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Dog knows best: Facing euthanasia in veterinary practice
Whether you're a veterinary team member counseling a client or a pet owner struggling with a euthanasia decision, listening is key.
When you signed up to be a part of a veterinary team, did you think you would end up being a grief counselor, a temporary best friend, or a shoulder to cry on? I certainly didn't. As a receptionist, I knew I would have to schedule euthanasia appointments, watch beloved family pets receive their final injection, and witness animals I cared about grow old and die. But what I didn't know was that I was going to form such wonderful relationships with their owners. I was so caught up in the idea of taking care of pets that I forgot about the people.
People are the reason we're in this line of work to begin with. Without people, there are no pets. And I'm here to tell you that if you don't like people, you're in the wrong business. Let me explain.
Talking to clients
The first few weeks I worked at an animal clinic, nearly everyone who walked through the door asked about the whereabouts of my predecessor. "Great," I thought. "They'll always miss her, and I'll just be chopped liver."
Luckily this wasn't the case. Within a month or two, I became the new town therapist. I can still remember whose mother had a broken hip last year, all the details of a messy divorce, and I can tell you what the neighbors have been doing in their garage. But more important, I can tell you with confidence that if I hadn't been there to hug some of them and guide them through one of the hardest decisions of their lives, their pets' euthanasia experiences could have easily been a horrible nightmare instead of a peaceful goodbye.
The phone counselor is in
When you're a full-time receptionist, you become the face of the business, which inadvertently makes you a phone counselor. People don't just call you up and say, "I know my dog is sick. I need your next available appointment. Thank you, bye-bye." They want to know if you think their pet's really sick. They want to know if you have any brilliant advice for them. Basically, they just need to know what to do, and you're the one who must give them the answers. Unfortunately, sometimes that answer is euthanasia.
So how do you suggest that it might be the end of the road? I didn't really know the answer to this question until I went down this path myself.
On the other end of the line
Three months after I started working for a veterinarian, my dog of 11 years developed a very aggressive tumor in his jaw. His name was Pedro, and he was a very stubborn Chihuahua mix with an excellent talent for singing opera. The tumor was the most rapidly growing mass our veterinarian had ever seen. When surgery failed, I knew we would be playing a waiting game.
"When will I know?" That's the question I kept asking myself. It was hard to be at work looking at dogs all day knowing that my own dog was at home suffering. Our technician, Rivka, could see that I was distraught. We didn't know each other very well yet, but she approached me anyway and gave me some advice that I've never forgotten. "Your animal will tell you when he's ready," she said. "When my friend's dog was sick, he started spitting out his pills. They know when it's time. You just have to look for the signs."
A sign from my dog
At first it seemed silly that a dog would be spitting out pills, but I appreciated the advice. I didn't really know what sign my grumpy old dog was going to give me, because all he ever did was sleep. A couple of days later I came home from work and wrapped his pain medicine in a piece of bread as I usually did and gave it to him. He spit it out.
No way, I thought. Maybe he doesn't like this bread. I picked it up and wrapped it in cheese. He spit it out. Pedro had never in his life turned down a treat. I began to cry and sat on the floor next to him. He got up and ran to the other room. I followed him, and he ran away again. I cried uncontrollably because I suddenly realized that this was it. He gave me the exact signs I needed, as if he knew what Rivka had told me a few days before. I took him back to the clinic that same afternoon, and he rode in my lap the entire way, as if he were saying thank you. We did it together, and I can only hope that I made the right decision at the right time, because I refused to let him suffer.
If I hadn't had this experience, I may not have been armed with the tools I needed to give advice to others. Now when people ask me what they should do, I tell them with genuine sincerity everything that I know is true: Your animal will tell you when its ready. If you aren't sure, then ask yourself, what percentage of the day is your pet suffering? What makes life worth living for him, and is he still able to do it? The answers to those questions will tell you what you need to know.
Remind pet owners that euthanasia isn't just a weighty decision, it's a gift. It's the final gift they can give to their best friend to end the pain. If they pay attention, let their pets tell them when they're ready, and listen very closely, their pets may also say, "Thank you."
Cori Weber has worked as a receptionist and veterinary assistant in Kansas City and lives in Olathe, Kan. Please send your questions or comments to email@example.com.