4 ways pet owners talk themselves into euthanasia

4 ways pet owners talk themselves into euthanasia

Euthanasia can be a gift, or euthanasia can be a frustrating choice. Help clients at your veterinary practice do it at the right time for the right reasons.
May 04, 2016

Do you always recognize the complicated emotional reasons clients opt for euthanasia when you might not? (Photo Getty Images)A lot of our clients think euthanasia is the worst part of our job. But more often than not, I think it’s the last, nice thing we can do for our friends. I don't euthanize healthy pets or pets with minor, easily fixed problems. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who’s been chastised for not euthanizing an otherwise healthy pet. Here are some other versions of euthanasia you may have seen, depending on how long you've been practicing:

Euthanasia by estimate

There are times we veterinarians put a dollar value on a medical problem, and that overwhelms a client. They stop thinking. They only hear: "Do this or euthanize. There is no middle ground." As a general practitioner, we are sometimes not able to do anything and everything we would like to help a pet. Often we are forced, usually by client financial constraints, to do supportive or symptomatic therapy in the face of an unknown, underlying problem because clients can’t or won’t pay for diagnostic testing.

Am I the only one who's noticed a three-test limit with clients? When the fourth test is needed, they start feeling like there's no end to the testing.

We need to be cognizant of how estimates are viewed by clients. (Am I the only one who’s noticed a three-test limit with clients? They’re OK with things right up until that fourth test is needed, then they start feeling like there's no end to the testing.)

Holiday euthanasia

Do pets take a turn for the worse for Christmas or Thanksgiving? I don't think pets are timing their decline to coincide with holidays. I think clients often have family visiting, and they start to perceive a bigger problem with a pet’s condition or age. Not deliberately, not malignly, not even, I think, with the intention to decide on euthanasia. They just start looking at things they've accepted in a declining pet through the eyes of visiting relatives, and those things start to look worse.

Some people seem to make a decision to euthanize before the holiday, convincing themselves how awful it would be if the pet passed away during the holiday. Plus, a new pet can be introduced during the holidays to assuage the loss of the previous pet.

Euthanasia by reminder card

I've seen this time and time again. Sometimes when we send a friendly reminder card for vaccines or heartworm testing or something else, the client starts thinking more about whether they want to continue to invest money in a pet. The things they’ve been doing or putting up with—like keeping up with a regular prescription—turn into cost-and-benefit mental calculus.

Don't stop sending reminder cards, just glance to see if the pet is due for anything for which you've sent a reminder recently.

I don’t want to suggest we stop sending reminder cards, but when euthanasia is brought up, just glance to see if the pet is due for anything for which you've sent a reminder out recently.

Withdrawal of care euthanasia

This is an odd one. I have to think it's a normal human behavior, because I've seen it a lot. It happens when we have a long-term treatment process, say, heart disease. The owners have been compliant for a long time and the pet has been doing well. Suddenly, the pet is in decline and presented for euthanasia. What I sometimes find when reviewing the chart is that the owners stopped refilling medication. So, of course, the pet gets worse. And the clients seem truthfully oblivious to the fact that they haven't been giving the medication as diligently as usual and as prescribed.

Again, I don't think this is deliberate. I think there might be subconscious behavior going on that in withdrawing care, the pet gets worse, the clients can now be OK to make a euthanasia decision, because, after all, "see how bad they look."

I think it's good to be aware of these behaviors and recognize them when they occur.

I don’t have easy answers for these behaviors, necessarily. I've just noticed them over the years. I think it's good to be aware of these behaviors and recognize them when they occur. It may help you start and continue conversations with your clients. Or, at least, give you a better understanding into how our fellow primates operate.

A graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Dean Scott has enjoyed 35 years in the veterinary profession, including five years with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. He now practices small animal medicine at Animal Clinic of Brandon in Brandon, Florida.