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Euthanasia is difficult yet humane
This past week some good friends of mine lost their Standard Poodle, Rags, not by natural causes but by conscious choice. Euthanasia, as we know it, is one of the most difficult things any pet owner must face. Rags was an old male suffering from debilitating arthritis and moderate hearing and visual loss. Whether the cause was early senile dementia (forgetfulness) or the inability/discomfort of getting outside to relieve himself, Rags was also having occasional accidents in the house. While this would send many people to the quick conclusion, "His time has come," when it involves your own pet, loyal and loving with years and years of affection having formed powerful bonds, such a conclusion can seem unthinkable. Rag's owners and I had discussed his condition from time to time over the last six months or so, and they realized the inevitability of the decision that they were going to have to make. Preparing for the decision and actually making it were two very different things. Never before having to face the impending loss of a family member (human or otherwise), such decisions are often avoided, for the pain that they bring is something that few of us are willing to welcome into our lives. It is often only when the pain or discomfort on the part of the animal becomes quite apparent that we are able to overcome our inability to say "That's enough, I can't stand to see him suffer any more!" When the balance tips from the pain of our potential loss to the empathy we hold for the pain suffered by our pet, the decision becomes natural and clear. In the case of Rags, the burden of reaching this decision was largely removed from his owners when Rags began vomiting one day. He became very weak, and his abdomen became very distended. When his owner called me with the details, I had him call the after hours emergency number of his regular veterinarian, and Rags was brought into the hospital. It turned out that Rags had a GDV (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus), also known as Bloat, in which the stomach becomes filled with gas and fluid often twisting upon itself. The blood supply to the stomach is often cut off and the animal goes into shock. It is a genuine emergency and often requires immediate surgery to save the life of the animal. It was clear that his time had come, and his owners wisely opted to end his pain and say goodbye to their good friend Rags. But if you have never experienced it yourself, the painful dilemma of euthanasia does not end there. The procedure itself is relatively simple. An injection (an almost instantaneous lethal overdose of barbiturates) is quick and painless. Unfortunately, since Rags was in shock, the veins in his legs were mostly collapsed, due to the bodies attempt to keep the blood supply closest to the vital organs. As such it required a few extra needle pokes to hit a vein, but then it ended smoothly. What most people don't realize or acknowledge, is that in actuality "that" is the easy part. The real difficulty is in going home never to see, touch, smell, or hear what has for many years become an ever present comfort in your life. And grief for the loss of a pet is just as real and significant as for the loss of a human family member. Our other animals, too, will experience the depression and grief of mourning, so don't discount their feelings. This is one of those wounds that heals with time. The one factor that complicates the healing process is guilt. If we continually attack ourselves over the course we have chosen, we will never overcome the pain of the loss. This is why the decision of euthanasia is one that must be considered carefully and not entered into lightly. It must be done with a clear conscience, and it must be done with love and empathy for the animal. It is a testament to our moral fiber as humans that we struggle so with the decision to put our animals to sleep, as my friends have recently done. If it were a simple decision to make, if we did not hate the task of having to face and reach such a decision, if we did not hurt deeply in the loss, we would be akin to murderers. But this is not an act of hate or cruelty. It is an act of love. And when it is seen and handled as such, then the sorrow will invariably fade and what will last are the warm, endearing memories of the wonderful life in which you were fortunate enough to have been such an important part.