We all love our pets dearly. And when the time comes that they have to part, you might hope that your pet passes peacefully in his sleep. The reality is that it’s almost never quite that simple, and more often than not, pet owners are faced with the agonizing decision to continue to let their beloved pooch, kitty, or other animal suffer silently — or do something about it.
That’s where Dr. Dale Krier comes in. Dr. Krier is a veterinarian who specializes in hospice, palliative, and end-of-life care for animals. Her work is at once brutal yet beautiful, compassionate, respectful, and kind. We spoke to Dr. Krier about giving your pet a dignified death, and the options for doing it in your home, under a favorite shady tree, or in some cases, even on a paddleboard in the middle of a lake.
Let’s talk about your career as a veterinarian.
I specialize in hospice and palliative care and end-of-life care. I think having a 23-year house call practice opened my eyes to what the experience can be like in a home vs. an animal hospital where 90% of my clients say their pets hate going there. Being able to come to their homes has made their lives easier. Many pet owners might not know that their pet can be euthanized at home.
Part of your service is to help a pet owner before their pet goes into crisis.
Every disease and condition has a trajectory, how it’s going to play out. I know how the progression happens and how it can at some point spiral, where it’s goes from stable to “Oh my God, this is an emergency and we need someone instantaneously.” Usually when a pet owner is describing what is happening; I can write the final chapter. If I come today, I can save the pet from tomorrow’s crisis, whereas if we wait a day or two or three, the pet owner is risking distress on the pet’s part when things get worse and possibly have to go to the emergency room.
How can you tell if a pet is in crisis?
It involves evaluating a pet’s body language. It’s a facial expression, it’s their stance and willingness to stand up or not stand up, and the position of their ears. A dog’s job is to protect its people. So when I walk into a home and the dog isn’t there to acknowledge me, I know he doesn’t feel well. Animals in the wild will not vocalize, a predator will come and take them down. In the wild, they go off to die.
Dogs are about the here, the now, and the moment. And if the here, the now, and the moment is that the pet is feeling lousy, and no one is going to make him feel better, and today is not a good day and tomorrow is not a good day, and all the pet can process is that he’s feeling uncomfortable, then at the moment we choose euthanasia they are out of pain.
You had mentioned that another client had told you that she didn’t want you to come over and kill her dog, and how that could be offensive. You didn’t want her to view your services as that.
Traditionally, people have looked at euthanasia as a gift that we can offer a pet when their quality of life or disease process is such that we don’t have anything positive left to offer. What’s happened over the years, however, is that people perceive their pets as children. There’s a societal shift that has happened that causes families to look at pets as children and no one would make that decision with that intention about their child.
You really are part therapist.
I’m learning and it’s the reason why I started my grief support group. I see so many people struggling afterwards, being angry at the world. I have a lot of families with young adult children who are away at college who tell them, “There’s nothing wrong with my pet; I’ll hate you if you kill my pet.” There are so many dynamics at play.
And you walk into these situations at such a heightened state every time.
It’s hard but I have to say that it’s a challenge to me to help flip it and make it okay. That being said, a lot of veterinarians in traditional medicine, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they have a packed schedule. You might have an euthanasia and then your next appointment is a puppy. So you have to be happy for those owners, even though your heart is breaking from the previous appointment.
If I can make this experience peaceful, that’s my goal. Most families as they are trying to struggle to find a word will say that it’s amazingly peaceful, it was dignified, it was a pet drifting off into sleep. Whatever people imagine, it’s not that. They are coming up with beautiful words instead of sad ones.
I tell families, especially those with children, that sometimes we have to make decisions that don’t feel good emotionally, but that doesn’t change that they are the right decision for the individual. I’m all about to advocate for the pet and help the pet owner see what the options and choices we have in front of us are, as opposed to having a major surgery, chemo, radiation, etc. That might be the right thing for some families, and there are amazing vets to guide you through that process, but I wonder if that is in the best interest of the pet.
Even though this is a difficult process, how do you handle it all?
Those of us who offer this service are trying to help people get through what is one of the most sensitive decisions we make in this life. For me, this is the most profoundly peaceful experience that if I can help one person’s mindset change, that’s important. It’s not about euthanizing healthy animals or people. It’s assessing the situation and letting people and animals have their choices.
For example, some people want what can be called a destination euthanasia. I had one man reach out to me because the dog that was his fraternity’s mascot was now 16. This dog was beloved by nine men, so we all traveled to upstate NY (some drove, some flew), and I had to hike half a mile to get to the location. We came with food and yummies, and we all gathered and said goodbye to this dog with the people who meant the most to him. A colleague had a similar experience where her client was a paddleboard instructor and her dog was accustomed to going out on the paddleboard. So the vet tied two paddleboards together and euthanized the dog on the water.
This is my own personal journey. I want to elevate this to the next level. That’s when you’re taking something that is heartbreaking and it becomes a beautiful celebration.