I can’t even count how many times people have said to me when they hear I’m a vet – “Oh I love animals, but I could never do that because I couldn’t put them to sleep.” Or – “Isn’t putting them down so hard? I could never do that!” Yes, the euthanasia part is hard. It is definitely a part of this job that takes a serious emotional toll at times, but it is also something that can be heartbreakingly beautiful. A moment that is so much more important than me or my feelings – something that makes me feel honored to be in this profession, and to be able to be there for my patients in this special way.
With this in mind, I want to tell you the story of Enzo. Enzo was the type of dog who just filled you with joy – he was a lab, so as we all know, labs have a zest for life and have a way of making you smile with their wonderful personalities. Enzo was a therapy dog and worked with autistic adults, encouraging those who were non-verbal to communicate. Enzo had the most wonderful pet parents who loved him and would make him his own waffles and mashed potatoes, and lots of other different goodies based upon the special occasion. Enzo was 9 years old when he was rushed to the emergency vet one weekend for having difficulty breathing and weakness. After a myriad of tests, it was determined that he was in heart failure. Fast-forward to a few weeks later after several rechecks with me, additional medications, testing, and treatments – his mom called me to have that difficult conversation. Through tears, she asked, “Dr Beth is it time? How do we know it’s time?” Enzo was not eating, he was falling and having trouble with weakness, and his belly was bloated with fluid, despite us draining it several times, and he had stopped smiling. Enzo’s poor body was failing him. I think as a pet parent you just know when it’s time. When the spark of joy is gone, when the bad in the day outweighs the good, when they look at you and there is just sadness there, it is time. As much as we all hate to admit it, we owe it to them to be ready to let them go when the time comes and unfortunately it had come for Enzo.
The day that we decided upon to let Enzo go was a cold but sunny winter day. Kira and I pulled up to their beautiful stone farmhouse in the woods and Enzo was waiting for us on the front patio with his tearful parents, and a slow tail wag. They ushered us into their sitting room to talk through the process and to prepare to say their goodbyes. Their sitting room was a magical room - it had a big old comfy couch and chair, placed around a woodburning stove that had a roaring fire going in it, making the room toasty and warm. The woven rug just in front of the fire was where Enzo plopped down, ready to receive his pets and attention from us. Softly in the background there was music playing, with the comfort of songs by Frank Sinatra and other classics. As we talked about Enzo and how much he had meant to them and stories of his antics as a puppy, they brought out a bowl of homemade mashed potatoes (his favorite snack). He happily chomped away spraying potatoes everywhere, while we all cooed over him and Kira and I quietly placed his catheter. Once we were ready, we sat in a circle with him on that comfy rug, and I gave him the gift of peace while his parents reminded him over and over how much he was loved, and thanked him for being their faithful friend and family member all these years. The crackling of the fire, the soft tearful goodbyes, and the song in the background – ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, was enough to bring anyone to tears. We all sat there, quietly crying together as Enzo took his last breath with his eyes locked on his parents – one final, contented sigh, and Enzo was gone. As we all composed ourselves, and Kira and I started gathering our supplies, his mom asked if we could do one more thing with them, and that was to have a toast to Enzo. She knew I loved prosecco, so had chilled a bottle and poured us each a small glass, as a final toast and send off to Enzo – may his fur be forever warmed by a roaring fire, and his belly filled with the most delicious snacks.
I know many people will find this story sad – and in some ways it is. But, my God…it was BEAUTIFUL. That room and that moment was filled with so much LOVE – it poured out of them and him, and filled both myself and Kira. So much so that even when we got in the car to drive away we looked at each other and still had tears in our eyes and no words for what we had just experienced. Yes, euthanasia is hard, but Enzo and his family are a wonderful reminder that it is also beautiful. Is it my favorite part of being a vet? No, definitely not. But I truly believe it is one of the most important things I can do as a vet. This gift that we can give our faithful companions is such a blessing. We can give them peace from suffering and from illness. We can give them a quiet and content goodbye so they don’t have to suffer. As hard as it is, it is also one of the most wonderful things that we can do, and I think Enzo is by far the most beautiful example of this.
I reached out to Enzo’s family before posting this article, because I felt like it was important to have their blessing on sharing their story. His mom had a few edits, plus wanted to add:
"The thing that stood out to me about when it was time was that he had stopped smiling - Enzo in the pictures we took of him always had a big smile. I felt very strongly that I wanted his euthanasia to be as warm and comforting as possible. I actually wrote an article for an education journal about the hospice journey and death of my dad from cancer and my mother's similar journey a decade earlier but in a very sterile hospital setting. It was titled "The Good Death", so it's something that I have had strong feelings on. The 1st pet we had euthanized, they would not let us be with her. After being in the waiting room losing my mind for more than double the amount of time they had told me it would be, they finally came out and said they apologized for the delay but said that she had "fought" it. That horrified me- the thought that she was already alone, separated from us, confused, not feeling well, with bright lights and around strangers,. It haunted me for a very long time. That's where I was coming from as we approached Enzo's time. We will be forever grateful for the love and care you extended to all of us."