The last moment lasts forever

There are a host of euphemisms for euthanasia. Putting a pet "to sleep" is the most common.

Euthanasia sounds so clinical, but sugarcoating the term puts off some people.

One of my colleagues succinctly uses the word "kill" so his clients understand the full impact of the action.

I sometimes refer to "throwing in the towel" (I grew up watching boxing on the "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports" with my dad in the 1950s) or time to "put the pet down."

In veterinary school the chemical euthanasia solution we used was a bright fluorescent green so that no mistake could be made about what the syringe contained. Our term then was "slipping the green dream."

I suppose it's natural that metaphors sometimes soften reality.

In veterinary school one of our professors impressed my class with the story of a practitioner who refused to perform euthanasia because he was in veterinary medicine to save animals, not to kill them.

To idealistic senior students, this sounded quite noble. One of my close classmates even implemented the philosophy, at least early in his career.

The reality is that few procedures are more sensitive and crucial than the timely implementation of euthanasia.

It is extremely important and often challenging due to the wide variety of reasons for its request and the incredible diversity of human emotions.

Each situation is unique.

Most requests for euthanasia are based on quality of life, but "quality" in clients' minds is far from consistent.

Married couples sometimes quarrel over the issue. It is up to each veterinarian to agree or disagree that it is time.

Some pet owners want their veterinarian to decide, but I believe it is our job only to discuss the options and, when the client decides, then to support that decision.

The process can be fraught with indecision and feelings of guilt.

In the end it may be better to risk waiting too long than to act too early. If the client makes the decision, it more than likely will be without regret.

I used to work hard at trying to say just the right thing during this difficult time in hope of softening the pain, but so often my offerings came forth sounding clichéd.

The fact is, I think, we are better off being quiet and calm rather than offering words of assurance.

It is, after all, a time to say goodbye, and no words can soften the profound loss suffered by many at this time.

So, I try to watch in quiet humility as some of my clients writhe in agony while others smile in tearful gratitude. Some leave the exam room abruptly while some linger indefinitely afterward.

Everyone is different and, at that moment, each is probably in touch with his or her own mortality.

In my experience, young children seem the most flexible and matter of fact concerning pet loss. I like a story that I heard told by Art Linkletter, who did a television program in the late 1950s and early 1960s interviewing young children.

On one show, Linkletter was talking to a somewhat morose young boy, asking him why he looked so sad and if he wanted to talk about it.

With candor the child responded that a car recently had killed his new puppy.

To offer sympathetic understanding, Linkletter attempted to make the boy feel better by saying something to the effect that maybe it was OK now that his puppy was with God in heaven.

The youth looked at him incredulously and said:

"But mister, what would God want with a dead puppy anyway?"

Jack Thornton is a semi-retired veterinarian. Reach him in care of

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