Colics for Days

The C-Word No One Wants to Hear

The list of causes for colic is endless. Sometimes I say it could be due to a cloud moving across the sky in a particular way…meaning it could be anything. The most common type of colic I see is gas (spasmodic) colic. These tend to resolve quickly, especially with the help Banamine (anti-inflammatory). Most of the time, to the frustration of many clients and equine effianados, the cause of a particular episode remains a mystery. While spasmodic colics can strike at any moment, I see more cases during the changes in seasons and during drastic weather/temperature fluctuations. Hottest days and coldest nights. Colic, simply defined, is abdominal pain. Pain associated with the gastrointestinal tract (the gut) can be due to gas (we all know what gas cramps feel like!), shifting of part of the tract into an abnormal position and therefore displaced, imbalance of natural GI bugs, diarrhea, impactions, twists in the gut or due to other diseases in the abdomen (tumors, infection). While 90% of the colics I see are simple gas colics…the past 2 weeks have really thrown a statistical curve ball.

Impactions

Last year, I had 3 cases of colic that were due to impactions in the gut. Impactions can be complete (nothing is passing through the clogged pipe) or partial (mostly just liquid passing through, sometime small amount of manure). In the past 2 weeks, I have diagnosed 7 impactions. Usually, I see impactions in the fall. This year, the transition to spring definitely brought in the new. Impactions (basically something in the colon or small intestines that impedes flow, like poorly digested/broken down feed material) can occur anywhere in the GI tract, but particular parts of the horse’s anatomy predispose certain areas to become blocked. These are areas where a large diameter is going to a small diameter, or where the gut suddenly takes a hairpin turn. The most common location is called the pelvic flexure, and accounts for 5 of my 7 recent cases. I think one of the most astounding and stressful aspects of impactions is that they can go either way…as in, some can be managed fairly easily in the field, some may be fatal without surgical intervention. Sometimes, even surgical intervention is not enough.

Working the Cases

Of my 7 cases, 3 were referred to our local hospital for surgical or intensive management. For the two cases that did not have a referral option (finances, owner choice etc), one made a full recovery over the course of a week. Unfortunately, the other one had to be euthanized within 12 the following 12 hours. All of the impactions were diagnosed by performing a rectal palpation. After identifying the impaction, I assessed how impressionable it is. Some impactions are so firm that I cannot make an impression or indent (feels like a baseball). Others, I can almost mold with my hand (like dough). The more impressionable the impaction, the more likely we will be able to resolve the issue in the field…which becomes a labor-intensive endeavor for vets and owners alike! After identifying where the impaction is, how impressionable it is and how large it is, the next assessment is comfort. If pain cannot be managed, referral becomes the next avenue. Otherwise, the mainstays of treatment in the field is tubing (passing tube from nostril to stomach) in order to administer fluids/laxatives/electrolytes…sometimes requiring 3-4 return farm visits a day for 2-3 days. Discomfort is managed with NSAIDs, and horses are held off feed until they are passing manure and recheck rectal palpation confirms that impaction is gone. In some cases, IV fluids are necessary.

Additional Info for the Curious at Heart

Vetstream has a great client hand-out about colic that I have included below…for those who want to learn more or brush up on the colic basics.


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On-Call Days

Down-time and Silent Days

Making the most of it

There are on-call days when the phone is silent. This silence comes with its own secret recipe for stress…4 parts foreboding for 1 part paranioa. It can feel like the longer the silence, the more intense the impending ER storm is going to be. It took me awhile to figure out what to do, or not do, during down-time while “on-call.” After trial and error, I have developed strong on-call-but-not-on-a-call habits. When I first started taking on-call, it felt normal to be poised by the cell phone just waiting for it to ring. When an ER did ring, I could spring into action and be out the door in less than 5 minutes. But when the phone didn’t ring, a faint feeling of regret would creep in. Not only did I feel that the day was (personally) wasted, but I also felt (professionally) unfulfilled.

For me, utilizing down-time while still on-call is essential for avoiding burn-out, promoting work-life balance and reinforcing the truth that work has not become my life. When I say utilizaing, I mean being productive enough that time doesn’t feel wasted in wait for an ER than never comes. On the other hand, any project that is started has to be one that can be dropped at a moment’s notice. But on silent days…I still check my phone a minimum 5 times/hr, confirm max volume 2 times/hr and check that airplane mode is not activated once/hour.

My most recent day on call was anything but silent. Between 7:30am and 11:30pm, we had attended 7 emergencies and saw 2 add-on appointments. That’s a full day, especially during the slow season. As I drove home at 1am, I found myself running through the day’s events and eventually mulling over two emergencies in particular. It wasn’t that these two emergencies were clinically distinct, fascinating or dangerous…in fact, they are both circumstances that I would normally shrug off as inconveniences of the job. However, I think the nature of the two circumstanaces is important when gaining perspective into a day-in-the-life of a veterinarian.


The “Nevermind” Emergency

The ER call rang 15 minutes before the start of our doctors’ meeting. Susan, who was not a current client of our practice, was frantic over the phone. While in the midst of explaining what was happening with her mare, she repeatedly interrupted herself to say

“My vet’s not answering. I can’t get ahold of my vet. I don’t understand why she’s not answering.”

I can imagine how confusion, fear and panic in the moment, is exacerbated when a client’s trusted lifetime vet of 15-20 years is MIA. Tone of voice, pitch, inflection and word-choice can paint a vivid emotional picture, especially of the client feeling pain and confusion brought on by a sense of abandonment. On rare occasions, bitterness and resentment are aimed at whichever vet does respond to the call. From firsthand experience, this type of treatment from clients is hard to swallow.

“Shelving” Client Mistreatment

When it comes to professional advocacy, I think simply swallowing mistreatment from clients does the profession a disservice. In my opinion, having the issue temporarily “shelved” vs. simply swallowed, establishes a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While I don’t think disrespect is something to just “put up with,” having an open discussion requires a particular environment and mindset that emergencies cannot always afford. Bottomline: In order for me to do my job, I have to focus on the reason I am there. This means “shelving” issues that are not imminent or critical.

On the otherhand, I know some vets get upset when they are called only as a “last resort.” Sometimes, clients say that.

“I am only calling you because my vet is out of town.”

“I just need a vet, any vet.”

“I wouldn’t be calling you if I had other options.”

I take these comments in context of the extremely difficult circumstance the client is in, the difficult spot this puts their vet in and the fact that I’m here to help. This thought process keeps the negative thoughts at bay. It also helps that I am an empath by nature.

8 minutes away

Returning to the ER at hand…I kept Susan focused, making sure she was in a safe situation, the mare was contained, and gave her a few minutes to call me back with their physical address. Caught up in overwhelming situations, sometimes you can’t remember how to spell your own name. In this instance, she had to find a piece of mail so she could read off her home address. According to GPS, we would arrive at Susan’s in 45 minutes. During the first half of the drive, the office relayed two other ERs to respond to. When my phone rang again, I recognized the number as Susan’s.

In my experience, when a client calls while you’re still in route, it is for one of three reasons:
– The situation has become dire, they are panicking and have lost all sense of time
– To find out where you are because it’s past your original ETA
– They are canceling the farm call for one reason or another

I answered the phone as google maps’ estimated ETA read 8 minutes.

“I actually don’t need you to come out. My vet just got here.”

This isn’t too uncommon that another vet beats you to a call, either because the client called other vets to see which would arrive fastest or because their regular vet returned their call. I will be honest, this is frustrating. I wished Susan and her horse the best.


Order of Operations

Determining Which Emergency to See First

When faced with multiple ERs, I prioritize based on severity, urgency and the potential risk to human safety. Numerous times, I’ve been less than 5 minutes from the ER when the client calls to let me know that another vet showed up. This ultimately ends up in re-routing, lost time and money, but most importantly, an unnecessary delay in rendering aid to other patients and clients. Our policy is to bill an in-route cancelation fee, but I have yet to follow through with this. With new clients that don’t have established payment methods with us, pursuing payment is nearly impossible.

