A Candid Story From A Vet... Your Heart Will Go Out for All.
As a veterinarian, did you ever fear for a pet owner after putting their pet to sleep? Did you think they might injure or even kill themselves? If so, what did you do?
Gina Johnson, DVM Veterinary Medicine
Twice I have feared this outcome in a serious way.
I have seen many owners whose grief was temporarily disabling or loud and dramatic, and with a few of these owners we have asked them to stay a little while until they seem able to drive again. However I did not suspect they would go home and be a danger to themselves, I only worried about the ability to drive at the moment while emotions were especially powerful.
There were two owners I genuinely worried about. I suspect both owners struggled with mental illness in some way, as they had shown signs at previous appointments of being highly attached to their dogs with severe difficulty in accepting bad news about their pets.
One client would wail and weep for hours upon being told something was wrong, and had a hard time fighting back denial. They were also inappropriate in some ways, cursing loudly at many visits, becoming hysterical, and keeping staff in the exam room far longer than the appointment allowed. They had serious boundary issues with us, as well as with the family members who sometimes came with. (Once they proclaimed the dog was the most important thing in their life while their daughter sat next to them.) Another time while I examined the dog on the floor, the client actually reached out and petted my head, making my skin crawl. It happened so quickly I didn’t know what to say but it was bizarre and definitely a violation!
I feared both for this client and for ourselves. This is the only client who gave me the thought, no matter how fleeting, of a thought they might bring a gun in here if the dog doesn’t make it. Luckily they didn’t, but my spidy-sense was still well-placed. While the client ended up eventually coping with the loss of their first dog, when their second dog died, they tried to bring a board complaint against my colleague, which was dropped by the board due to no evidence of wrongdoing. The owners imbalanced emotions required they try to blame somebody.
At that point we finally fired them. Up until that point there had been a certain degree of pity for them since we all realized they were not 100%, but when their anger turned on us pity could only go far.
The second client had had a terrible recent life history. Their spouse had developed an incurable illness and committed suicide the year before; the dog had been mainly the spouses and so caring for the dog fell to our client, who was forcibly reminded of their spouse’s frailty every time the dog fell ill. The client had also lost several friends to cancer in the short time since their spouse died and despite being in therapy, the client couldn’t help but share these terrible things with us at each visit as the dog continued to decline.
Finally the client confided in me that they had had a gun out that they intended to use on themselves, until the dog rested its head on the clients leg as if to say please don’t hurt yourself. The client had started crying and wrapped the dog in a hug that night. (It is not the first time a client shared with me that a pet was directly responsible for preventing a suicide attempt.)
We had many moments where euthanasia was almost chosen but every time the owner pulled back because they weren’t ready. These days were intensely emotional for them and for us; the appointment, scheduled for 20 minutes, often took an hour and a half between the doctor and staff trying to comfort the client and encourage them to decide either for euthanasia or for treatment, with the client weeping or trying not to cry the whole time. While this client sometimes cursed, especially at their deceased spouse, their overall attitude was kindhearted and we all sympathized with them.
Finally the day came when the pet worsened even further. After deciding yes, then no, then yes the owner elected to move ahead with euthanasia, sobbing throughout the discussion. My kindest, most compassionate technician sat with them until the owner moved up front, unable to witness the actual act being performed (understandably). As I went into the exam room for the final time I looked at my technician, whose eyes swam with tears: suddenly we were both sobbing ourselves, and we hugged each other, overwhelmed by the depths of the persons pain but relieved to finally help the dog go.
The client stayed, sobbing, in the lobby for another hour, bawling about how there was nothing left in life and how they hated that their spouse had left them like this and how terribly they missed the dog. We were all frightened they would go home and commit suicide. We did call the sheriff to come and check on them before they finally left. The client was surprised but not offended we called the police; they could tell we were mainly just extremely worried. It turned out that that night a friend of the owner also called the police for a wellness check on them, so it was clear everyone in their life had been so worried for them.
We saw the client again the following week. They came by just to hug myself and my colleague who had worked with them so closely over the last few months. The client had put on a little weight and had bright eyes and color in their cheeks for the first time since I’d known them. It was clear once the initial powerful wave of grief had settled; relief had set in that their pet was no longer suffering. We were all so glad they had pulled through that initial crisis period.
I drew a portrait of the person’s dog and gave it to them afterwards. I’m not able to do that for every pet I euthanize but in those case the owner’s devotion and difficulty in reaching the decision made me need to give them something. I hope it helped.
In short, suicide related to pet loss doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but it can be a very real danger in some cases.