The Hardest Part of Veterinary Medicine

It’s not what everyone thinks

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Oh, I just couldn’t kill animals.

When I tell people about my job, I am often met with a variation of this response. “I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but I couldn’t deal with euthanasia. I just couldn’t stand to do that.” Everybody assumes that this is the most difficult aspect of the field, but it’s not.

Veterinary medicine carries a variety of unique challenges and circumstances when compared to other categories of medicine. Many children (and adults too) express their desire to become a veterinarian someday; however, it is difficult to realize what it’s like to be a veterinarian until you are one.

I worked for a little over twelve years in the field before becoming a veterinarian myself, and I still was surprised. That said, there is one aspect in particular that I think people often don’t fully recognize.

Everybody assumes that euthanasia is the hardest part of veterinary medicine, but really, it’s coming up with a plan B.

Everybody thinks that euthanasia is the hardest part of the job.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there’s a veterinarian out there who enjoys euthanasia; however, I believe that most of us look at it as a positive thing. It allows us to end or diminish suffering. I feel that we all take pride in that.

Want to know what’s truly the hardest? Having to come up with a plan B.

Let me explain…

Most people recognize that as a veterinarian I get to diagnose, treat, and otherwise care for animal companions. What many people don’t realize is that not everybody wants to, or can, do the treatments or diagnostics that are recommended or necessary (Plan A). So, while what your pet may need is an MRI and a ventral slot surgery for their ruptured cervical disc, not everybody is willing or able to pursue that (to the tune of at least $10k). So, I must come up with something else, that will not be as good, but will be enough (Plan B).

The hardest part of veterinary medicine is knowing that you can do something to help the animal in front of you, but being told that you can’t. Cost is certainly the most common reason people decline to move forward with things; however, people may have moral or religious objections to diagnostics or treatments too.

It’s not helping people say goodbye to a beloved pet that keeps me up at night (usually), it’s knowing that I could have done more. Sure, not every situation is as complicated as a cervical disc rupture, but this applies to everything from treating an ear infection to treating the most complex medical conditions that we see.

You can’t just waive that charge? I thought you all were supposed to care about animals.

Veterinarians consistently get put into a catch 22, particularly when it comes to money. People may imply, or outright state, that the need for payment nullifies any potential caring for them or their pets that you hold. There is no doubt that prices in veterinary medicine are increasing, and there are extensive reasons for this beyond the scope of the article.

The reality; however, is that payment for services is entirely necessary to the veterinary profession.

Without payment, the lights don’t stay on, the complicated diagnostic and surgical equipment doesn’t get purchased, and ultimately nobody’s pets receive care.

Therefore, the most difficult aspect of being a veterinarian is not being asked to perform euthanasia when you and the owner have agreed that it’s time. The hardest part is being told that the medically appropriate (and sometimes only) plan will not work for an owner.

It’s compiling a list of alternate plans until one fits within the constraints given. It’s being stuck with knowing that we did not do the best that we could.

As the veterinarian, I must harbor the knowledge about what will eventually happen to this pet, while also supporting and developing plan B.

For it is harder to help somebody say goodbye as a plan B than it is to respectfully and lovingly aid them in saying goodbye as a plan A.

Every pet owner has their own budget and belief about their goals for their pets. This article is not meant to target owners who can’t “afford” treatment for their pets. Rather, it’s to shine a light on a part of the field of veterinary medicine that is commonly misunderstood.

2 Replies to “The Hardest Part of Veterinary Medicine”

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