I understand the panic and desperation owners feel when their horse is injured or sick. In a situation of overwhelming helplessness, the only help they can provide is getting a vet on the premises. For this reason and out of empathy for clients in these scenarios, I have not had it in me to bill them a cancelation fee. And then there are those rare occasions when the driving force behind a client’s actions are not driven by shear concern, fear and panic. There are times when a client’s motives and intentions are not upfront or even honest…


ER Disguises

Critical, urgent and not-so-urgent cases

The second emergency was located 45 minutes south, within a mile of our office. It was a choke, which resolved mostly on its own by the time we arrived. As we were finishing up this second ER, the office alerted us to another emergency. Now, the ER waiting list included a mildly painful colic, a moderately painful colic that did not improve with banamine, and a laceration that had significant, uncontrolled hemorrhage. Despite pressure wraps, the owner could not get the bleeding to stop and she feared the horse would bleed out soon. We headed straight to the laceration emergency, ready to face a chaotic, blood-soaked scene upon arrival. As we pulled up to the barn, I could hear laughter and followed the voices to a small group of people standing around a bay polo pony in the wash rack. There wasn’t a drop of blood in sight, and pony appeared healthy enough.

“I’m here for an emergency, do you know where the horse with the laceration is?”

A middle-aged woman and what I presumed was her daughter, nodded.

“This is him. This is Emo.”

For a moment, I thought I had made a grave mistake and navigated to the wrong emergency (the mild colic). I reached out for something to say, still confused and mortified that I had made this profound error. The woman turned to look at Emo, walked over to his right front cannonbone and pointed at a scrape…a two inch long superficial abrasion with only the hair missing.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to lacerate his leg here.”

I thought I had gone crazy, but was much more horrified upon realizing that this scrape was the previously described uncontrollable hemorrhage. She must have read my face.

“I didn’t want to be waiting around the barn all afternoon, so I might have exaggerated a little over the phone.”

She chuckled sheepishly. The other people started to dissipate once the uncomfortable silence kicked in. On an untimely cue, my assistant came huffing down the barn aisle with arms full of wraps, suture and scrub kits, fluids, clippers and even a tourniquet tucked into the v-neck of her scrub top.


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You never know what you’ll find

Prefacing this post with a disclaimer: Graphic wound images are contained in this post.


After working with particular clients enough, you get a feel for what kind of emergencies they do and do not call about. Depending on experience, knowledge and comfort level, some may call for a tiny cut or they may only call when it appears their horse may bleed-out. And with others, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of our clients left a message on the office phone the night before. Her mare had sustained a wound to her haunches that she thought might heal well on it’s own. She described the wound as superficial, probably a kick from a pasture mate. She said the wound was not bleeding and you couldn’t see any real obvious wound. She didn’t want to pay an emergency fee because finances had been tight, so the office asked if I was willing to work her into the busy day. Fortunately, we were running early and finished up with the day’s appointments a couple hours sooner than we thought.

On arrival, the small palomino mare was in a pen. I had seen her a couple months ago for a face laceration, and before that, an episode of choke. The mare was always suspicious as we approached her with a tote of supplies. Almost an entire roll’s worth of tape had been used to secure a bandage over the right gluteal muscles. As I pulled the sheet of tape off, I saw the soaked maxi-pad that the owner immediately commented on. “I figured, what’s more absorbant than a maxi pad, right?” I removed the maxi-pad and was surprised at the severity of the wound. It was definitely a wound requiring attention, and not superficial in the least.

The wound at first glance.

An L-shaped laceration resulted in a large flap of skin. Beneath the flap of skin, was a deep gaping wound extending several inches into the underlying musculature. The owner must have read my expression because she soon asked “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“It is big, and it is deep. But luckily, this is fairly fresh.”

After clipping some hair, the large triangular skin flap became apparent

We set about clipped the area, scrubbing the wound and exploring the extent of the damage. Meanwhile, the owner wracked her brain about what could’ve caused the wound. Most of the time we never find out what happened. It is unnerving, knowing that what sharp object inflicted the damage, still lurks in the field with the possibility of a second offense.

