Pets and Euthanasia
A sad fact of pet ownership is that, when you take a pet into your life, you are likely to have to face the eventual death of that pet. Commonly, you will have to face the decision that your pet has to be ‘put to sleep’ or euthanased due to old age infirmity or to disease.
A difficult and sad time
If you are facing this decision, this is not an easy time for you. The decision as to whether you should euthanase the pet, and especially when it should be euthanased, is one of the most difficult decisions that you are likely to face. You need to be prepared, too, for the depth of feelings evoked through this loss.
The grieving that you will experience with the loss of your pet is not much different from that which you would experience with the loss of a fellow human being.
I know that many pet owners who face the euthanasia of their pets are embarrassed about the strength of their emotions at the time. They apologise to the attending veterinarian for weeping, crying or grieving and some try very hard to hide their feelings from their veterinarian.
Please don’t feel embarrassed. Almost every pet owner facing this difficult decision is, at the very least, tearful - and that goes for the guys too. Your veterinarian will have helped many owners like you through this difficult time and, as veterinarians, we know how much that pet means to you. Don’t be surprised, too, if we ‘hardened vets’ shed a tear or two with you. It usually affects us just as much as it affects you.
So, when should pets be euthanased?
My belief is that, after sharing a long and happy life with our pets, we should not allow our pets to suffer when the end is near. I believe that humane euthanasia is a correct and very peaceful end for a loved pet that is old, frail or diseased and particularly when the pet has no ‘quality of life’ left.
Pets are often euthanased when debilitating disease conditions strike, such as chronic arthritis, serious heart, liver or lung disease, and when the development of tumours and cancers is making the pet’s life a misery. Many pet owners will consider euthanasia when their pets have lost their sight and hearing and are not leading a happy life.
What signs suggest the pet may not be leading a comfortable life? Look for a reduction in activity, and especially a reduction in responsiveness to outside stimuli. Does the pet recognise you and your family? Is it able to walk without discomfort? Is it yelping or crying in pain when it tries to rise? Is it collapsing when walking after a few steps? Is it losing control of its bowel and bladder? Is it fitting, circling or aimlessly walking with no purpose? Has it stopped eating or drinking?
If any one of the above is occurring, then the difficult time may have arrived. Of course, the pet’s condition may be treatable. Ask your veterinarian for an opinion. If your vet says that ‘there is nothing more that can be done’ then the time for euthanasia may have arrived. However, if you or your veterinarian is in doubt, then attempting treatment for a short time is worth consideration. Such a process will give you time to think and time to observe your pet’s response to therapy. Many pet owners gain comfort from allowing the veterinarian to proceed with a diagnosis by doing X-rays and pathology tests so that they and their vet know more precisely what the pet is suffering from and what the prognosis or possible outcomes could be.
The cost of treatment and the family budget
Financial considerations are often very important. The cost of treatment of disease and injury can be expensive. While you may be very attached to your pet, can you really afford the treatment the pet needs? Be sure to ask your veterinarian about the costs involved. They certainly won’t mind. While you may feel guilty placing a financial consideration on such a life and death decision, I feel that this is an extremely important point to consider fully.
Being practical, you and your family have to eat and you have to pay bills. I don’t think you should risk the well being of your family if the cost of treatment of your much-loved pet is beyond your reach.
How is a pet euthanased?
The euthanasia procedure is simple and is generally stress-free for your pet. The most usual method is by the injection of a very concentrated general anaesthetic specifically designed for euthanasia. The drug is generally a dark green or blue colour. Usually the vet will inject it into a vein in a front leg.
When injected into the vein, the onset of death is usually very rapid - a matter of a few seconds. If you are with your pet at this time, be prepared for the fact that it is quick as many owners are taken by surprise. After the injection, your pet will be limp and unresponsive. It may lose control of its bowel and occasionally, but thankfully not often, muscle contractions occur, including movement of the jaw. While this does not look pleasant, the pet is feeling nothing at this time and has ‘passed on’.
After the event
After this is over, you have the choice of asking the veterinarian to care for your pet’s body or taking your pet home yourself. Be aware that council regulations may not permit you to bury your pet in your garden. If left with your veterinarian, you also have the choice of the disposal of the body with a commercial collection agent, usually the council or a private pet crematorium or burial service. The council contractor will generally cremate the pet, but the ashes are not available.
Pet cemeteries and private pet crematorium services exist and the latter will return the ashes to you if you wish. Please be sure to discuss the disposal of your pet with your veterinarian beforehand so you are both clear on which form of service you prefer.
Pets are just so important to us all. The thought of euthanasing a loved pet is not easy at all. I faced this decision a few years ago with my very much loved Shepherd, Bacchus - the best buddy anyone could wish for. He had arthritis which was progressing and was no longer responding to medication. My decision came one morning when he was so uncomfortable that he could not rise from his bed and had soiled his bedding overnight. This was not a dignified thing for my best buddy. I could not let that happen to him. My decision was difficult but almost immediate.
I decided to make his last moment as gentle and pleasant as I could. After gently placing an intravenous catheter in his vein, I connected the syringe containing the euthanasia solution. Before injecting, I gave him his favourite treat - a plate of fresh liver. I lifted the plate to his mouth and when he was half way through the meal, I injected the solution. He died peacefully with the taste of his favourite dish in his mouth. I then cried.
Don't forget to hug your pet.
By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated