Why euthanasia will never be the same

With the loss of direct human companionship, our pets’ role in family life has proven itself more central to the emotional health and well-being of its humans

Last week, I euthanized my mom’s dog. Miss Brown was an anxious, dingo-ey thing who’d presented 14 years ago as a sign-over with a devastating hind limb fracture. My mother and Miss Brown had always been close, but while weathering the pandemic together, they’d become each other’s shadows.

Despite my family role as veterinarian-in-residence, I hadn’t realized the extent of their bond, not until my mother made an uncharacteristically emotional pre-euthanasia confession: “You don’t get it. I’ll never have another dog like this. She understands me in a way no one has ever understood me.”

We do get it. Some of us call them our “heart pets,” those few who seem to have a private window to our souls. We often dare not confess the depth of these connections, not even to our significant others, lest they resent the transference of soulmate status… and to an animal, no less.

But most of us also recognize COVID has done something to our clients’ collective psyche. How most socially distanced humans interact with their nonhuman friends has been altered, irrevocably, perhaps. But it’s hard to put a finger on what, exactly, has changed. Still, I’ll try. 

A sense of greater responsibility

After spending weeks confined with core family members alone, our patients’ status has been elevated. Pets are more cherished overall and their health care seems to have become more important, almost overnight. With the loss of direct human companionship, our pets’ role in family life has proven itself more central to the emotional health and well-being of its humans.

Consequently, the health and welfare of pets have become a point of focus. Why is she doing X, Y, or Z behavior? Has she always done that? Issues that have long been overlooked are finally getting attention. In some cases, the stress of family members’ altered schedules has influenced underlying anxiety-related conditions. (Who among us hasn’t seen an upswing in feline cystitis cases?)

That would explain the uptick in overall visits, the higher number of new clients, and an increase in dollars per transaction, despite the recession. Some of it may have to do with hospital closures nearby, but I’ll bet the bulk of it comes down to humans having a greater appreciation for what pets mean to them.

After reading a Banfield survey conducted during COVID of approximately 1,000 pet owners, I became even more convinced we’re witnessing a cultural shift in the appreciation of pets. Here are some of the findings:

  • 45 percent claimed “their household’s happiness has increased while spending more time with their pet during quarantine;”
  • 39 percent said “their pet helped lower their anxiety and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic;” and
  • 47 percent confess they’re “talking to their pets more than before the pandemic.”

Beyond a general increase in pet love overall, it’s clear to me (from the hectic pace of my work life) that this enhanced appreciation is positively intertwined with a greater appreciation for animal health care and the role of personal responsibility when it comes to caring for animals.

According to the same survey:

  • 67 percent claim they “expect to make changes in how they care for their pet once they’re not home as often;”
  • 20 percent say they’re “committed to taking their pets to the veterinarian for preventive care checkups more often after the pandemic than before;” and
  • 41 percent reportedly “contacted their veterinarian during quarantine.”

No doubt, we’re living through a time of intense global upheaval. This much was clear after we received stay-at-home orders and got word veterinary care was designated an “essential service.” But did you ever imagine a pandemic could be “good” for pets? (In fact, it feels wrong just to write it down.) But as one of my mentors used to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Back to euthanasia: It’s all about the bond, right?

A “stop” at the last second

As most of you know, each euthanasia experience shares the same basic features. They are made up of a series of almost scripted moments, clinical explanations, and veterinary platitudes punctuated by expressions of client dismay, as they behold their best friend pass gracefully through the expected phases of the euthanasia process.

It starts with the pre-death deliberation and culminates in cardiac arrest, death, and the near-ceremonial moment in which we call it. Then there’s the post-death period comprised of recognition, acceptance, and the final goodbye kiss or touch. As scripted as they can be, they’re never the same. Each includes nuanced interactions between veterinarian, client, and patient.

Ever since the start of the pandemic, I’ve noticed a marked difference in the euthanasia experience. Most notably, I’ve observed the pre-euthanasia deliberation period is much longer than usual, so much so that I’ve had several aborted euthanasia appointments since the start of the pandemic. Once rare, they now make up about 10 percent of my euthanasia appointments. In fact, I’ve had two house call euthanasias since March that cancelled onsite, syringe poised—the clients changed their minds at the last minute.

The next most obvious change has been the amount of time to onset of acceptance the pet has passed. It seems to have gotten longer. “She’s gone” leads more often to, “Are you sure?” than I recall having observed in the past.

Overall, it’s clear the experience has become more fraught than ever before. There’s a lot more talking happening. We’ve always had those few that were more emotional than others, but now it seems all our clients require more support from us—before, during, and after.

Perhaps some of it has to do with the masks, the higher underlying anxiety level, the greater percentage of house call visits, or the fact this is the only procedure for which we allow clients access to the inside of the hospital. Possibly. But does that also explain why I’m more likely to cry during the procedure? Who knows?

What I do intuitively understand is the coronavirus pandemic has deepened the bond between our patients and their people, which elevates our role as caregivers and makes the euthanasia experience that much more sacrosanct.

As such, my mom’s intimate confession will forever rank among my most cherished mother-daughter moments. I looked her in the eyes and explained that I did understand. Why do you think I do this? You would have preferred me as a neonatal neurologist, perhaps, but this is what you got, Mom, someone who can do this for you and truly understands your pain and your fear. Are you proud of me now?

It’s not lost on me that for this rare moment of filial intimacy, I have euthanasia and COVID to thank.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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