Determining the extent of the injury

The front half of the laceration was sutured together easily enough. Dead space was minimized with a deep layer of sutures, and the skin was re-opposed with simple interrupted. Since some dead space existed, and considering the extent of the wound, a Penrose drain was placed. The mare was started on Excede, with the plan to add SMZs due to expense. Bute and SSD were also dispensed. The owner would continue on-farm care involving flushing the wound and readjusted the drain daily. Vaseline was applied to prevent scalding of the back leg from constant drainage that was sure to ensue.

Based on the location, a simple bandage was not possible. We put in 8 stay sutures that would allow us to feed a shoelace through just like you would a tennis shoe. This shoelace method, a tie-over bandage, would secure a clean towel or pad to the wound. Unfortunately, I did not remember to take pictures of the finished work.
In 4 days, the drain will be removed. If the skin flap survives, the owner will continue to flush the wound daily and may also end up packing some of the wound with gauze. However, profound swelling and reduction of dead space, did not allow for room to pack the wound.

It has been a couple days now, and due to financial concerns, the owner could not afford for a recheck. We will be back to remove the external sutures in 10-14 days, and next time I’ll be sure to take more pictures.


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the Unexpected Problem #2 (ER case, part 1)

After seeing a couple of routine appointments, we started receiving back-to-back emergencies. Our emergency calls included a colic, a foot abscess, a case of cellulitis and a minor laceration. Around 9pm, right as we parked the work truck in the garage, my work phone rang. On the other end of the line, was a panick stricken owner who thought her horse had fractured its leg after getting kicked by another horse in turn-out. We regrouped, and made the short 25 minute drive to the ER.


The Presenting Complaint and (Most) Obvious Problem

When we arrived, we spotted the mare in the beam of our headlamps. She stood in the pasture, trembling, painful and unable to bear weight on her hind leg. Aside from a <1 inch long laceration through the skin located in front of her hip, there were no real significant findings on my physical exam. I could not palpate a fragment, fracture or instability in the limb. After ruling out a foot abscess, fracture of the distal phalanx, we confirmed no fracture from the stifle down. Our radiograph equipment in the field is not capable of shooting images of the hips or pelvis, and with no ultrasound, ruling out a pelvic fracture wasn’t going to be an option. Leaving her in the pasture, without water or shelter, was not an acceptable option. After giving pain meds and sedation, we inched our way slowly and steadily to the barn.

Discovering the (Less) Obvious, but Equally Serious Problem

In the barn, I turned my attention to the wound over the hip while I next steps for the painful leg. After clipping around the wound, I was both shocked and disturbed to find out the extent of the wound. What looked like a superficial, small tear in the skin, was actually a dime-sized penetrating wound. With a flashlight, I looked into the wound and probed the extent. Beyond layers of muscle, fascia, fat and connective tissue…I found myself looking through a tiny viewing window right into the mare’s abdomen. I saw the glisten of light off what I presumed to be the right dorsal colon.

Bad Gets Worse

A penetrating wound into the abdomen doesn’t carry a favorable prognosis, especially when managed in the field. The client’s financial constraints meant referral for hospitalization was not an option. Abdominocentesis (belly tap), bloodwork, ultrasound, SAA…also not within the financial realm. Dedicated to trying, and wanting to give the mare a chance, the client asked for the most aggressive approach we could take to treating in the field within set limitations.

Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, suturing the wound and monitoring comprised the mainstay of our treatment protocol. To be honest, I was expecting these efforts to serve mainly as a comfort and reassurance that we had tried something. I’ve seen horses succumb to far less serious ailments with intensive treatments and hospitalization. We placed an IV catheter so we could start a robust course of antibiotics (kpen and gentamicin) and banamine.

Where it gets interesting

By 1am, we had discussed catheter care, administer meds, given extensive instructions on what to watch for…and when we left, the entire ride back was filled discussions on everyone’s thoughts, ideas, speculations …wondering about the source of the lameness as well as the surprising penetrating hole. The hole was clean through the side of the horse, with defined edges and minimal surrounding trauma…almost like it had been made intentionally, by someone blessed with the art of careful dissection. Without knowing the systemic status of the horse, I could hardly sleep with thoughts of the undiagnosed fracture, the possibility of punctured bowel, the chance that whatever punctured her side could be floating around in the abdomen, the imminent danger of sepsis and endotoxemia…this, combined with group speculation as to what caused the wound.

