Over the past 18 years of practice, the most common statement I will receive when euthanasia comes up is “I don’t know how you do it”. This moment is very emotional and intimate for all family members who have embraced and enjoyed the sidekick loyalty of a pet. The memories flood our minds, followed with anxiety, guilt, and questions: Is it time? Am I being too hasty? Did I wait too long? How did I miss this? How long have they been suffering? What are my options?
As a veterinarian, the responsibility and trust is weighted for we have the honor of delivering peace, but also the requirement to communicate guidance and clarity with piercing accuracy during a cloudy and at times unexpected moment. The easiest time to discuss this day is when “everything is fine”. Yet much like ourselves, end of life preparations are not a topic we rush and gravitate to when life is good. But as pet parents, there is some responsibility you must take on when choosing to care for a pet. I will give you some key points to address, in hopes that it will bring some objectivity and ease when these decisions need to be made. An added thought here is to consider talking to a veterinarian about certain breeds that interest you. Find out what possible health issues they could have, consider the responsibility of taking care of certain breed specific issues. Pet ownership is unfortunately not always easy. Cats develop urinary tract infections and sometimes become “blocked” or unable to urinate. Certain breeds of dogs develop back problems, or knee problems that require surgery. These are examples where the financial responsibility should be considered before adopting or purchasing a pet with the hopes that we are reducing shelter populations, and confronting responsibility before euthanasia. I often use the analogy of tires on a car. It should be no surprise that at some point, that car is going to need a tire change. That expense should not be surprising as that car takes you anywhere, daily, and all day for some. So a monthly savings plan should be set up so when that day arrives, there is less “surprise” and anxiety to confront that reality. A veterinarian can give you honest costs for these things so you are able to save or obtain insurance for your pet.
As a pet parent, if you share this responsibility with the whole family, a meeting and agreement must be made. There are three objective measures when assessing quality of life. First: Is your pet eating and drinking still? And with enthusiasm? Second: Is your pet interacting with the family or isolating themselves? Third: Is your pet going to the bathroom with dignity? Can they stand and get out to their designated area without assistance?
For some families, When 1 or all 3 of these no longer occur, that is their pet’s time. As a family, you have to decide this, and be okay with your tolerance changing as new issues arise. For example, I have seen paraplegic dogs that need assistance with eliminating because they endured a back trauma or injury. But they still show enthusiastic appetites and love to interact with people. These dogs do great but have special needs. You have to decide where you are with this scenario because what is considered a hardship for others is not necessarily a hardship for some.
Another question is, how far will you go? A lot of factors come into this very emotional question. For some it is simply the commitment, for others, there are financial considerations to weigh in. There is no wrong answer here because those pets are loved dearly. Now I have been asked about “convenience” euthanasias and those are choppy waters to navigate because personal opinions can creep into this situation. It is not an easy choice, but if ever a pro-life option is available, you will and should be informed of it. There are several rescues that help rehome these animals along with no-kill shelters that will give that pet alternative homes. Our local pet community has a very strong social media following. I’ve also considered recommending these sites to families as an alternative to decrease the possibility of euthanasia.
However, for those animals needing this help, the next question is will you be present at the euthanasia or not? There is no wrong answer here. This is a difficult moment, and ideally, if at all possible, staying present for the initial stages is best for the pet, as they are not alarmed by your leaving them. Initial stages you may ask? Let’s start by asking what euthanasia is in the first place? Euthanasia is an overdose of anesthesia, where breathing is stopped and then the heart stops due to the administration of Intravenous solution. In the initial stages, a pet is sedated with an injection into the muscle. This allows the pet to relax, to become so sedated that they are no longer painful, anxious, or aware of their surroundings. This is an opportune time for any reluctant family members to say their goodbyes, and see their pet comfortable, but not yet deceased. The sensation of euthanasia has been described as a numbing feeling, like your leg falling asleep. It is not painful. The second step is the euthanasia solution. For anyone who has experienced euthanizing a pet, they will notice that the solution given is a bright, chemical color, a bright pink or blue. This is done on purpose so there is no mistake as to what that drug does. Typically intravenous medications for pets are clear or beige, so when a pink or blue solution is seen, there is a universal understanding that the contents within that syringe are euthanasia solution.
If you choose to stay present for this second step, you must be prepared for what to expect. A deceased pets eyes will not close, they may vocalize or howl, and they may lastly release fluids from their nose, urinary tract, or anus. Your veterinarian and assistants are all aware of these possibilities and vigilantly monitor and prepare in order to maintain dignity for your pet. Some pets will also release air from their lungs after their heart has stopped, and this can be perceived as breathing. It is not, but can still be unnerving. Your vet will always confirm that the heart has stopped. I have had some clients request that they listen for themselves. That is completely acceptable.
The choice to have children of all ages present at a euthanasia is a choice that also requires some preparation. Over the years, I have seen children be so courageous, staying present throughout the procedure and I am always impressed at their resiliency and ability to understand what is happening. They will mourn, but never disrespect the moment. Younger toddlers do have a harder time understanding, and ideally, if the adults need to be with their pet, it is best to find childcare or entrust a veterinary clinic staff member to entertain them. The ability for children to confront death is often remarkably better than adults. One mistake I have learned is the use of “softer words” to describe what is happening. You know the terms: “Put to sleep”, or “go night-night”. I personally had one experience where a child was so distraught that his dog was not waking up because it was still daytime. It was not time for “sleep” or “night-night”. Explaining the word euthanasia is better for children. It is a new word, it is death. During a parents’ grief, it may be difficult to clarify the misunderstanding when all that adult want to do is hug their pet. The other soft term is “ashes”. We use that word all the time. Technically, the word for a pet’s ashes is “cremains”. Pets are cremated typically. Children need to realize that what is in the fireplace or charcoal grill is not their pet.
Another consideration is where do you do it? We expect the final decision to usually be very last minute. These delicate appointments are handled one of two ways at our hospital. We either try to have euthanasia scheduled towards the end of the day, protecting the privacy of the moment, or we offer a house call. There are some folks that have a difficult time walking back into the hospital/clinic where a pet was recently euthanized while others do not want to have that memory in their home.
The last step, what happens with your pets remains? Again, typically pets are cremated. Despite horrible horror stories that pets are disrespected and owners are lied to, pet crematories take their jobs very seriously. There are two choices one can make, to have their pet cremated with no cremain return, or privately cremated with cremain return. There are multiple choices from urns to jewelry, whatever your comfort level. In my experience, pet cremains are returned in a nice cedar box with an engraved plaque with your chosen words. The box may be set out individually or wrapped in a soft fabric bag.
I personally like to have a clay paw imprint made and given to the owner before they leave, that they may decorate and bake these in memory. We provide these regardless of cremain choice.
I do recommend or suggest, depending on how folks grieve, to have all items related to that pet, removed at the time of the euthanasia. If an owner elects to have euthanasia performed at the hospital, then a trusted friend could remove the bedding, food, leashes, litterbox, etc. during their absence. During a house call, I have also taken everything out after the pet has been euthanized, so all items leave with the pet.
Essentially, there are multiple approaches and handlings to euthanasia and the worst time to consider your options is in the heightened emotion of the moment or realization that “it’s time”. Continue to love your pets as you do, and consider this article as simply an informational tool to guide and inform you of services available. Everything is a choice. If you have questions about euthanasia or about a specific breed of pet in which you are interested, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.