The cover article featured this month deals with a subject many people find uncomfortable —euthanasia. However, it’s often a critical part of veterinary medicine and the animals that are under your care.

“As veterinarians we treat and care for livestock to save their life or improve their health and well-being with the full knowledge that they will eventually be slaughtered for human consumption,” says Jan Shearer, DVM, MS, University of Florida. “In other circumstances, we may be called upon to euthanize an animal and not always for humane or medical reasons. How we as veterinarians cope with these paradoxical situations is critical to our ability to overcome the inertia that naturally prevents us from doing the right thing when these situations present themselves.”

Shearer says as described by Manette (JAVMA, 2004, 225(1):34-38), our personal mythology shapes the way we see these issues and how we respond. Everyone has had different experiences and life circumstances that shape the way they view their surroundings. And, every person uses different coping mechanisms to deal with these inner struggles.

For example, some people use projection as a way to ease their mind in order to accomplish an unpleasant procedure like euthanasia. They allow their subconscious mind to displace the negative feelings they may have about themselves or other people onto the animal that they may need to euthanize. Others compartmentalize their feelings and permit themselves to become mechanical and thus perform unpleasant duties or procedures by simply closing their mind to the realities of their task by working to complete their job quickly and efficiently.

“For example,” explains Shearer, “we may use a mechanical approach whenever we must perform a painful procedure that must be done, but for which we are unable to ameliorate the discomfort. It is commonly used when performing euthanasia procedures, because it helps us get it done.”

Shearer says animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, PhD, Colorado State University, uses another method, that of sacred ritual. When she enters a slaughter facility, she bows her head in prayer. “She sees the packing plant as a place where animals make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of mankind and therefore, she views it as a holy place,” Shearer says. “By saying a prayer, she applies the technique of sacred ritual to cope with animal death. It is not so much a religious act, rather an expression of ‘reverence for life’, acknowledgment that all life is sacred and deserving of respect.”

The animal rightist goes a step further by ascribing human values and rights to animals. This viewpoint is not compatible with that of the animal welfarist who recognizes that animals provide companionship, food, fiber and research for both human and animal benefit.

Every veterinarian should understand his/her coping mechanisms and be able to recognize those of their clients and their client’s employees who may be called upon to perform procedures such as euthanasia. Projection or mechanical approaches for dealing with animal suffering and the per-formance of unpleasant tasks such as euthanasia are effective techniques for many people, but as Manette points out, these techniques lack authenticity, Shearer explains. “Sacred ritual, on the other hand, is a mechanism that comes closer to verifying the way most veterinarians feel about animals, and helps to satisfy the inner struggle that many face when dealing with the need to perform an unpleasant procedure.”