A stick?

A nail?

Fencing?

Tree branch?

What about a bullet? The client asked, explaining that the family dog had sustained a similar injury a year ago when he had been shot with a small-caliber gun (pellet gun or 22?) by a disgruntled neighbor. With so many unknowns, possible complications and serious risks associated with this emergency case… I was not optimistic about the outcome of our next visit, which I expected would in the very, very near future.

That moment when you’re really glad you did…

Having never performed field castrations completely on my own, I served as the anesthetist while my boss performed the routine surgeries in barn pastures and backyards. Although her castration tool-of-choice is the Henderson drill, she took to demonstrating the different surgical techniques (open vs. closed) and cycled through the different types of emasculators with each castration. After watching five or six castrations, the opportunity for me to perform my first castration presented itself in the form of a laid-back, confident client and healthy six month old Thoroughbred colt. My boss kept a watchful eye from her position at the neck of the horse, while I talked my way through each and every step of the procedure. For the entire 20 minutes that it took me to perform the castration, my heart felt like it would pound right out of the chest. My hands trembled the entire time, and it wasn’t until I was done that the client said I did a thorough job. She said she knew I did a thorough job because apparently I narrated step-by-step the entire surgery. I was so focused, I wasn’t even aware that I’d done that. My first castration went well, and was without complication. Now, it was just a matter of getting a few more castrations under my belt before I’d be performing them solo in the field.

Unfortunately, starting out as a young doctor and being new to ambulatory practice, I ran into some difficulty getting consent from owners. On multiple occasions we hit this roadblock, when clients were not on board for allowing a “fledging doc” cut their colt…regardless of the well-seasoned and experienced veterinarian watching my every move over my shoulder. Each time the plan changed, the itch for experience got stronger and stronger. After 3 months, and having watched over 15 castreations, I was chomping at the bit.
When we showed up on the small mom-and-pop farm, the plan was for me to make another notch in my castration belt. The horse was a 5 year old Arabian stallion, recently purchased and barely halter-broke. He was so high strung and wire, that just the act of sedating him alone, was quite the feat for my boss and I. This ordeal was enough to change the minds of the clients, who recanted their original offer for me to perform the castration. I settled into my role as assistant and anesthetist, and tried to push the itch out of my mind.

Several rounds of sedation later, the colt was sedated enough to anesthetized with my boss’s ketamine protocol. He dropped quickly to his side, and we got to work positioning and scrubbing the incision site. Within a few minutes, he was starting to wake up from the anesthetic. My boss is one fast lady, and it takes her less than 5 minutes to castrate a horse. She placed the Henderson drill and spun each testicle off, she checked from hemorrhage and then gave him a rinse. About the time he was getting his antibiotic injection, the gelding was strong enough to push me off his neck and stand to his wobbly feet. My boss took his halter, and I helped balance his staggering hind end as we made our way toward the barn.
As he took several steps, a normal amount of blood slowly dripped onto the gravel..leaving a breadcrumb trail of red droplets. By the time we’d gone 150 feet, the slow drip became a fast drip…which then became a weak trickle of blood. In the stall, I called my boss’s attention to the steady stream of bright red blood coming from the incision site. I rounded up some gauze and fed it along as she packed it into the incision and simultaneously dodged his attempts to kick her. As she packed more gauze, the amount of bleeding increased. The gauze was drenched, and after packing three rolls in there, the bleeding was not improved. He was more awake at this point, and took to slamming us against the stall wall.
After several minutes, it was apparent the packing wasn’t going to be enough to stop the bleeding. A large blood of blood had accumulated, and the rate of hemorrhage was even greater. We made the decision to anesthetize him again in order to explore the incision and locate the source of the hemorrhage. The boss drew up the drugs, and we didn’t waste any time laying him down again. The amount of blood and the fact that he was only lightly anesthetized made identifying the bleeding structure difficult. Without good visualization, we worked somewhat blindly. The boss clamped some hemostats down on the part of the cord she could find and left them while she packed around the instruments with gauze. No sooner had she gotten the gauze mostly into the incision, did the gelding try to jump up onto his feet. I struggled to hold him down while the boss unclaimed the hemostats and packed the rest of the gauze. He nearly launched me over his shoulder as he made several attempts to stand. When he finally stood, the bleeding appeared to have ceased. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and the owners, my boss and I guided the horse to his stall for a second time.

