have even heard of certain treatment options.

This is where it becomes clear that as a vet, you aren't necessarily a pillar of all knowledge; you're part of a team and a community. You don't have to go it alone.

In fact, that's a core part of our service. At Hope Vet, we provide consulting services for various pet ailments, including dermatology, internal medicine, critical care, oncology, neurology, and more. You may not be an expert, but you should know who to call for an expert opinion. Rather than rely on personal connections and partnerships, we've formalized the external consulting service.

When you work with us, all you need to do is request a consultation and provide details of the case to our experts. We'll return a comprehensive report with our opinions.

Offering this service to your clients does two things.

First, it provides a second opinion. You may have years of experience under your belt, but that doesn't mean you don't make mistakes, misinterpret results, or even simply lack knowledge of cutting-edge developments or treatments that could change the outcome of a situation. Getting a second opinion for your clients can help them come to terms with the reality of a situation or, in some cases, provide more information and additional alternatives that even you may not have been aware of.

Second, it helps guide you and the treatment options you can provide. Sometimes, yes, euthanasia is the only viable option for a patient. Other times, there may be novel treatments, clinical trials and experimental treatments, studies looking for patients, or small details that can change the outlook of a treatment plan. You can't necessarily stay on top of all of these; after all, you're caring for dozens of patients a day with all manner of different issues and ailments, and you can't possibly have a comprehensive knowledge of all veterinary care options.

Whether it's a long-shot alternative or simply confirmation of the reality of a situation, using our consulting service can help relieve some of the burden and, more importantly, verify that you're making the right choice. When the choice is to end the life of a suffering pet, it's one that you need to make sure you're making correctly.

Facet 3: Helping Others, Helping Yourself

The third facet of veterinary care surrounding euthanasia is caring for yourself.

Euthanasia is a difficult decision at the best of times. Even when a client is resigned to the reality of the situation and has exhausted all of the options they can try, it's still emotionally devastating to put down a beloved pet.

Moreover, as a vet, there's a very good chance that you've been working with this animal for years and have come to know and love them almost as much as their owners.

You're also exposed to all of the worst in humanity and veterinary care surrounding the end of life for an animal. You see pet owners at their worst, their most stressed, their most angry and scared and aggressive. Often, as the bearer of bad news, they take it out on you.

And you have empathy. You very likely got into veterinary care in the first place because you love animals, and you want to do everything in your power to care for them, heal them, and keep them healthy and happy. On a base and fundamental level, it can feel like a failure when your only viable option is euthanasia. Even if you know it's the better option, that it ends suffering and provides dignity, it feels bad.

One of the greatest challenges facing vets today is not providing medical treatment, handling the financial side of running a practice, or marketing; it's mental health. Across the country and around the world, vets are bombarded with everything from insults to accusations. The skeptics, the snake oil sellers, the desperate, the emotional; you're a target.

Some vets shut down over time. They become cold, focus on the logic and impartiality of the decision, distancing themselves from both their own empathy and the emotions of their patients. It's not healthy, but it's a coping mechanism.

Part of why we provide consulting services and a second opinion for vets is to help alleviate some of that burden. You can feel more confident in having made the right decision when that decision is verified and validated by an impartial third party. It even helps you redirect some of the blame.

It's critical to know that you aren't alone in this struggle. It's something that every vet goes through and something we all need to face, whether or not we're the ones performing the euthanasia directly.

For vets who are experiencing mental health challenges or struggles, we've created a checklist to help you self-assess and develop coping strategies and mechanisms to be resilient in the face of the worst veterinary care has to offer.

On top of that, we've also put together a list of the best mental health services available to you. Some of them are general, like the national 988 helpline. Others are focused specifically on vets and are more tailored to the unique challenges you face and the support you need.

Mental health is a very real concern, and it's extremely important that you build a resilient outlook for yourself. After all, you can't help your patients if you aren't in a state of mind to do it.

So, whether you need to work with us for a second opinion and complex consulting services, or you need to hire a relief vet to take some of the burden from your shoulders and give you the break you need to recharge and adjust, there's always help available to you, somewhere out there. We highly encourage you to reach out to us to discuss your needs and how we can help. We're all in this together; we all care, and we all want to provide the best outcomes for our patients as we can.

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