At the conclusion of a euthanasia appointment, as I gently tuck in the beloved pet, pet owners often say to me, “I don’t know how you do this job.”
As a veterinarian who works exclusively in end-of-life care, I can honestly say that I love my job.
That is not to say it’s not hard at times. It is hard to witness people feeling immeasurable sadness as they say goodbye to an animal they love. I have been present with pet owners for whom a pet is their last link to a deceased spouse. I have seen pets who companioned their owners through chemotherapy and are now succumbing to cancer themselves.
Every pet family’s story is different.
However, what is universal is that the human-animal bond is powerful and unique. It is unlike any human relationship we have. Anyone who has deeply loved an animal knows what I’m talking about. In fact, protecting and preserving that special bond is what inspires most veterinarians to go to vet school in the first place.
What makes our work at Caring Pathways so rewarding is that even amidst the most heartbreaking moment of a pet lover’s life, there is a sense of awe.
Spiritual author Eckhart Tolle says, "Death is not the opposite of life, it is the opposite of birth, and life is eternal."
I love that idea because it resonates with how I feel about the end-of-life appointment. I always say that being present for the passing of a pet has something in common with witnessing the birth of a baby or hearing vows exchanged at a wedding. It is a sacred experience to help a pet pass away at home.
In this article, I will be sharing some memorable moments that stood out to me from past appointments.
Cherishing the Journey with Stories
I love to hear the stories families tell about their pets’ lives, whether they are funny or sad.
I was helping a boxer, Oscar, on one appointment and his family said they’ll never forget the time a bird was trapped in their house and it kept smashing into windows and walls. Everyone was distressed because they just couldn’t catch it. Oscar watched the situation with great interest and when the bird landed in the corner, he walked up to it, picked it up gently in his mouth, walked to an open door and released it into the sky.
The mom of a grey-muzzled pitbull in Greeley named Tayzer said that he used to love to watch his housemate, a female pitbull, nurse litters of puppies. Whenever the owner took the mother pitbull out for exercise, Tayzer would lie down with the pups and let them try to nurse on him until their mom got back.
Recently, I visited a terrier, Lilly, who belonged to a couple in Boulder. The couple shared that they introduced their dogs to each other on their second date. Lilly and the husband’s dog, Tonya, only tolerated each other at first but little by little, they soon became best friends and co-conspirators in many a chocolate hi-jinx. They devoured an entire package of oreos together on one occasion and spent Christmas eve in the ER together on another, after enjoying a pound and a half of baking chocolate.
A few months ago, I visited a couple who were saying goodbye to their 16 year old Yorkie, Rose. The mom told me that Rose came into her life 15 years ago, shortly after her son died. Her other children thought a puppy would be therapeutic and at first, she really didn’t want one. At that time she said she was deeply depressed and crying a lot and whenever she did, Rose jumped into her lap and started howling along with her. The mom said that brought her great comfort and healing to hear Rose “crying” with her.
Cherishing the Journey with Children
I find that children can bring a really meaningful dimension to the end-of-life appointment.
As veterinarians, we always defer to parents to make decisions on their children’s behalf, but we do encourage children to be present if they want to and find they have an amazing capacity to understand what’s happening. I have seen them react to death with a combination of innocence and wisdom. Rose’s owner shared that her 8-year-old niece, upon hearing that Rose would be passing away soon, said, “Bye Rose! See you in Heaven!”
At Tayzer the Pitbull’s end-of-life appointment, his boy, Slayd, was present. It was beautiful to see how he was processing the experience. Even though his mom wanted to protect him from the sadness of the moment, he insisted on staying by Tayzer’s side and was openly crying the whole time. He kept saying, “It’s just a really sad day, but we gotta help him because he’s in pain.”
Embracing Spirituality, Tradition and Community
I will never forget one of my early end-of-life appointments for a pitbull named Arthur. When I arrived, Arthur was lying on a dog bed in the backyard with his dad at the center of a circle of about 20 people which included extended family as well as neighbors who all loved Arthur. Arthur’s mom sat nearby and in passing, I noticed a tattoo of a dream catcher with red feathers on her calf. As Arthur started to fall asleep from his sedation, the dad was holding him in his arms and started to sing a Native American song to him. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.
For an appointment with a chihuahua mix named Freddy, the mom placed a beautiful wooden crucifix next to him during sedation and prayed for the entire appointment. When I let her know that Freddy had passed away, she stood up and proclaimed to the sky, “Jesus, my Freddy is coming to you. Please love him for me until I get there!”
On another appointment for a yellow lab named Rugby, I stepped into the backyard where the family was with their dog and the mom greeted me jovially, saying, “I hope you don’t mind, we’re having some celebratory beers. She held up her can to show that they were enjoying a six-pack of Laughing Lab Scottish Ale, with a smiling yellow lab on the label who looked just like Rugby.
As an end-of-life veterinarian, providing as smooth and peaceful of a transition as possible for pets in the comfort of home is a vocation I honestly look forward to every day. I still cry a little bit almost every day supporting pets and pet families on what may be the saddest day of their life, but I am always honored to help families give their pets the gift of a good death at the end of a life well-lived.
As one end-of-life vet put it, “Where there is grief, there is great love, and all day long I’m looking at that love.”
Written By: Dr. Mavi Graves, Caring Pathways Veterinarian
Dr. Mavi feels that the end-of-life journey is an incredibly sacred and meaningful time to serve pet families and she feels strongly about the importance of letting pets pass away at home. It is an honor to facilitate gentle and peaceful euthanasia experiences and to that end, Dr. Mavi has earned her Fear-Free Certification. She is also working towards acupuncture certification and strives for excellence and personal betterment in supporting pet owners through what may be one of the most difficult days of their lives. Click here to read Dr. Mavi's full bio.