I was in the middle of cleaning instruments when I heard a commotion from the barn. The owners went running past me towards the barn, and I could hear someone yelling help. “We’ll just euthanize him” the owners was saying as we all ran towards the barn. I had obviously missed something, and didn’t know who or what was being euthanized. “He’s going down!” The owners sounded panicked, and I arrived at the stall to see the gelding buckling his knees. “Just euthanize him on the lawn.” The husband said decidedly. My boss was helping to hold the horse against the wall of the stall. She looked mostly confused but there was a hint of some other emotion I couldn’t recognize. From between the gelding’s legs, blood was gushing down and into the shavings between his feet.

“What option do we have? We can’t put any more money into this.” The clients kept saying. My boss was now looking concerned, a look I haven’t seen too often. She usually exudes confidence, but definitely didn’t exude that when she was studying the profuse amount of blood coming from the incision site. The hemorrhage was significant enough that now I felt the real weight of the situations urgency.

“Your options? The referral hospital for surgery. Or we can euthanize him. Or we lay him down again?” The owners quickly shot down the hospital option due to finances and said to just euthanize him…and quickly before he collapsed in the stall and further complicated the situation. “Euthanize him?” There was no hiding the surprise in my voice. “We’ll just lay him down again.” I said. “I’ll draw up the drugs.”

“A third time?” The wife asked me.

“I’d lay him down 5 more times before going the euthanasia route. After I give him the drugs, he’s going to be out for awhile. He’ll be in a very deep sleep so we’ll have time to really get in there and find the bleed.” A Drew up my anesthetic protocol, a combination of ketamine and diazepam that put the gelding on the ground again, this time in a very deep slumber. After performing over 200 anesthesia at the internship, I developed a dependable anesthetic protocol and I have complete confidence in both my drugs and their dosages. My go to IV pre-mads are butorphanol and xylazine, and my induction drugs are a combination of diazepam and ketamine. A small bump of ketamine extended the anesthesia time, and kept the gelding out for the entire time that was necessary. My boss explored the incision site, welding handfuls of clotted blood and searching for the source of the hemorrhage. At one point, the gelding was so still my boss asked if he was still alive. As if right on cue, the gelding took a slow deep breath. I rinsed the area as my boss explored the cavity, feeling around blindly. When her gloved hand emerged, it was holding the end of a large bleeding vessel and shredded wisps of soft tissue. The testicular cord had been torn, which had resulted in the hemorrhage. My boss placed three transfixating ligatures, and afterwards we both studied it for bleeding. When no bleeding occured, she let the cord recede back into the incision.

“In 20 years, I’ve never had this happen.” My boss admitted. You bet we high-fived right then and there, bloody gloves and all. I was mostly just relieved. Hemorrhage is a real potential complication of castration, and it was the first real “bleeder” I had seen. While he slept off the drugs, we placed an IV catheter and started him on fluids. As the gelding recovered from his third round of anesthesia, we walked him back to his stall.

“Well, that’s one way to get to know the new vet.” One of the clients said as we packed up. “We were ready to euthanize him right here.”

“Well, not with Dr. Morgan here you weren’t.” My boss said as she gave me an appreciative look. Both clients gave us hugs, followed by a series of thank yous.

“Can tell you’ve done the whole anesthesia thing once or twice.”
I had to laugh when the client said this. All the hours spent running anesthesia during my internship, wishing I was doing anything but anesthesia. Counting down the days til I could turn in my anesthesia badge and never set foot in the anesthesia room again. And here I am, 5 months later, having one of those moments when despite all the weaknesses, hardships and trials that surrounded the internship experience, I’m really glad I did it.

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They all go differently.

