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Knowing when to say goodbye . . .

Labrador retriever laying on pillow or bed
Geriatric chocolate lab lying down

I travel quite a bit for my job . . . sometimes it's just across Indy or up to Chicago, but other times I fly across country to attend continuing education lectures or learn about new topics in veterinary medicine. Invariably, when I am talking to someone on a plane, in a shuttle, or waiting in the hotel lobby (Yes, I am THAT person), the fact that I work with veterinarians comes up. Many times, I get the same response: "Oh, I would love to be a veterinarian . . . but I couldn't put them (the pets) to sleep."

"Putting them to sleep" is, of course, a euphemism for the term euthanasia. Taken from the Greek, this word means "easy death" and is meant to help relieve a pet from suffering or pain that can't be treated. So, why would this be so controversial?

A few months back, an article at People's website went viral. The article was focused on a tweet that stated 90% of pet owners don't want to be in the room when a pet's euthanasia is happening. This then turned into a Facebook page rant signed by a "tired, brokenhearted vet". The Facebook page was for a 24 hour emergency hospital and the post essentially asked owners to not be cowards and leave the room because their beloved pet would be frantically searching for them. The tweet, the post and the response to both went viral for several weeks.

Great Dane outside with people
People working with a painful older Great Dane

After reading the article, I was unimpressed with the level of detail in the article. It's as if the writer simply found the two social media posts and then determined that this was a true fact for all veterinarians and all veterinary hospitals. I can't speak for all animal hospitals, but in 25 plus years of being in this field and being in contact with hundreds of veterinarians, I believe that 90% of owners DO stay with their pets. A fellow #CertifiedVeterinaryJournalist, Dr. Jessica Vogelsang from Pawcurious also posted on her Facebook page that she believed the article had the numbers all wrong. What's the real story here?

First, let's take a step back and understand euthanasia. At its core, euthanasia is simply an overdose of anesthetic. After injection, the brain ceases to function, which means that the heart doesn't have the input to continue and then the lungs also stop. In most cases, the animal passes peacefully within 10-30 seconds, blissfully unaware. How veterinarians get to that point of injection may differ...some will use IV catheters and sedation before hand, others may simply inject the euthanasia solution into an accessible vein (if the pet is already sedate from other medications, the illness or general nature). In my own recent case where my English Mastiff, #LokiVictorio, was euthanized, he was so calm, we were able to simply inject the solution into a vein at one of his rear legs.

Veterinarians are also very compassionate and will give owners many options for euthanasia. New services, like Lap of Love, offer the serenity of euthanasia for your pet at home. If that type of service isn't available in your area, or if you just prefer going to the veterinary hospital, that can be accommodated as well. Some people prefer remembering their pet at a time prior to euthanasia, other people really don't like needles, and some may have had a previous experience that did not go well. People may not want to be in the room for many reasons, but, as stated above, many do opt to be with their pets in those final moments. What's more, if you do need to leave the room or simply can't be there, trust that your veterinary staff will have your pet's best interests, as well as your concerns, in mind. It is OUR HONOR to be there and hold your pet when you might not be able to.

Dachshund lying down
Older dachshund

Maybe the original quote was misrepresented in some way. Maybe the emergency hospital (and the emergency doctor) simply had a really bad day. We see those on occasions...I have seen 5 or more pets euthanized in a single morning and it does take a toll. The veterinarian who administers the drug, the nurses and assistants who are handling the pet and providing for after-care, and even the front desk staff who may be consoling a client who chose not to stay, are all affected. But, please understand that we (the veterinary staff) are not here to judge you or attempt to use guilt to make you stay...this is a very personal decision and it's yours to make. We will, though, provide guidance and information as you need it.

So, to answer the question implied in the title of this blog, how do we know when it's ok to say good-bye? There is no true right answer because the relationship that you have with that particular pet is unique and personal. What triggers one owner to make a decision might not be the same in another person. There are some helpful tools that can aid in your quest to do what is right for your best friend. A Quality of Life Scale can provide you with some objective thoughts for this very subjective process. There are several scales out there, but I really like this one from Dr. Alice Villalobos. The basic premise is that you will score your pet on seven different factors each day (hunger, hydration, hurt, hygiene, happiness, mobility and whether the pet is having more good days than bad). Each factor is given a score of 0 - 10, for a possible 70 points. Anytime a score of 35 or less is obtained, that is considered to be incompatible with a good quality of life and it is time to make a decision. EITHER consider euthanasia OR change the medical treatment protocol with your veterinarian.

In closing, please remember the word of Dr. Kathleen Cooney, a house-call veterinarian outside of Boulder, Colorado. She said "I would rather help my friend a month too early, than a day too late". Powerful words, indeed.

English mastiff wearing a soccer jersey
#LokiVictorio in 2016, age 7

This blog is dedicated to our #LokiVictorio, #OriginalLiveMascot for the Indy Eleven soccer team, contributor to PetPalsTV, best friend to my son, protector of my wife and by far the most amazing friend I could have ever asked for. Our friends at PetPalsTV provide a great look at Loki's life here.

Rest easy, Loki...we will see you over the Rainbow Bridge.


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