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It’s never ‘only a dog’
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Abstract

Kathryn Oldknow discusses the importance of providing euthanasia and bereavement support to owners like her

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What can help your approach

  • Owners who ask ‘What would you do if it was your dog?’ are likely to highly value your guidance. This In Practice article provides a useful discussion of the relevant ethical frameworks surrounding euthanasia, and a flow chart to aid your decisions https://inpractice.bmj.com/content/32/2/70.

  • Consider including carefully worded information on your practice website about what happens during a euthanasia consultation, and what the options are for aftercare and bereavement support. Your reception team can direct owners to this when they book a euthanasia consultation. This In Practice article may help you with the areas that you could consider covering on end-of-life care https://inpractice.bmj.com/content/37/3/143.

  • Don’t make assumptions about which owners may need bereavement support; offer information to all about the services available, such as the Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss.

  • For many owners, euthanasing a loved pet is incredibly traumatic. The PBSS provides excellent distance-learning bereavement training open to all veterinary staff www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-support-course-professionals.

I recently realised that throughout my adult life, I have never spent a night completely alone. In the absence of human companionship, there has always been a dog. When my old Labrador was close to the end, after much deliberation I got a new puppy. This was probably not ideal for either of them; it was a purely selfish decision on my part because I didn’t know how, at that juncture in my life, I would cope with the loss of my dog. A puppy would keep me attached to this mortal coil.

I have had three dogs from puppyhood to old age. For the first two, euthanasia was a clear-cut medical decision. For the last one, her condition was not terminal – she was just fading and deteriorating, and the onus was on me to make the decision about when I felt she had had enough.

I, and many other dog owners I have spoken to, felt like a murderer

The fact that I, and many other dog owners I have spoken to, felt like a murderer – someone who betrayed the trust of a faithful companion – and for weeks had pangs of guilt and doubts that I did the right thing, has made me wonder why we can’t accept more easily that we are carrying out an act of gentle compassion. ‘Murder’ is never an act of kindness, and we should not be associating it with euthanasia. Why should a normally pragmatic and rational person be torn apart by grief, guilt and doubts, and can this be prevented?

Taking a life is alien to most people, particularly the life of a thing that has been dependent on us, that we love and has only ever shown us the truest friendship and loyalty. Dogs don’t do double-cross. Perhaps also, we don’t want to contemplate the inevitable, and so avoid preparing ourselves and adjusting our outlook. A dog is for life, yes, but that life is comparatively short.

We are now recognising the mental health benefits of having a dog – exercise and interaction releases feel-good endorphins that reduce stress and improve mood. The dog brings opportunities for socialisation when out, and companionship at home. More people are now alone, for whatever reason, and a dog can be the mainstay and sense of purpose in their lives. For many people, when life doesn’t work out and other losses occur, the dog is the constant that provides succour and relief from problems. Dogs can transform lives.

Yet some people find it so distressing when their dog dies that they resolve never to have another. Again, no-one should be left feeling this way. There is so much pleasure and benefit to be gained from having a dog, and replacing and starting again with another is a good way to pull yourself back together, and a chance to give another dog a happy life with you.

It is not the vet’s job to provide aftercare for the grieving owner. But surely the vet can help by offering support before the final decision, both in face-to-face contact with the client, and also in the information literature that is available? Too often it is glossed over in a brief paragraph or two at the end of a book on dog ownership. It is an area where we need guidance, support and education to enable us to say goodbye with sadness, but also to be at peace with ourselves for doing it.

Some people will say ‘It’s only a dog – you can get another one.’ The latter part of this statement is true. The first part isn’t.

Do you want to get involved?

If you know a client who might be interested in writing for us, please contact us at vet.clientview{at}bmj.com. Any contributions will be assessed by the column’s veterinary coordinator, Zoe Belshaw.

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