Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress – It’s the PITS!

Society is re-examining its relationship with animals and the natural world on such issues as animal welfare and environmental protection which, until recently, were considered important to small idealistic minorities. However, in the last 20-30 years, widespread concern from the public as well as political figures have focused much needed attention on these matters.

People relate to animals according to social, cultural and individual value factors and economics influences the value a society places on animals. Prosperous nations such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and England, possess a stronger human bond because these citizens basic needs are satisfied leaving them with disposable income to provide veterinary care and the opportunity to research the moral value of animals.

The human-animal bond is beneficial to human health and impacts those involved in their care as well as those used in laboratory situations. Their job is to care for them, minimize their pain, distress and discomfort in a compassionate and empathetic way. But the emotional costs for the human-animal bond are high for those in research settings, veterinary practice, humane shelters and agriculture. There is grief, mourning, guilt, betrayal, frustration, anger, indifference, detachment, and stress. These emotional costs produce coping mechanisms such as detachment, unresolved issues which lead to disguised physiological, psychological, and sociological symptoms.

Those in the veterinary practice are called upon almost daily to euthanize animals which are often regular patients. They are asked to put animals down because the animal is old, sick, injured, in pain, unwanted, or exhibiting unacceptable behaviors. This is stressful to the veterinarian and support staff. Traditional society considers animals to be property for humans to use as they please and it is perfectly acceptable for the rightful owner of an animal to kill it or have it euthanized. The Judo-Christian belief that man has dominion over animals and he may use them as he sees fit as long as he is a good steward. These two positions function well in our society as long as animals are regarded as nonpersons or property. But when they move into the area between “persons” and “nonpersons”, moral responsibilities become confused. Companion animals fall into the gray area of “persons” and “nonpersons”. Is it acceptable for us to treat them as property and dispose of them as long as it is done humanely? What if the pet is young and healthy and not old, sick, or injured? The veterinarian is faced with the dilemma of complying with the owner’s wishes versus refusing to destroy a healthy, young animal. What effect does this type of euthanasia have on the veterinarian?

A study done on animal control personnel who performed euthanasia on a daily basis showed these people suffered feelings of ambivalence, insecurity, and emotional conflict. They suffered anger and showed physical signs of stress. The study also showed that these people developed coping mechanisms to ease the trauma they experienced almost daily. They avoided people altogether, wanting to be alone and sought excessive relaxation after work in the form of alcohol indulgence, drugs, or inordinate physical activity.

Research shows the risk of suicide differs between occupational groups with those in the veterinary practice at around three times the general population rate. Young female veterinarians were suggested as being at greatest risk. A new variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, called “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), was clearly identified in American vets of the Vietnam war who actually killed or believe actions on their part resulted in human death. Veterinarians and animal care workers who take part in killing healthy animals suffer a “moral stress” that is similar to PITS. In the veterinary practice, the casual elements of PITS is different from classical PTSD in that PTSD occurs after a life-threatening experience; the veterinarian’s life is never directly threatened by euthanizing or killing animals but their identity as a veterinarian is.

There are coping strategies which can be implemented to assist veterinarians, animal researchers and other animal care givers in managing them moral stress. Taking pride in one’s work and learning skills to the best of one’s ability is a good start. Learn about euthanasia and how to perform it competently and with care. Realize and respect the human-animal bond. It will improve the care of the animals which will, in turn, positively impact the research environment. Attachments can be formed with animals but it must be kept in perspective. It is possible to show caring behaviors and still perform necessary duties. If a strong bond has been formed with an animal which inhibits the performance of duties, the supervisor should be informed so that someone else can be assigned the task.

Managers and supervisors should be aware of stresses related to animal care. Have an “open door” policy, providing a safe outlet for employees to talk. Offer education on humane animal care and use and be sure that individuals involved in the euthanasia of animals are properly trained in the procedures. Share difficult tasks and distribute job responsibilities by rotating personnel. Encourage group support meetings to facilitate the process of healing.

It is important to examine the emotional effects veterinarians, animal researchers, and animal caregivers experience as agents of animal euthanasia. A better understanding will allow better control of its effect on animal care givers, veterinarians, and researchers, their patients, and their clients in their professional duties. And don’t forget to accept that grief is a natural outcome of the human-animal bond… respect it.

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