Euthanasia, and the process of euthanizing, is not a new concept or experience for me. My first euthanasia experiences were assisting with the euthanasia of research animals while working for the USDA and veterinary micropath department of the vet school. Horses, sheep, goats and cattle were the species involved in various research studies. There was a set protocol in place that made the process fast and efficient, which while it sounds cold, was also very humane. Some animals appeared healthy on the outside, and these were the more difficult ones to euthanize at the conclusion of a research study. Other animals were deeply affected by disease, and it was a deep relief to see them at rest and at peace.

While respectful and maintaining dignity of each research animal, the emotional element that is embedded in the relationship between owner and pet was missing. It wasn’t until I was working at a small animal hospital before veterinary school that I was exposed to the emotional elements that follow with the decision of an owner to say goodbye to a beloved pet. These cases, I will admit, tear me up. I have always linked with people’s emotions, and have an unwavering empathy for people. When an owner is sobbing or tearfully talking to their pet for the last time, I cannot help but shed tears. I’ve faced some unkind remarks from colleagues for this visceral reaction I have, but the truth is…I’m okay with it. It’s my most candid display of truely caring, both for the animal and the person attached. There is no shame in it.

Throughout veterinary school, I never had a patient that was euthanized. But I experienced my own loss in veterinary school when my 18 year old lifelong companion, my childhood cat, was euthanized after secuming to alimentary lymphoma. It was the single most significant and profound loss I’ve had in my life so far. It was traumatic, painful and was compounded by the fact that I probably waited a little to long to come to the decision. I didn’t realize this until after he was gone, and it remains a haunting realization.

Then, my internship brought forth many euthanasia experiences. I performed my first solo euthanasias in my final six months. For the most part, the process went quickly and well. The nature of euthanizing a horse appears sudden and abrupt. One minute the are standing, then they collapse. Sometimes, it is violent. There are many factors that contribute to how a horse goes down, and how quickly they are gone. Of the euthanasias that appear more difficult, or prolonged, I have noticed that these horses tended to have underlying cardiac or neurological diseases. There is individual variation, even without underlying disease (that we are aware of). On a rare occasion, there has been human error…but this is a deceiving statement. When it comes to injecting the solution, the most important part is that the entire solution enters the vein. In horses, this is the jugular vein. The Drug acts to stop the heart. The appropriate amount must enter the bloodstream, for a partial dose can render a situation fraught with danger, stress and possibly chaos. There are plenty of stories of euthanasia gone ary. It’s a haunting experience for everyone involved…and certainly the very last thing a veterinarian would ever want an owner to witness.


My first bad euthanasia experience happened on the second to last day of my internship. It was a middle-aged gelding that presented for severe colic, and Surgery was not an option. Despite medical management attempts, he became progressively uncomfortable and the decision was made to euthanize. It was the resident and I on the case, and owners were a younger couple struggling to keep their composure as they made the difficult decision. They had also decided to not bare witness, and were about to leave after final goodbyes. As they were stepping out, they changed their minds. They wanted to be present. We had to load the horse up on Pain killers and sedatives to buy me a couple minutes to grab the euthanasia supplies. Because of the horrible weather, we chose to euthanize in the work-up stall. At this point, he was being restrained in a shoot (a mobile door that swings, and keeps horses against the wall.
I injected the euthanasia solution into the catheter I had placed an hour before. All was still, while I held the door and the resident held his head. It was 30 seconds later that he started buckling and then launched forward. He took a nose dive, and his hind end almost came over his head. He started kicking within the chute, and the resident was doing everything in her power to hold him back for fear if he broke lose, he could crash into anyone or anything. Then, he had what appeared to be a seizure…rhythmic banging within the chute. The only other thing I could hear aside from his grunting and kicking was the owners gasping and running out of the room. Then, he sighed and passed away.

We don’t know this happened this way, with an adequate dose and a patent catheter into the jugular vein. There are many theories, I’m sure. But unfortunately, we’ll never know and worse yet, is that these were the last moments the owners will remember forever. I cried as soon as I got in the truck, cried all the way home, and then cried as I told my roommates what happened. It was one of those moments that brings up a barrage of negative feelings and the sense of ultimate failure. Guilt, shame, disappointment, fear, regret, remorse, confusion and shock…all in the face of failure. And I definitely started asking myself if I should even be a vet if I cannot be a good one.

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