Euthanasia: It’s Okay for You to Cry

Firstline Magazine
April 6, 2011

Rose Jacobson, LVT, was 16 years old and working as an assistant at a kennel when a veterinarian asked her to help him euthanize a pet. “I remember a flood of emotions hitting me all at once,” Jacobson says. “I was nauseous and upset, and it felt wrong and unnatural.”

The family, which included two small children, had to put down their 19-year-old Persian cat that was in renal failure. “The family was crying, and I felt sympathetic toward them,” Jacobson says. “I couldn’t help but cry, too.” She was surprised to see the doctor tearing up as well. “He explained to me when we left the room, ‘We always attempt to stay strong for the clients and try not cry,'” she says. “But he did make sure to tell me that sometimes you just can’t help the way you feel.”

Coming to terms with reality

Jacobson now works as a veterinary technician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. She’s done the job for 10 years and still struggles with the euthanasia process. “It doesn’t necessarily feel wrong anymore, since most pets are suffering and are going to a better place, but it’s never easy seeing someone lose a part of their family,” Jacobson says.

Dealing with euthanasia can be difficult for many veterinary team members and certain cases end up impacting the entire staff. Rachel Connor, a customer care representative for Porter County Pet Clinic in Valparaiso, Ind., observes patients and clients from the front desk. “I see the owners enter the room with their pet and then again a few minutes later when they come out alone,” Connor says. It’s difficult for her to think about how, after only a few short seconds, a pet’s life becomes nonexistent. Seeing people upset also takes a toll on Connor.

The idea of being involved in euthanasia procedures was so uncomfortable and intimidating for Lisanne Pessini, LVT, one of Jacobson’s colleagues, it almost discouraged her from becoming a veterinary technician. “I remember discussing the topic several times in school,” Pessini says. “It was one of my top fears and concerns about getting into the field.”

Turning the pain into a positive

But talking about the issue and a gaining a bit of experience helped Pessini change her perspective. “It only takes a few times to see an animal suffering from traumatic injury, abuse, neglect, or sickness to realize that in many cases euthanasia is the kinder, more humane alternative to suffering,” Pessini says. “And while it is never easy to see a family saying their last goodbyes, I have come to view euthanasia as a blessing that we have to use for good and to end unnecessary pain.”

Of course, this outlook doesn’t prevent a sense of loss when pets pass. “The emotions that technicians feel are highly dependent on their relationships with the pets and families,” says Dr. Brenda Johnson, professor of veterinary technology at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio. “Days where you have multiple euthanasia procedures are more difficult, in my experience. It really depends on how close you are to the animal… The reality is that we are in a profession where we plan an animal’s death due to quality of life. Understand that it is the final act of kindness that we can do for the animal.”

Pessini has accepted the fact that she will get attached to patients and feel pain and sadness after every euthanasia. “You have to realize that it’s OK to be saddened or to allow yourself to be affected by it,” Pessini says. “As hard as we might try to remain objective and professional, some [pets] just work their way in and leave a little paw print on your heart.”

Susanne Paul, RVT, a technician at Veterinary Dental Services in Houston, agrees with Pessini. She occasionally wrestles with sadness. “Some days I go home and hug my dogs a little tighter,” Paul says. “Truthfully most days I just have to suck it up and move on because there is someone else who needs me.” Euthanasia ends the suffering, which is the last bit of compassion that Paul can offer her patients.

When to worry about yourself

If you’re experiencing ongoing sadness about euthanasias, it’s important to prevent those feelings from bottling up inside. Try talking to a colleague or someone who shares your experiences. Jacobson and Pessini’s mentor gave them advice to help them through the tough situations: “When you find yourself no longer affected by it, it’s time for you to find a new job. Only be concerned if it stops bothering you.”

This article originally appeared in Firstline Magazine on March 1, 2011.