When I was finishing up my pre-vet requirements before coming to vet school, I did not mind euthanasias. It is not as heartless or demented of a statement as it first seems. I felt that being able to stop all of the terror, pain, and suffering that an animal feels is truly a gift. Maybe early on, I was not seeing some of the tougher cases, but euthanasias have now become the hardest part of vet med. It’s a gift a vet can give at the expense of themselves; every time it happens now, it hurts more and more.
There are easy euthanasias and there are bad euthanasias. The easy ones involve critically ill animals that will never improve and are suffering; these are emotionally easier to put down. The bad ones are when the animal could be saved, but for some reason (usually finances), we are just not able to help and the kindest option is euthanasia. Sadly, this job comes with both types.
A while back, I helped euthanize a horse I had spent the previous few days treating, grooming, and coaxing to eat. The owners thanked both me and the attending vet afterward, and they were trying to keep it together while I tried to keep it together. I thought it hadn’t really affected me, but a couple of days later I broke down completely at home over some little thing that should not have mattered. It took two days to realize that was how I had dealt with euthanizing a wonderful horse who was beyond the reach of medicine.
Compassion fatigue comes from prolonged exposure to highly emotional situations; situations that the vet profession faces every day. Individuals start to shut down emotionally and then become apathetic in those situations. Shutting down initially sounds like a good thing; it seems better than crying with every client or hurting every time we have to euthanize an animal. Unfortunately, it has a downside, too. Walls start going up, and we hear but don’t process how much a pet may have meant to its family. We shut down and distance ourselves from the situation.
I suppose, like everything else, this difficult part of veterinary medicine will take practice to be able to handle well and find an appropriate balance. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that euthanasias will always be the hardest part of the rest of my career.