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So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 9 - A Good Death

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ May 2nd 2019 - By Michael Weinhardt, Michael Weinhardt Photography
So Many Other Things The Reality Of Working In Veterinary Practice Part 9

Holding a mirror to the veterinary industry to show the realities you work with every day.

A photographic documentary that relates what working in a busy veterinary practice looks like - the highs, lows, challenges, day-to-day, unusual and extraordinary.

“If only vetting just consisted of treating sick animals. But it didn’t. There were so many other things.”

- James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk


Viewing is recommended for people aged 15 years and over.  Photographs may disturb some viewers as content includes graphic images of death. People under 15 should check with responsible adults before viewing.

Viewing is cautioned for those grieving the death of a pet. Some photographs in this photoessay may be confronting and upsetting to some viewers who are grieving the loss of their pets.

Part 9: A Good Death

The technical and clinical capabilities of veterinary care increasingly overlap with its human equivalent. While it’s hard to imagine the former ever catching up with the latter, the former is far ahead when it comes to the end of life.

Intrinsic to the notion of caring for animals is the relief of suffering. Euthanasia allows vets to provide their patients with that relief, when there are no other options left. While it may not make the death of a beloved pet less sad, it can stop it from being a terrible one.

That idea is built right into the name: “Euthanasia” is derived from the Greek for “good death”.

What I saw at Brudine was what a good death can mean. In the most immediate and clinical sense, of course, euthanasia is the administration of a lethal dose of barbiturates. But the good death that it brings can include so much more before and after death itself.

Even in the most acute and unexpected cases, when euthanasia must be delivered as quickly as possible and an unsuspecting owner is confronted with the suddenness of it, there is still an ability to provide more than just the administration of barbiturates.

As Dr Jessica Winsall explains, such a dose can cause animals to “vocalise, jump around, or scream out in pain, which is not a great experience for anyone or any animal.” To prevent this, vets can pre-administer a sedative that knocks the animal out. This, Winsall says, helps both them and their owners have “the best experience, as bad as it is.”

Avoiding suffering is, in its own way, a way of providing dignity. That dignity can be provided in other ways around the moment of death. If owners stay with their pets through euthanasia, for example, Brudine gives them time in private before, to say last goodbyes, and after, to grieve.

If owners find it too distressing to be there, pets are euthanised out the back though with no less dignity. At Brudine, someone would always stay with an animal beforehand and give it comfort through hugs, gentle words and patting. For almost every death, a silence would spread through the practice too.

In some cases, extra time can be time to owners who might need to come to terms with the death of their pet, to begin and facilitate the grieving process. Vets may be able to prescribe medication to keep pets comfortable enough for long enough to let owners take them home, to reflect, to create last memories and to give them a meaningful goodbye.

There’s a kind of beauty in having the ability to shepherd and support pets and owners through the end of life.

Another Brudine vet recalls one euthanasia that had impacted him profoundly.

“The dog had been placed by a window to allow it to look out over the garden and where its mates [dogs] were playing.” The vet says.

“It was just the most peaceful end of life you could imagine. In its home environment, in its own chair, and looking out over its friends. That, to me, would be like how I’d want to go. And that was rewarding because this dog was going to suffer otherwise, and we got to give it its final dignity in its favourite spot.”

Dr Karen Viggers talks about her role in euthanasia in relation to a pet’s owners.

“Euthanasias are difficult, but I think it’s one of the most important parts of my job to try and make that as smooth and peaceful as possible. There are clients that I’ve known for years and I’m really glad that I can be there to guide them through that final act and try and make it smooth for them. And because they know me, they can have someone they know in that situation. I will even come in on days that I’m not there to do something like that.”

Certainly, everybody at Brudine accepted euthanasia as a necessary and important function of veterinary practice, despite the sadness.

Receptionist Kelly Haslop says, “The hardest thing that I found about working here is, surprisingly, not the euthanasia. If the animals are sick, yes, it’s sad and I do find it hard, but they are dying.”

Head Nurse Stephanie Robertson shares a similar view: “You’re sad for them, because there’s nothing you can do for them, as much as you’d love to. But then there’s also acceptance of why we had to do that.”

How said someone is, if at all, can differ from one case to the next. Dr Deborah Williams says she has, “cried and cried at some euthanasias, and not felt anything at others. Usually it depends on the association with the owner and animal although, sometimes, it’s for no reason at all.”

Many at Brudine said that managing emotional responses was crucial, particularly to avoid compassion fatigue. Williams says, “You can’t go home and dwell on those things. You have to accept that you are doing the best you can for the animal at that time.”

Dr Arianne Lowe considers feeling some degree of sadness is important. If she stopped feeling it, she says, she would quit being a vet.

Handling the sadness around euthanasia is one of a several challenges that practice staff might face. One staff member talked about too many euthanasias in a single day as being something they try to avoid. Several staff described the difficulty they had with the rare euthanasias of healthy animals when owners either can’t care for their pets any more or don’t want to. One Brudine client wanted to euthanise because they were sick of it running away.

Conversely, clients who don’t want to euthanase animals that need it can also be difficult to handle. Nurse Julie Marten says, “One of the hard things about working in veterinary services is seeing an animal who is suffering and dying, and the owners aren’t willing to do things to help their animal. It’s very frustrating and you feel for the animal.”

Despite the challenges, which Viggers highlighted as being rare, all staff at Brudine specifically described euthanasia more or less the same way as Lowe:

“To be able to end suffering is a gift. An unbelievable gift.”

9:27am. Marissa has brought 'Cheeky the Chicken' in to see Dr Ari Lowe, concerned she is very ill. Sadly, Marissa must now consider either an expensive treatment with low possibility of success or euthanasia. 2 March 2018.

12:58pm. Bill Frost grieves the loss of Ziggy who has just passed away after a losing battle with a massive infection. 28 February, 2018.

9:21am. Dr Grace Butler (left) is consoled by Nurse Skye Longley after euthanising a dog whose owner was deeply upset and had little time to both process the upsetting news and agree to euthanasia. 6 July, 2018.

16:43pm. Nurse Maree Watts comforts Phoebe, a 15 year old who sadly is about to be euthanised. 22 March, 2018.

10:21am. Paw prints taken from a deceased pet will be sent with a card to its owners. 6 July, 2018.

16:14pm. Nurse Kelsey Savage had this tattoo applied after losing one of her pet dogs, Hank. The paw prints are Hank's but the sentiment runs deeper. 27 July, 2018.

Vale Ziggy

Vale Phoebe

Vale Cheeky the Chicken

Vale Hank


Click here to visit the 'So Many Other Things..' Blog Category to read more in the series

About Michael - in his words...


I make long-form photographic essays that are faithful to my subjects and their stories.

I have spent a decade in the USA, Peru, Cuba, and Australia, covering stories about people whose lives I can't not be interested in.

Most recently, I completed a photographic documentary about the reality of veterinary practice, called SO MANY OTHER THINGS. It was shot over a year and released on September 24, 2018.

Previously, I spent from 2012 to 2015 documenting music and friendship in an Australian metal band, FRANKENBOK. 

Other stories I've photographed over the last 10 years can be found in my Archive.

Contact Michael via: Website -  So Many Other Things


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