An open letter to my veterinary colleagues:

Today, for (what seems like) the 1,347,481st time…I had a pet owner tell me, “your job stinks.”

This is a variation of the phrase, “I don’t know how you do what you do.”

Which is also a variation of the phrase, “You have a terrible job.”

As you may imagine, these are all phrases I hear when euthanizing a patient. As an emergency and critical care specialist, I euthanize more than most. I am not alone. Most veterinary professionals have and will euthanize a patient at some point in their careers (yes…even the veterinary dermatologists).

While mental health in veterinary medicine has become more open and public, there is still an overwhelming concern for compassion fatigue and burnout, along with suicide ideation in veterinary medicine.

Phrases like this, “Your job stinks,” do not help. They are not often not said to elicit a response. They are said out of sadness or fear, not malicious.

Unfortunately, they still sting.

Here are 3 tips that I hope will help you, my colleagues, cope with these potentially hurtful words:

1) Replace the hurtful phrase with a positive thought. Case in point, the impetus for me to write this blog was the phrase, “your job stinks.” The owner said this to me while I was discussing the differentials for a non-coagulopathic, non-traumatic hemoabdomen in an older Labrador. Yes, it does stink that I have to euthanize a patient. On a positive note, my education, experience, and compassionate conversation allowed the owners to make an informed decision without spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on diagnostics and hours (or days) waiting for results.

2) Redirect the owners. These hurtful words are said out of sadness and fear. They are not directed at us individually. The owners may not even know how these words hurt us. How do I redirect the owners? A phrase or reply I often use, “I know these are very difficult decisions, but I am thankful I am able to provide you this information and help you make a difficult decision.” Owners then often realize that their words were misguided.

3) Believe in yourself. A phrase I have not yet mentioned is the common phrase, “I wanted to be a veterinarian but I could never do this (euthanize).” I assume most veterinary professionals did not enter veterinary medicine with a love for euthanasia. We entered this profession with a love for medicine, a love for science, and a love for animals. We are strong, educated and resilient. We have the strength and compassion to put our patients first…even if euthanasia may be the most compassionate option for that pet.

The next time a client tells you…”Your job stinks.” Remember, your job does not stink. Your job is amazing. You are amazing. You save lives and improve the quality of life in pets.

(…and following the euthanasia before the owners of the hemoabdomen left the room, they turned to me letting me know how much they appreciated my compassion, time, and information in helping them make the decision for their dog.)

Dr. Garret Pachtinger, DACVECC
COO, Co-Founder, VETgirl

  1. We get this a lot in the shelter world (“Why would you ever want to work here”) when clients are informed of euthanasia as a last result or police officers bring in an abandoned animal in bad shape. I know they’re in a sense trying to show sympathy towards our field but it reads as “Wow how do you live with yourself killing animals or seeing death?” I try to start a conversation about our methods to keep animals out of the system–free vaccine clinics, behavior classes, and food pantries, supported fostering, rescue groups for specific breeds or ailments–or out here health once they’re inside but it’s easier to label “kill” and “no kill” and move along. I’m assuming our population saturation (we vary from 35000-25000 animals a year as an open admissions facility in a large metropolis) is what leads to high euthanasia by public standards but we still only euthanize about 10% or less of out intakes and those are for court ordered behavior reasons or chronic and extreme medical cases that no rescue group will claim and cannot be successfully maintained in shelter with a good quality of life. I love my job and I’m proud to be a licensed veterinary technician working alongside some tireless veterinarians. Sometimes it feels like we’re being asked to agree that our jobs are horrible and if we don’t we’re heartless or brainwashed. But how do I explain to a client the relief of easing a patient into a painless end surrounded by people who care about it for probably the first time in a long time if not its life? It sounds morbid trying to explain to family and friends, who know more about my profession than clients in off the street, that I find it a comforting end, if not the most successful resolution we were hoping for, to a case when euthanasia is elected. There’s a ceremony to the act now that I follow: from explaining the drug mechanism to the handlers, finding a comfortable position for the animal, whatever comforting murmurings we hand out–nothing is rushed and everyone involved acknowledges that the animal mattered and deserves dignity and a peaceful send off. It’s not the happiest part of my job but it’s something I’ve learned matters and if it has to happen I’m going to cushion those around me from the tragedy of it.

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