What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is a word of Greek origin that translates to "good" and "death."  Although there are people who may contend there is no such thing as a "good death," most veterinarians would disagree.  Whether your pet is seriously injured, suffering from a disease or condition, or at the end of their natural life, you owe it to your pet to painlessly ease him or her in their departure from this life. 

Veterinarians take an oath to serve mankind by relieving animal suffering.  They help to ease a pet's departure when that time arrives and also serve to guide pet owners through this difficult and painful process.

How is euthanasia performed?

Veterinarians use a combination of drugs including anesthetics and sedatives to gracefully move pets from a state of consciousness, to one of deep sedation, then to a state of surgical anesthesia, and finally into a very deep anesthetic state.  Ultimately breathing painlessly stops, the heart stops beating, and finally brain activity ceases peacefully and painlessly.

What is the procedure?

Although your veterinarian may do certain elements of this process differently based on their preference and experience, here are some key steps in the process:

  • Once the decision to euthanize the pet has been made, and before the actual procedure takes place, typically there is some paperwork presented to the pet’s guardian to address. This paperwork may include the opportunity to express their preference for the final disposition of the body, and to settle any outstanding balance relating to the pet’s care. Completing this paperwork in advance alleviates the pet’s guardian from having to deal with these decisions or tasks after the pet’s euthanasia.

  • The veterinarian may request to take the pet into a treatment room where they pre-place an intravenous (IV) catheter into the pet's front or rear leg.  This makes administration of the drugs easier and makes the process more comfortable for the patient.

  • After the paperwork is completed and the IV catheter is placed, the pet is brought back into the exam room to be with its owners (if they have elected to be present).  If the owners would like some additional time to say goodbye, they are given as much time as they need.

  • When the family is ready, the veterinarian returns and positions the pet in whatever way is most comfortable for both the pet and owner.  With large dogs, everyone may sit on the floor where the dog is laying.  Smaller pets may be positioned to rest comfortably on a table or on the lap of the owner.

  • The drugs are then administered into the IV catheter.  There may be more than one syringe of medication administered during this process.  Initially, the medication may be administered slowly to ease the pet into the state of deep sedation, and then the final amounts will be administered more rapidly.

  • Peace and the end of suffering come quickly and painlessly.

  • The pet's guardian or family can remain as long as they would like until they are ready to leave the room.  If they choose to take their pet home for burial, the pet will be gently placed in a cardboard coffin. Otherwise, the veterinary personnel handle everything else, and clients simply walk out the door when they have finished saying goodbye.

How do I know if it's the "right time" for euthanasia of my pet?

Making a decision to euthanize a pet is always difficult; none of us want our pets to die.  Even when faced with trauma or serious illness and you know it is the right decision for your pet’s sake, it isn’t easy.  In the situation where the pet is brought in to an animal emergency facility due to a serious trauma or illness, the decision of "when" may be straightforward.

What about the old dog or cat (or the younger pet with a serious disease)?  When is the right time?  This depends on your situation, and this should be discussed openly with the veterinarian for guidance.

How do I know if my pet is suffering and that euthanasia should be considered?

Pets display different behaviors that can indicate suffering.  Some of these behaviors are more subtle than others, and objectively examining your pet’s quality of life can be difficult.

Pets are very good at disguising their discomfort because they do not complain or show pain the same way that we do.  Some indicators of bone pain include decreased movement, difficulty rising, and limping.  Panting and having trouble getting comfortable can also be signs of pain.  It is important to realize that many pets (and people) with very severe pain issues continue to eat.  The fact that your pet is eating does not necessarily mean he/she is not suffering.

 

Pain that is sharp and piercing or dull and throbbing leads to suffering. Pain is not, however, the only source of suffering. Trouble breathing and constant nausea also lead to a miserable
existence. Difficulty with breathing is often obvious, but it can also be more subtle and difficult to identify. Pets who pant frequently with little exertion or those who can’t get comfortable lying on their sides may be experiencing trouble with breathing. Pets that have trouble breathing often stop eating or have trouble swallowing their own saliva, and may drool excessively.

Nausea is commonly seen with many metabolic diseases such as kidney failure. Pets that are nauseated might show interest in food, but usually refuse to actually eat. Licking and lip smacking are common signs of nausea, even when your pet isn’t vomiting.

 

What are factors that contribute to my pet's quality of life?

  • Appetite - Loss of appetite is not necessarily a reason to euthanize a pet, but it can be a sign to consider as it can point to a diminished quality of life.
  • Elimination and bodily functionsIf your pet’s bodily functions seem normal this is not necessarily an assurance of quality of life. Not having normal bodily functions is a sign something is wrong.
  • If you ever look at your pet and feel sorry for him or her, reassess your pet's quality of life.  Consider if you would like to lead the life your pet is living.
  • Just because your pet is "not like they used to be," is not necessarily a reflection of quality of life, but if he or she seems to have more bad days than good days, consider this effect on their quality of life.  Older pets and pets with long-term diseases such as cancer or kidney failure can tend to have “good days” and “bad days.”  This roller coaster can wreak havoc on the emotions of pet owners, and “knowing when” is especially difficult in these cases.
After euthanasia is performed, what happens with the pet's remains?
 
Options include burial or cremation of the pet's remains.  Some people desire to bury their pet at home while others consider burial of the pet in a pet cemetary.  If it's your desire to bury the pet at home, ask your veterinarian if it is legal in your state.  This practice is illegal in some places.
 
If the pet is to be cremated, the owner can elect for a "private" or a "communal" cremation.  The difference is whether the pet is cremated with other pets or they are cremated by themselves.  People who elect for a private cremation often desire to have the pet's ashes returned to them.  Ashes are usually returned in a simple box or container.  If an urn is desired, that can be expressed and your options explored with the crematory company.  Ashes that are not returned to the owner are buried by the crematory company.
 
The veterinarian and their staff can help to coordinate the details of your choice.
 
Some people would like a keepsake of their pet, such as a lock of hair or a ceramic clay paw print.  These can be obtained in advance if you've had the benefit of time to plan your decision, or your desire can be expressed to your veterinarian's office at the time of the event.
 
What about the grieving process?

 

Grieving is a process that does not recognize or respect species differences: loss is loss, and must be treated as such. You are not crazy and your pain is real. Everyone experiences grief differently.

There may be co-workers, even family members, that think you are strange, irrational, or “over-attached” to “just an animal” when you try to convey the depth of your loss. Why would you need a day from work? Understand that these people do not mean to be callous; they simply do not
understand your connection to your pet. They cannot empathize because they cannot identify with your feelings of loss. As you or your family go through the stages of grief, stay supportive of one another. If you don't have a support system, look for a grief counselor or pet loss support group.