A walk-in client was waiting in the exam room first thing after the long Memorial Day weekend. He told my staff he and his girlfriend wanted their dog put to sleep.
Leipschein was a “back dog,” in veterinary shorthand. We had been seeing her recently for what was most likely a compressed disc in her back causing her discomfort and pain. The first round of medications “had not worked,” according to the clients. They said they couldn’t spend a lot of money on the dog. They had called earlier and sounded angry. “Fix this dog or we’re putting her to sleep” was the gist — or the threat.
I sympathized. Let’s try to help her.
My goal was to treat the disc medically and relieve her pain. Rest the dog completely, I told the couple, and give the new medications: muscle relaxants, steroids and more pain meds.
When I walked into the room Tuesday morning to view my little patient, she was walking around. She was stable but clearly uncomfortable at times. I did not feel euthanasia was the correct option yet.
“So you gave her all the new medicine I prescribed over the weekend, and she still isn’t doing any better?” I asked. I was surprised she hadn’t improved. These medications are often very effective.
“We didn’t give her any of the medicine because she wasn’t eating,” the man said dryly. “We need to have her put down.”
The prescribed pills were tiny, and the dog was a sweetheart. They had not figured out a way to give the medicine to the dog. So what were my options?
Offering a Second Chance
I asked the couple to surrender their dog to us for treatment and a new home. We would treat her and give her the benefit of medication and time before pulling the plug. Let’s do everything we can.
If Leip could be a happy, healthy and pain-free dog, we would find her an excellent home with one of us or through a breed rescue. I would keep the couple informed of her progress and all aspects of her treatment and outcome.
No deal. The man stood firm. He wanted the dog euthanized.
If I refused to euthanize their pet, the couple can go to the veterinary hospital down the road or the shelter or the emergency hospital and euthanize the dog there. I could wash my hands of the situation — but then I would be making one of my colleagues perform the euthanasia. Is that fair? I would cause more “compassion fatigue” to a shelter worker or emergency vet who struggles with these sad cases and depression every day just so I don’t have to be Dr. Doom.
I knew they would end her life, either by my hand or by someone else’s. And she was in pain.
Pie-in-the-sky thinking would scream out: No! Nobody should euthanize this dog. But that’s not how the system works. There are too many unwanted pets. People have different expectations of what quality of life means or quick expectations of improvement.
My instincts about the couple were correct. They were not going to change their minds.
- I made them wait.
- I asked them to make some phone calls.
- I tried to show them the compassion I had for their dog and hoped that would rub off. But it failed.
In the end, I euthanized their dog.
My only solace was that I knew they would end her life, either by my hand or by someone else’s. And she was in pain. Had they asked me to euthanize a healthy dog with no medical problems, they would have been given their walking papers out of my hospital. But in this circumstance there was a medical reason, and the dog’s lawful caretakers did not want to surrender.
The most common question I am asked as a veterinarian is, “It must be so hard when you have to put animals to sleep. How do you do it?”
I know how I do it. I do it when it is the best thing for my patient. To alleviate end-stage suffering or traumatic injury, or if the pet has no quality of life, humane euthanasia is the right choice. But when I have clients who don’t seem to want to give their pet the best chance at a good life, at no cost to them, I find myself in ethical turmoil. And tremendous sadness.
It’s possible little Leipschein would not have responded to treatment, or would have had a chronic problem with her back, which is not a good way to live. But we didn’t know that yet.
I wanted to give her the benefit of time and treatment. Her family did not.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.