Veterinary Wellness Briefs: When Euthanasia Is Personal 

Despite their frequent exposure to euthanasia, veterinarians often experience intense emotional reactions when it is time to euthanize their own horses. Here's some advice for coping with that grief.
Equine practitioners are often surprised by the intensity of their grief when it is time to euthanize their own horse. | Getty Images

Over years of practice and after counseling hundreds of clients through the difficult decision to euthanize their horses, equine veterinarians often become accustomed to the process. They express genuine but repetitive empathy to their clients, and sometimes they even experience their own sadness at the loss of a favorite patient. When the case has been difficult, lengthy, or tragic, that sadness might be strong, but it generally fades quickly as the next case comes along. While euthanasia never becomes routine, it becomes familiar. The gestures of kindness a doctor might make to clients afterward, such a sympathy card or a donation in the special horse’s memory, frequently help ease the burden of the inevitable patient losses.  

The Burden of Grief

Due to their frequent exposure to euthanasia, equine practitioners are often surprised by the intensity of their emotional reaction when it is time to euthanize their own horse. If the injury is sudden and catastrophic, most veterinarians slip into “doctor mode” and relieve suffering swiftly without accessing their emotions until later. Sometimes horse doctors feel they should be “used to death” because of their frequent exposure and feel weak or out of control when they are shattered by the death of their beloved horse. The burden of grief can be very heavy and include guilt as well as excessive rumination about their medical decisions. Depression and anxiety are common in the wake of the decision.  

Making the Decision to Euthanize

Frequently, there are posts on social media from veterinarians who are struggling to keep their elderly, debilitated horses alive when faced with daunting clinical signs. While they might recommend a peaceful death by euthanasia to their clients in similar circumstances, reaching this decision for their own horse can be excruciating. Deciding to euthanize an animal with which they share many happy years and memories, sometimes spanning three decades, can be very difficult.  

Just as clients sometimes cannot accept the reality of their horse’s daily experience, veterinarians can also feel unable to act on the knowledge that their animal is suffering or will never thrive again. Because this emotional pain is so uncomfortable, it is normal to avoid planning for euthanasia even when it might be warranted. Unfortunately, this can lead to later guilt and shame after the horse’s inevitable death. It is important to give yourself grace in these situations.  

Processing the Loss

With sudden tragic injuries, allow yourself time to process your loss after you have completed necessary actions to avoid the mental health consequences of traumatic death. You might be surprised by your brain’s need to replay the trauma repeatedly whenever you are not distracted by other activities. Don’t make the mistake of staying busy continuously to avoid your grief. Feeling your feelings is necessary to allow your pain to recede. Talk about your experience with a supportive friend or therapist, because telling your story helps it lose its destructive power. 

When your beloved horse has developed a serious, debilitating condition that has markedly reduced his quality of life, being courageous enough to decide to euthanize is hard. You might wish to ask a colleague to perform the deed so you can focus on your goodbye. You do not have to be strong and perform this service yourself. Allow no self-judgment over your decision. Others might question your decision, and that will be wrenching, but you will know in your heart what feels right. Expect to feel anxious, nauseous, and uncertain as you wait for the scheduled time. You will probably second-guess your decision during the lead up. People make decisions emotionally and—despite your professional knowledge—you will be no different. Be gentle with yourself. Remember the decision for euthanasia is not supposed to be easy. Seek support, and don’t diminish the impact it has on you just because you are a professional. Seek grief counseling if your sadness is undiminished after several weeks. Memorials to your horse can help you honor their life. A bracelet or key ring made from their mane or tail, a commissioned painting, or a memorial championship or scholarship can help ease your pain.  

Final Thoughts

Experiencing the death of your own horse can provide you with increased empathy and understanding toward clients. While these times are painful, they are universal for those with animals. Sharing life with these magnificent creatures is worth the pain of their loss. 

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