Death and Failure

Jun 29, 2017 by

Death and Failure

A COFFEE HOUSE CHAT with Dr. Faith Banks

Alex Risen and I are happy to have snagged Faith Banks (hospice veterinarian and recent author) for a coffee and a chat about how love and death are integral parts of her work.

D: Welcome Faith.

F: Thanks for having me!

D: When you’re at a  cocktail party, what do you say you do?

F: I say I’m a mobile hospice veterinarian.

D: Do people understand that means you euthanize animals?

F:  Well, I do much more than euthanize animals. Hospice medicine is also about keeping animals comfortable, it is about caring for them when a cure is not possible, and ensuring they have a good quality of life for whatever quantity of time they have left. But when I do explain that I euthanize animals, when I give the short version, they look at me and think it’s the worst job in the world.

D:  Because it’s a sad job?

F:  Very sad. When I explain it more, they get it.

D: How did you come to do this work? 

F: I graduated 20 years ago from the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph and practiced for 15 years in small animal clinics in Toronto, helping to keep pets alive. But when my own dog, Smudge—we call her our firstborn—got old, I realized what other people were going through with their geriatric pets. I read an article about animal hospice on Facebook, and a light bulb went on. That was what I wanted to do.

D: And you eventually euthanized Smudge?

F: Yes. I helped her pass. We did it at home in the backyard in the snow—she loved the snow. My son said we would have to go to a hockey rink if there was no snow, but there was. My brother and sister came over, and it was quite beautiful. 

D: Did you ever see pets that you thought should be euthanized but the owners didn’t want to? 

F: Yes.  Many people love their pets deeply and they want to hold onto them as long as they can.

D: What about the idea that cats aren’t hard wired to show pain, so their owners don’t know they are suffering. My vet told me about a cat whose broken leg was actually dangling, and she hobbled to her water dish, then purred when she was petted. 

F: There is controversy about whether animals hide pain. I’m not sure they hide it, but they don’t show it like we do. If I had a leg that was dangling and I went to get some water, my husband would hear about it, my children would hear about it—

D: In fact, you may not be going to get your own water.

F: Right. (laughs) I’d be complaining from my bed. But animals aren’t attached to their emotions like we are. The best way to assess your pet’s pain is to examine their behavior. Look for changes.

D: What is the medical process for euthanasia? How does it work?

F: In very simple terms, I do it in two stages. I give a very strong sedative that causes pets to look like they are in avery deep sleep, but they are anesthetized. They look very peaceful. Dogs will often be snoring. It’s a very smooth process that gets them to the level of being anesthetized in a few minutes. When I determine that they are at a deep enough level, I give a second drug, an overdose of a barbiturate. Intravenous is often the route it is administered, but we decide the best way based on each pet. It goes right to the brain—to the breathing centre, and it stops the pets’ breathing first, then their hearts. Because they are anesthetized, it is very smooth and peaceful. It’s a good way to go.

D:  Why can’t humans get this?

F: Good question. People ask me why I can’t do it for them.  People say things like ‘I wish you there five years ago for my mother.’ It’s obviously more complicated for people.

D: Do you think we’ll get there?

F: I hope so, because just as I think pets deserve a good death, I think people do as well.

D:  We go to extraordinary lengths to keep people and pets alive: sometimes past the point of sanity. Why? Because as a society we can’t accept death?

F: We feel death is a failure.

D: Interesting.

F: Doctors, well I can’t speak for doctors, but vets feel that if we can’t save a pet, we’ve failed the pet owners. They feel death is a failure. And it’s not fun to talk about. We’re a death-avoidance society. Even people who have euthanized their pets will say their pets died.

D: Do they feel they will be judged?

F: I really think it is more about failure.

D: Were you always this comfortable with death or has your work changed you?

F: Great question. I used to be in the position of keeping pets alive. Not now, so I’ve had to get more comfortable with death.

D: Are you ever surprised by the reactions you get from pet owners when you put their pets to sleep?

F: No. I know how attached people are to their pets. I’ve had owners tell me they took the death of their pet harder than the death of a sibling or a parent….

D:  Why would that be?

F: Animals are dependent on us forever. They don’t grow up in that sense. They don’t argue with us—

 D: Actually my cat does.

 F: (laughs) Most don’t. They just want to be loved and to give love. It’s such an innocent relationship. People respond to that. Look. We take these hairy creatures that cannot even speak to us into our beds. It is actually amazing.

D: I guess that says a lot. I’ve read that pets, with their shorter lifespans, can teach our children about death.

F: It’s true. Though that is NOT a reason to get a pet. A friend of mine had a daughter with special needs. The family got a puppy who—seven months later—sadly, had to be euthanized because of kidney failure. It was devastating for the family. They lost their daughter a year later and they believe that the grieving they did over the puppy prepared them in some way for the death of their daughter that followed.

D: So thinking and talking about death is not a bad thing: since we’re all going to end up there.

F: No. It’s not. I still wouldn’t recommend thinking or talking about it all the time.

D: Final question. Do you have any advice for dealing with death? 

F: Grieving is hard work. You can’t go over it. Or around it. You have to go through it.


Dr. Faith Banks is a mobile hospice veterinarian in Toronto, Canada; her service focuses on geriatric and end of life care for pets in the comfort and privacy of their homes.

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