The perfect ending to their story

June 8, 2016
Jennifer Hennessey, DVM

The veterinarian performing euthanasia is the author of a pets last chapter. Make sure its full of gentleness and love.

The best ending to the greatest story does not involve pen and paper. In veterinary medicine, our tools are syringes with colorful caps and bright pink contents, and we need an eloquent hand showing humility, respect and regard for a pet's final chapter. Euthanasia is a moment the family will always remember, particularly in the emergency room. It's a chance to wrap up a pet's story with grace and dignity.

Families presenting their pets to a veterinary practice often have only a minimal knowledge of death. Sadly, they might expect a cliffhanger and thriller rather than the ending to a sweet love story. We must set the scene for them using comforting words, working with unhurried motions and displaying a caring demeanor. We need to assist the family through the difficult, emotional journey to their pet's peaceful ending. Euthanasia and end of life care is as much about the family as the pet involved.

My own dog, my beloved Nash, was by my side day in and out. This confident and steadfast golden retriever that I cherished was lost before I had a chance to say goodbye. The despair I felt as I hovered over his lifeless body in our street will be with me forever. I still have lingering questions: Did he lay suffering for long? Did he feel scared or lonely? I will never have comfort the fact that I was his final memory, and I resent that I was not given the opportunity to end his pain or ensure that he went into his next place with grace and well-deserved honor.

Dr. Brent Plonski, left, a veterinarian at Animal ER of Northwest Houston, and a technician, Michelle, prepare for the euthanasia of Dr. Plonski's dog, Riley. All photos courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Hennessey.

I suffer painful heart tugs at each euthanasia or whenever I prepare my clients for the peaceful “blessings” we provide for them and their pet. I felt helpless the day Nash died and identify the same despair and helplessness in my clients when we discuss suffering. My clients are family to me and their pets are no less precious than my own. I want this emotion to be evident in the family's experience when I am at the end of the syringe about to send their companion off to a more peaceful rest.

The resting place

At the Animal ER of Northwest Houston, when we prepare our patients for euthanasia we go overboard in elements of comfort. We avoid the unfamiliar and cold exam table when possible in favor of a pallet on the floor or comfy cradling in the family's lap. This allows more involvement and loving during the process of the final injections. From plush blankets, pillows, soft words of praise and a technician's assistance, even if just for tummy rubs, we provide all the elements we would want for a family member.

 

Dr. Hennessey and her team often provide goodies for the pet from the practice's breakroom or a nearby business.For privacy and quiet, we use a room away from the noise of treatment area, ideally with a more somber light level. Families tend to tear up at our offer to spoil their loved one with goodies from our breakroom or a local fast food joint as a final meal during their last goodbyes. In general we aim to overshoot when it comes to gestures of kindness and consideration. We bring tissues and water to the family's side, make sure ot close the door softly behind us, keep our voices soft and low, mainintain steady eye contact and offer many verbal reassurances.

The gentle wrap-up

To ensure comfort, I help the family understand what to expect during the sedation experience. I explain how it will feel and look to see their pet pass, which helps prepare them for the process. I verbally comfort and praise them for making such a selfless choice while doting on their pet's beauty and sweetness.

When we as veterinarians perform a euthanasia, we hold not just an injection of sedation but the final link to a pet parent's furry bundle. Regardless of whether the family members are over-the-top animal fanatics, whether they are sobbing or just standing with arms crossed, we cannot know the emotions they are experiencing in making this choice. Every euthanasia should be graceful, thoughtful, paced out and performed so that the client sees a softer, gentler way of passing. At the Animal ER, we situate the family around the pet so they can pet, kiss and be part of the comfort. We praise the “precious little one” on how brave she is or how comfortable he will soon be.

Goodbye kisses from Riley.

I explain each injection as I prepare it. One key element that I find allows for my patient to pass gently is to inject slowly. A slow injection allows the effects to impact the patient gently and gives you the opportunity to settle the pet's head with your other hand or, ideally, with the assistance of a staff member. My team's movements are deliberately unhurried and methodical yet convey gentleness as if they were handling something fragile.

As the final chapter of a pet's life closes, I am the author in control of how the story ends. I always take a few minutes to stroke and admire the pet, touch the client's arm and pause to acknowledge the hard fact of a life gone, even before I auscultate to provide confirmation. All gestures are gentle, even shutting the exam room door. These tactics warm the client's heart and give confidence that the pet was in caring hands in its final moments.

Riley's final peaceful moments.

Conclusion

Euthanasia is a delicate process and should be hard work, focused on tending to the hearts affiliated with the pet's life and handled with as much skill as any fine surgery. How you wrap up a pet's life in your practice creates the final memory that will last a person's lifetime. Exercise patience and regard for a pet owner's interpretation, expectations and experience, knowing that the more delicate the injection process, the less bruising to the owner's heart at the end of the story.

Dr. Jennifer Hennessey is owner of Animal ER of Northwest Houston in Cypress, Texas.