Senior Dog with health issues contemplating euthanasia

In my capacity as a Veterinarian I have seen this countless times. The family is gathered, tears silently fall. There are hushed kind words spoken in praise for a pet, whose life is about to end. Cradled by arms that love her, a body ravaged by age and disease is ready to go. Cuddled in a favorite blanket with a well chewed toy at her side we begin. As the lethal solution flows into a pets vein loss of consciousness comes quickly, usually in seconds. Shortly after that breathing stops, and in a few more seconds the heart beats its last. Euthanasia is a pain free and peaceful end of life

Veterinarian and author of the James Herriot books Dr. James Alfred “Alf” Wight wrote of euthanasia this way:

“Like all vets I hated doing this, but to me there has always been a comfort in the knowledge that the last thing these helpless animals knew was the sound of a friendly voice and the touch of a gentle hand”. (from the book All things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small)

In my many grief counselling sessions with owners we often struggle with human nature. That is, to wants to hang on to a cherished pet, to try, to not want to let go even when all medical indicators and common sense point to a pet’s life nearing its end. How can we make such a difficult and permanent decision to end a life? My answer is always based on quality of life. It should always be based on the quality of life of the pet. Euthanasia is the last gift you will give them.

How do I know it’s time?

There never seems to be a good time nor a good reason to say good bye to a cherished pet. It is inevitable though that all things come to pass. So too do we watch a puppy or kitten grow into an adult, live a (hopefully) long and happy life with their family and then, become old, or terminally ill and die. It can be said that the only rotten thing about pet ownership is that they don’t live long enough. In our relatively long human lifetime we will likely welcome into our homes and grieve the loss of a multitude of pets. Those of us who surround ourselves with these four-legged creature will set ourselves up for many good byes. It is part of the owner’s responsibility. A pain-free and respectful death is as important as food, shelter and companionship.

In recent years pets have taken a privileged position in our homes and our lives. Most pets are treated as family members. In our western society with displaced families the loss of a family pet is often a child’s first exposure to death. Many services, products and options are now available to pet owners regarding euthanasia and care of remains and many people are unfamiliar with the process of euthanasia so in this article I would like to outline some details of the process and some of those options available to you.

Euthanasia

The word literally means “Easy Death” but we have come to know it as a pain and stress free death. When a pet’s quality of life has deteriorated to the point where life is no longer enjoyable or is stress and pain ridden we have the option to humanely and mercifully end it. The procedure will vary from clinic to clinic and from veterinarian to veterinarian but is a rapid intravenous injection of a lethal dose of barbiturate. That is an old class of anesthetic that painlessly renders a patient unconscious very quickly. The amount given is calculated so while unconscious the respirations and heart stop. People are often surprised how quickly it all comes to pass, but that is by design. The procedure is adapted to each individual case so that some patients will have an IV catheter placed. Patients that are anxious or in pain can be given sedatives or pain killing medications. All done to allow for a peaceful departure.

Most veterinary clinics will allow, and encourage an owner to be present during euthanasia. For some owners it is all too much and they would rather not witness the final breath. For others they feel it is their duty to be their to comfort and support their pet to the end. Immediately following death, a pet’s body may undergo some reflex muscle twitches, breathing movements or release of urine or bowel. Thisis unnerving for those observers who are unprepared. Rest assured it is normal and natural as the body relaxes and final nerve signals and muscle contractions give way to death. If time and scheduling permit a house call can sometimes be arranged, but all too often the decision to euthanize is forced upon a pet owner with little time for scheduling.

After Care

Following euthanasia most owners will spend a few moments with their now deceased pets and collect their thoughts. If a pet is left at the animal hospital for care of remains, the body of the pet is placed in a cadaver bag and placed in a “pet morgue” of sorts. This is an area of the hospital where the body is cooled to prevent decomposition pending pick up or delivery to the cremation facility.

This would is the right place to dispel a common and recurring concern of pet owners: There is no behind the scenes research or experimentation that happens to deceased pets left at veterinary clinics. Animals may be subjected to a post mortem examination (called an autopsy in human medicine) if requested by the owner. These examinations sometimes involving surgical dissection and exploration done by veterinarians or veterinary pathologists in a respectful and purposeful way. Post mortem examinations are done to determine a cause of illness or reason for death and only with an owner’s consent. Following the post mortem examination the pets are cared for in the manner requested by the owner.

In recent years many options have become available for the care of remains following euthanasia. The following list is typical of services offered by a pet crematorium but may not be available in every city. Here is a link to a well run pet crematorium in our area.

  • Home burial – Not an option for many pet owners and discouraged by many municipalities and regional districts
  • Communal Cremation – Ashes not returned to owner by request
  • Private Segregated – Pets are separated and identified during cremation and an individual pet’s ashes returned to the owner
  • Private Single Cremation – A single pet is in the incinerator during the cremation. Ashes are returned to the owner
  • Witnessed Single Cremation – An appointment is made with the cremation facility to witness an individual cremation and ashes are returned to the owner

Remembrances

For many people the memory of a cherished pet is kept alive through keepsakes. A photo, a favorite toy or blanket or stories. A snippet of hair can be a comforting remembrance. Many pet cremation facilities can provide pet owners with paw print castings and special urns for ashes. Wooden boxes, frames, plaques and engravings are now routinely available. All designed to make your pets final resting spot special and pay tribute to a loving and dedicated family member whose life ended all too soon.
Though difficult to write and probably sad to read this article is an attempt to inform pet owners of what typically happens on the day of euthanasia and of their options for care of remains. Pets are special members of our families. It is only fitting that we care for them respectfully, tastefully and carefully following their death.

Other Resources

Paws to Remember Pet Cremation.
The Association for Pet Loss and Grief