I had cause to consider the plight of the average vet professional in this regard after a weeklong series of unfortunate euthanasia-related events. Regrettably, this contemplation coincides with my son’s spring break vacation.
To be fair, any weekend following the horrendous work days that preceded it would’ve demanded some serious down-time before returning to professional activities in a functional capacity. So it was that I wasted the first 48 hours of a five-day California vacation acclimating to a condition of reasonable stresslessness.
Not only was the hospital abuzz with lots of distracting not-quite-emergencies and a plethora of poorly scheduled routine procedures in the midst of my gotta-get-prepped-for-the-trip angst, I also managed to get smacked with the planned euthanasia of two long-time patients.
If you’re anything like me you’ll recognize yourself in the above stress fest.
You’ll also be jiggy with the following sentiment: Being a family-style general practitioner on death detail is like being at the center of an emotional tornado that sometimes goes on for weeks. The indecision, the recriminations, the sorrow, the sense of impending doom, the hesitation, the process and then … the aftermath.
Make no mistake; this is soul-sucking work.
No wonder it took me more than two days to ease into a comfortable frame of mind.
Sure, you can be reserved about it, electing to remain emotionally aloof, but here’s the trouble: It’s not often done. Given the average veterinarian’s personality, we’re unlikely to keep our distance. Our preternaturally sensitive demeanor with respect to pets and our clients’ perception of them is perhaps what makes us so susceptible to stress-based diseases––not to mention midstream career changes, burnout and the modern veterinarian’s disturbing plague, suicide.
It’s enough to occasion Herculean bouts of hand-wringing over the state of my career. In fact, if I were to do it all over again I’m quite sure I’d seek out my niche in a less death-intensive spot in vet med. All that empathy is just too damn stressful.
Dermatology, pathology or radiology? I should’ve gone there. Instead, I’m dedicating more of my talents to writing––after 15 years of full-time clinical life––by way of segueing into a less emotionally demanding line of work.
Can you blame me?
Which is what got me to thinking: What is the true cost of pet euthanasia? Because when you add in the emotional stuff, money can’t possibly adequately compensate.
Not in real-world terms anyway, seeing as people may be willing to pay more … but it’d seem wrong to ask for it, right? Let’s think about that.
Costs vs. The Toll
So how much does euthanasia bring in? Let’s add it up:
Q $50 to $200 for the house call or office visit.
Q $50 to $200 for the catheter and injections.
Q $50 to $400 for handling the remains.
Assuming you net a generous 25 percent after all is said and done, you’ve just taken down $45 to $150 for your labors.
It’s not much when you consider the high cost of the cremation services we almost always outsource, the administrative cost of controlled drugs and the fact that relatively few of us have the heart to adequately mark up death.
Yet these are the very services that threaten to stoke our burnout rate and cut our vacations in half.
At least there’s always the goodwill to factor in. Because there’s nothing like giving good death to wed a client to your services, right?
Well … not always. Plenty of client defections will presumably result from exam room euthanasia PTSD, which is one reason I’m big on house calls. Yet the point stands: Goodwill does add up. But how much is enough? Is it always worth it?
To be sure, it’s one issue our savvier clients seem to understand better than we give them credit for. Why else would so many of our non-veterinarian, animal-loving friends cite euthanasia duty as the one thing that keeps them from pursuing a career in veterinary medicine?
Perhaps it explains why they expect us to be their priest, their therapist and their best friend at the time of their pets’ demise. Given such a high demand for a near-godlike performance during their pets’ last rites, you’d think they’d be willing to pay more to compensate us for the true toll of the undertaking.
Playing the Martyr
And––get this––I think most of them are. It’s we who exact more from ourselves by (sometimes not so inadvertently) playing the martyrs when it comes to death work.
Of course it’s also true that some clients are, as one colleague put it, “bottomless pits of need” who will never be satisfied, regardless of our price, our attention and our own clear and present suffering.
But if one thing’s clear, it’s this: The walking insane should not be given free rein to dictate our prices or drain our psyches dry.
Hence, it’s my take that we’re grossly underpaid for our euthanasia services. While I try to make the best of it, rationalizing it in terms of goodwill, animal welfare and community service, I can’t deny it’s the one thing that threatens to cut my clinical career short.
In terms of my mental health and my own personal burnout rate––never mind the impact on my family’s vacations––it simply costs too much.
Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted.