July 6, 2009

Animal euthanasia and human emotional burnout

Emotional burn out of animal rescue and veterinary staff is becoming an increasingly common issue around the world. I don't suppose the global recession is helping as more owners are abandoning pets, or refusing to pay for surgical procedures.

I found a blog recently... it was simple and to the point and lingered in my mind... and last night, in a discussion relating to fish farming, I remembered it again. I don't suppose this person expects this blog to be widely read. It is a coping mechanism; a small memory of each life that passes through their hands. I am sure many who work in our industry will relate to it.

What I Killed Today - I work with a lot of injured wildlife. Also not wild animals that are just in a lot of pain. Sometimes I have to euthanize them. I decided to record each animal I euthanize here.
The reference to the fish farming came here
Next a male is removed from the water. He is clubbed, in theory, to death on the floor then the sperm is milked out of him. His body is thrown out the window into a pile on the ground.

I refused to participate. The instructor, disappointed and possibly angry, said "you're going to have to kill something sometime." I rolled my eyes. I stepped outside to avoid ridicule and realized that many of the male fish lying on the ground were still alive. I told one of the hatchery workers and he came out and half-heartedly clubbed one again. It was still moving. While it may have just been postmortem nerve reflexes, it still unsettled me so I spent the next hour cutting the heads off the fish as they were tossed out the window to ensure they were dead rather than have them suffocate to death. The knife they gave me was dull and it took all my strength to cut through.

So, honestly, I don't know if I killed anything today but it still felt as bad, if not worse, than any euthanasia I've ever performed.

So this got me thinking today as I teach Grief Management to my classes . ....which is about learning to deal with euthanasia and grief - for both their clients and themselves. People enter animal industries because they want to work with animals. They don't want to watch them die. And yet they do....

Animal Control Officers and shelter workers routinely deal with many challenges besides euthanasia: cruelty, ignorance and carelessness towards animals; hostility from the public; disrespect for their skill, commitment and love of animals. Of all these stressors, however, euthanasia is the most heart wrenching and unique to animal care work. No other profession asks people to end lives of those they deeply care about and want to help.

Euthanasia: A Veterinary Technicians Perspective

Each one hurts us, too. In fact, veterinarians and technicians alike tend to suffer more burn out in this field than in most jobs. It’s an emotional field to work in. It is not exactly professional for us to break down crying for each pet, and we try to keep in our minds that this is the right thing, but we see the owner’s suffering, we see the bond- whether it’s your first and last visit in one, whether this was something unexpected when you pulled in, or whether you made this appointment last week. We can see it in your face, hear it in your voice- we know how it feels because we love our pets so dearly and know how strong your bond is with your loved pet- each and every single euthanasia is a heartbreak for us, and we feel your pains.
Shelter workers pay a high price of traumatic stress and compassion fatigue
I believe that the majority of front line workers in animal welfare organizations suffer from traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. Why? Because the work is the most emotionally complex and morally challenging of any trauma worker role in our society. Remember, compassion fatigue is different from burnout in that the cause of compassion fatigue is always related to caring about, taking care of, or exposure to trauma victims, while burnout can result from any type of stress. Compassion fatigue is unique to certain roles and situations.
The factors impacting the severity of these traumatic stress symptoms include: the duration of the experience/exposure, potential for recurrence, degree of exposure to death, dying and destruction, degree of moral conflict inherent in the situation, and the extent to which the role is direct or indirect. Every one of these factors exists in the shelter/animal control/rescue workers job:
Caring for traumatized animals is a daily event, not occasional. It is on going, not episodic.
Exposure to death is frequent at many shelters
Degree of moral conflict is extremely high for humans who deeply love animals and are in a role of choosing who will live and who may die, and are in the role of personally performing euthanasia
Their role is seeing these animal victims of trauma is direct and hands on, along with direct and on-going exposure to the very perpetrators of animal abandonment, neglect or abuse

 Convenience Euthanasia - Just say no

What price do we pay for convenience euthanasia?

The highest rate of suicide in our profession in America involves workers who euthanize dogs and cats in animal shelters and pounds on a daily basis.

Researchers from the University of Southampton School of Medicine in Hampshire, England, report that the rate of suicide in veterinarians in the UK is four times that of the general public and twice that of doctors and dentists.

Richard Mellanby, David Bartram and David Baldwin published this sad information in the October 2005 issue of the UK’s journal Veterinary Record. They listed several factors that influence suicide in their  veterinary surgeons, such as access to lethal drugs, euthanasia being an encouraged and justified procedure, job dissatisfaction, job stress and predisposition to depression.

Is there anything we can do?
I liked these suggestions from Cornell University and the Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell
Working with Veterinarians
The simple truth is that enacting real change in our communities regarding the welfare and disposition of homeless pets requires participation from us all. We all have to work together in positive and effective strategies to non-lethally control the pet surplus. Veterinarians are uniquely positioned to participate and to take leadership roles in these efforts. These roles include: helping to increasing adoptions (through direction of shelter medical programs and building strong relations with shelters and the public), increasing sterilization of pets (in shelters and in practice--including feral cats), and increasing owner-retention of pets (through applied behavior counseling and permanent identification (microchipping) in practice).
 Good on Hills pet Food for running workshops
Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Workshop
Highlighted in Animal Sheltering Magazine, published by the Humane Society of the United States, SSACP's highly praised Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Workshop helps animal care professionals deal with the feelings that often lead to fatigue and burnout. The workshop provides a safe, confidential, supportive environment to address these feelings and restore hope, energy and enthusiasm.

And you, as members of the public, pet owners etc, can acknowledge the good work these people do, daily....

Animal in our Hearts
Have you ever wondered why people work at animal shelters? Have you ever thought or said, "Oh I couldn't work there, I love animals too much"? Interestingly, in response to both written surveys and verbal exercises in workshops I've conducted, involving several hundred shelter employees since 1995, the number one reason shelter workers have given over and over again for working in shelters is "because I love animals". They work there because they love animals, despite the pain and heartache they witness and feel themselves.

The next time you find yourself in a conversation with an animal shelter worker (or animal control officer or humane officer), instead of saying, "Oh I couldn't do your job, I love animals too much", try saying, "You must love animals a great deal to do the work you do." This type of comment, this acknowledgment, will go a long way toward boosting the morale of the people who care for the abused, neglected and abandoned animals of your community.
 So to the person who started the What I Killed Today Blog
Thank you for reminding me that they are all worthy of being remembered.

Now that I ave made myself cry, I apologise if I have upset you in any way, or unearthed memories and fears for anyone reading it...  losing a pet is never easy and their memories live on in your hears forever. Perhaps they go "Into The West"... like Frodo and Bilbo...

This moving piece was written for New Zealander Cameron Duncan ((April 20, 1986November 12, 2003) .. and then used in The Lord of The Rings... see lyrics below the video clip :)

Into The West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You have come to journey's end

Sleep now
Dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across a distant shore

Why do you weep
What are these tears upon your face
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away

Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon
Why do the white gulls call

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time

Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon
Why do the white gulls call

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the west



  1. reading your post disturbed me, Fi. I didn't know animals are killed even when they aren't ill just because they have become too many to handle. it must take a lot of will power for someone to do that, esp. when a person had sworn to work for the welfare of these animals. i salute therefore, the veterinarians and those who work in shelters for coping with such a stressful job. also because they have tremendous amount of love for animals.
    yes, iam crying with you!!

  2. Whew! Thought provoking is the least one can say about your post. It pointed out some perspectives I hadn't really considered. Thanks for an eye opener - and yes, something to think about.

  3. Wow hun, a very emotive and heartfelt post, bought back some memories. beautiful job.

  4. Nice one Fi! When our last dog (another JR) had to be put down after 18 years of being our boy, it broke our hearts, Paul took him, and brought him home wrapped in my dressing gown, he was inconsolable. The next day we received a 'deepest sympathy' card from the vet, thats when I realised that vets have hearts too! Sorry Fi, up to that point I hadn't really given vets much thought. I have the greatest respect for you all now.

  5. Thank you for this. Luckily, my new job involves taking care of rehabilitated animals in a facility in which they get to live out their full lives in a safe environment. It is very different and I have not had to euthanize anything for several months. I am grateful for that but know someday I will go back to a shelter or hospital and will again be faced with the inevitable.

  6. thank you all -
    I read this today - nice to know people are getting creative to make options happen :)


  7. Hi Fi, thank you for this post. My husband sent it to me maybe as a way of saying he understands or as a hint to take a look at myself! At any rate, I guess I needed the good, hard cry I just had.

    I'm the director of a street dog and cat program in Guatemala. This is a hugely tough issue for us due to the large overpopulation. So many people say to me "just euthanise them". I want to say back "you hold their paw, look into their eyes and do it. It may change your opinion".

    Thanks for the emotional outlet on this Monday morning. Time to go to the streets and get to work!

  8. Wow Fi, I couldn't read all of this, the fish bit was enough for me. I never considered the impact on having a pet ' put down' on the veterinary staff.

    I came over to thank you for your comment at mine. It was interesting to know the reason for my 'immobility'. I understand what you are saying about asking him to leave but both our solicitors have told us it will jeopardize the settlement and custody. Neither of us can do that. At least we don't argue. I need to be patient.

  9. I have read and re-read this post. In talking about burnout it brought to mind taking our dogs to oncologists. The techs turned over often. Every pet that came through the door was literally doomed not far down the road yet they, the doctors and the owners tried. I've been through it twice with oncologists and their staffs. I've lost those beloved pets, but, oh, the respect I gained for the professionals that tried to help.

    And they did. For the time that was allowed. And to think they thanked me for allowing their efforts.

    I'll probably be back on this. It's of such interest because I'm not too far away from it again. Just a different, incurable disease.

  10. True Mari...
    Oncology, hospice, critical care nurses, whether human or animal related, all face the knowledge that a large number of their patients will die. Whether they become emotionally involved or not is their choice... but those that survive in the work soon realise their role is to make the journey as easy as possible for their patients and their families. Death is not a failure if it is done with empathy and dignity and respect. Did they make a positive difference in the journey, whether it was short or long, is all that matters... everything else is just timing.

  11. I worked as an animal nurse (as we were then called) for just over six years. You won't be surprised to hear that this was one of the most traumatic aspects of my job, nor that my home was filled with as many unwanted animals as my parents would allow. Nor will it surprise you to learn that during my adult life, 99% of the animals I've owned have been 'second-hand', either strays, or rescues, or retired from racing.

    It bothers me hugely that people 1) treat animals as unimportant or disposable, right down to silkworms (no, I can't wear silk), and 2) are so unaware of what happens at the dirty end of life.

    I don't want to cause anyone emotional trauma, but I do try to gently educate people. It can be as simple as saying 'many thousands of greyhounds retire from racing each year, at an average of 3-5 years. What do you think happens to them?'

    It's also about making informed choices about the food we eat and the clothes we wear. I won't buy animal products from China, for instance, and I insist that any chicken I eat is 'happy chicken' - either free range, or at least compassionately farmed in barns.

    Thanks for bringing a little more awareness. I couldn't read the poem. Just the first line made me well up. I lost both my beloved greyhounds in the early weeks of this year.

  12. So sad...I've lost many pets to both euthnaisa and other conditions, it's very hard to do when you're losing one, so to be a vet and watch hundreds, I couldn't do it...I admire you for your job :)

  13. Doctors who bond with patients... can expect them to be around for many years... cats and dogs live for a fifth of a human lifespan. In my time practicing I met many of my patients as new puppies and kittens, and was there euthanising them at the end of their happy, long lives.

    I can handle that - it is sad, but natural.

    Mari sent me a quote that many vets have never seen natural death in an animal - and that struck a chord. If we think it is dying we hurry up and end it!

    Probably the low point of my career was spending two afternoons a year putting down the surplus cats and dogs at the local SPCA. I had to decide on the limited few who lived to be rehomed... and kill the rest. Piles of bodies. One particularly wrenching one was the truck coming in from an outlying pound which we opened to find the blood and limbs of a small dog that had been torn apart. We had to kill the whole truck.... including a magnificent black lab that was very like my own pet at the time. I can feel that now.

