Feeling guilty about euthanasia? Time for some self-compassion.

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To `live in the moment’ is all very well. Our pets seem to live that way and we tell ourselves to follow their example. However, the present moment is often a mixed bag…

As well as holding simple everyday pleasures, there can be sorrows and difficulties. Two examples are caregiver burden and feelings of guilt.

mans hands stroking golden labrador

Caregiver burden

When a pet is very frail or at an advanced stage of illness, it can sometimes be hard to manage all the care they need. There can be a lot to do–from lifting a heavy, infirm dog to keeping elderly cats `regular’, and with various cleaning tasks and food prep. The practicalities can be made more difficult if we are also caring for human dependents. The emerging field of animal hospice focuses very much on workable solutions to at-home caregiving of seriously ill or frail pets.

When you are agreeing a care plan with your vet, it’s worth going over exactly what’s’ involved. In my experience, veterinary nurses are a top resource for tips and advice about hands-on, daily care. Don’t hesitate to ask to chat with one of them if you anticipate or come across difficulties. Often, simple adjustments will make all the difference.

Other times, it may be wiser to plan for your pet’s euthanasia. Taking time to say goodbye and letting them go when they are nearing the end of their lives is better than neglecting their care. For, again: unlike us, our pets live in the present. They cannot make mental trade-offs or choose to put up with suffering for the greater good of the household. So, if a pet’s present consists of declining health and few or no pleasures and comfort, he or she almost certainly does not have `a life worth living’.

Feelings of guilt about euthanasia

Whatever the situation, many bereaved owners say they feel vaguely or very guilty about having had their pet euthanased. Possibly, a part of that could be to do with how the decision was made. Pets are family members and expecting someone to decide about their pet’s euthanasia alone seems unfair. The ABC decision tool may help resolve that.

Wording seems important too, for guilt is different from yearning (“I miss my pet so much”), regret (“If only things had been different”) and self-doubt (“Did I do enough for her?”). With guilt, there is self-blame (“I ought to have done things differently” “I shouldn’t feel like this.”)
Self-blame is rarely fair. Sometimes, yes, we may have neglected a pet’s needs or chosen to ignore that they cannot cope with life any longer. That happens, sadly, though it is not deliberate.

older tabby catMore often, self-blame is likely to be unreasonable. For we would never typically judge other people so unkindly, yet we may set unrealistic standards for ourselves. Also, memory is notoriously unreliable—more a reconstruction than a playback. So, our memory of the exact circumstances of a euthanasia decision may be inaccurate or very biased against ourselves.

Kindly logic (“It’s not your fault” “Hindsight is 20:20”) may be correct, but it is not always helpful. Making fruitful sense of things often requires more, and it deserves the time that may take. At our disposal are:

  • Self-compassion: This lovely and humbling Buddhist tenet reminds us that we are not on our own. Feeling guilty and sad is painful, and people everywhere struggle with it. We travel in company and can learn from our respective, difficult experiences. (The website selfcompassion.org has useful information.)
  • Confidential support groups and helplines—run by properly trained facilitators. To share our story with people who understand and won’t judge or “fix” us is part of the reality that we are never as alone as our exhausted minds may, sometimes, say we are.
  • When guilt or grief feel beyond our ability to manage and resolve, it can help to talk to a professionally qualified counsellor. They have the training and insight to help us make peace with ourselves.

Caroline Hewson


Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS
Caroline is a vet and has a PhD in animal behaviour. She writes and gives talks that translate research relevant to pets’ end of life into points to keep in mind. 


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