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Animal euthanasia – empathic care or empathic distress?
  1. Vicki E. Hutton
  1. Australian College of Applied Psychology, School of Counselling, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. email: vicki.hutton5{at}

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Many vets are drawn to the profession by a love for animals and a commitment to their welfare. This is often accompanied by a high capacity for empathy which, ironically, can leave them emotionally and psychologically at risk when responding to animal suffering and death while simultaneously dealing with the emotional reaction of the animal’s human carer.1,2

Advances in the animal care industry – including veterinary medicine, technology and prevention – over the past three decades have coincided with the growing integration of companion animals into people’s families.3,4 In many developed nations, up to two-thirds of households include companion animals.5,6 In Australia, the companion animal population is greater than the human population,6 while, in the USA, more people live with a companion animal than with a child.2

The companion animal’s transition to family member status, coupled with increased longevity due to medical advances, has extended the vet’s role beyond short-term acute medical care of the animal to include long-term management of the emotional wellbeing of the attached human carer. This can be tricky terrain to navigate, especially when end-of-life decisions must be made.

Research increasingly supports the notion that the loss of a companion animal can be felt as severely as the loss of a person,7,8 with some people forming attachments to companion animals that exceed their attachments to other people.2 This can be problematic because, despite medical advances, the lifespan of most companion animals remains shorter than that of humans. An attachment relationship with an animal thus entails caring for the animal at all life stages through to death.

Euthanasia to relieve suffering, in collaboration with supportive veterinary professionals, has become an important part of loving and caring for a companion animal. However, the euthanasia decision-making process can also trigger …

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