    What made it all bearable? The fantastic, amazing, cheerful, professional staff who were patient and kind and supportive to me as they brought me animal after animal, giving me, the executioner, a smile, and a loving pat at the end for each cat or dog.
    Thank you.

  14. We people are real pieces of work sometimes, aren't we? Disturbing is putting it lightly.

  15. Imagine what it is like for soldiers. Knowing they may have kill a human being. And think of how it was for those who had to kill in WWII. To not be involved was to stand by and let the Nazi's overrun Europe and come close to wiping out an entire race. It didn't have to be that way. Some countries whose numbers did manage to make a difference once they entered the war years later could have prevented much of it had those numbers joined against the Nazi's at the beginning. While most of the world see's the start of WWII as 1 September 1939 the average US citizen will say 7 December 1941.

    For Evil to Triumph all it takes is for good men to do nothing.

  16. I found your blog just a few weeks ago...maybe a month. I have tried to resist coming in to read this particular post, for what reason I couldn't say...except that while I agree with Euthanasia for the impossibly injured, the incredibly old (who no longer have life quality,) and the terminally ill when suffering is the controlling factor...I fear it, as well. When does it become an easy out? Who pays the price? We had our darling Digby, an Old English Sheepdog, euthanized when her cancer was at coma stage. I held her in my arms as the needle went in. I cried nearly hysterically after she took her last breath, but while she was still my girl, I spoke to her lovingly of the time when we would meet again. I read this and the information you offer is so compelling that it should be a "Letter to the Editor" in every city that has an Animal Impound. I wish that you would send your words about Shelter Workers to the Progressive Journal in a letter to the Editor. He is a very kind caring animal lover who does all he can about our own local Shelter. I brought him up that way. He once walked out of a biology class in high school where they were feeding rats to snakes. In his mind, a snake in the wild against an animal in the wild is one thing, but a snake with a rat or kitten or mouse being held as a captive audience is quite another. His name is Wallace McBride and the address for the paper is
    The Progressive Journal
    PO Box 218
    Pageland, SC 29728

    This was one of the best posts that I have read. Thank you.

  17. I was at the vet's the other day with my doggie who was waiting for his annual injections - perfectly fit and healthy. The vet nurse was on the phone trying to find a home for a cat who had a skin condition, who's owner (a little old lady) couldn't care for it - and had sent her daughter to the vets to have it put to sleep.......they found a space for it at the local cat rescue - and as I sat there, I sensed the struggle they were having as putting the cat to sleep was not an option they were wanting to take. The owner was refusing to pay for the lengthy treatment the cat needed - but the daughter said she would pay to put it to sleep. In the end, that money was used to start treatment on the skin complaint......It was interesting - as I listened to the nurse ringing round to the various cat rescue owners. Even more interesting when the daughter of the elderly owner emerged from the surgery into the waiting room - and I knew her.
    Grieving vets and un-necessary death, it is a sobering subject for me - one who is used to humans mourning humans and human death rituals....
    Animals bless us so much with their presence - why do some humans feel that their existance is so cheap and disposable.

  18. Due to my Mom living out in the countryside I found out about a little known law here. If you feed a wild animal once you are obligated to continue to do so for the rest of the animals life.

    Many people have a habit of rather than having their pet fixed when the litter is born and old enough they will drive to the countryside and release them in the wild.

    ( Reasonably sure if someone could prove it a charge of cruelty to animals could be laid and I think the max on that can involve Federal Prison time ie more then 2 years think the max is 7.)

    Anyway my Mom had six cats of here own until her husbands death caused her to need to find other homes for them. As for the feral cats. She still feeds them. unfortunately being in the wild many fall prey to hawks owls and slightly larger mammals.

    Largest animal I have seen near here is a Cougar second and I have seen a few but not many is a Wolf. I imagine wild dogs are next to the birds the biggest predator.


Comments welcome....always love to hear what you think!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin