Euthanasia: Making the Decision

While some pets die of old age in the comfort of their own home, many others become seriously ill, get injured in some way or experience a significantly diminished quality of life as they grow old. In such situations, it may become necessary for you to have to consider having your pet euthanized in order to spare it from pain and suffering. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this very difficult decision, as well as some information about the euthanasia procedure.

KNOWING WHEN IT’S TIME

Talk to your veterinarian. Our veterinarians are the best qualified people to help guide you through this difficult process. In some cases, your veterinarian may be able to tell you that their recommendation is that it is time to euthanize your pet, but in other cases, you may need to make the decision based upon your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude. Here are some signs that may indicate your pet is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life:

  • He or she is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication (your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is in pain).
  • He or she has frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
  • He or she has stopped eating or will only eat if you force feed them.
  • He or she is incontinent to the degree that they frequently soil themselves.
  • He or she has lost interest in all or most of their favorite activities, such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats or soliciting attention and petting from family members.
  • He or she cannot stand on their own or fall down when trying to walk.
  • He or she has chronic labored breathing or coughing.

SAYING GOODBYE

Once you have made this very difficult decision, you will also need to decide how and where you and your family will say the final goodbye.

  • Before the procedure is scheduled to take place, make sure that all members of your family have time with the pet to say a private goodbye.
  • If you have children, make sure that you explain the decision to them and prepare them for the loss of the pet in advance. This may be your child’s first experience with death, and it is very important for you to help him or her through the grieving process. Books that address the subject may be very beneficial in helping your child to deal with this loss.
  • It is an individual decision whether or not you and your family want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming, but for many, it is a comfort to be with their pet during the final moments. It may be inappropriate for young children to witness the procedure since they are not yet able to understand death and may also not understand that they need to remain still and quiet.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is stressful, and your anxiety can often be exacerbated if you do not know what to expect during the euthanasia procedure.

  • Your veterinarian will generally explain the procedure to you before it begins. Each doctor may perform the procedure slightly different, so do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian for further explanation or clarification if needed.
  • Small to medium sized pets are usually placed on a table for the procedure, but larger dogs may be more easily handled on the floor. Regardless of the location, we will make sure that your pet has a comfortable blanket or bed to lie on.
  • In most cases, a trained veterinary assistant or technician will hold your pet for the procedure. The veterinary assistant or technician has the skill needed to properly hold your pet so that the process goes quickly and smoothly. If you plan to be present during the entire procedure, it is important that you allow enough space for the veterinarian and assistant or technician to work. We want you to be able to touch or even hold your pet when appropriate. However, in some cases, your veterinarian may need to show you where to sit or stand so that your pet can see you and hear your voice.
  • Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either a front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet.
  • Often, our veterinarians will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the pet’s vein before giving the injection. The catheter will reduce the risk that the vein will rupture as the drug is injected. If the vein ruptures, then some of the drug may leak out into the leg, and it will not work as quickly.
  • Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbital. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take approximately 10 to 15 minutes to take effect. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection and/or place the IV catheter.
  • Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbital is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less.
  • Your veterinarian will use a stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped.
  • Your pet may experience some muscle twitching and intermittent breathing for several minutes after death has occurred. Your pet may also release their bladder or bowels. These events are normal and should not be cause for alarm.
  • After your veterinarian has confirmed that your pet has passed, he or she will usually ask if you would like to have a few final minutes alone with your pet.

BURIAL AND CREMATION OPTIONS

Our veterinarians can offer you a variety of options for your pet’s final resting place.

  • Cremation is the most common choice, and you can choose whether or not you would like to have your pet’s ashes returned to you. The cost of cremation services varies based upon your pet’s weight. To have your pet cremated without the return of their ashes costs between $40 and $55. To have your pet’s ashes returned costs between $135 and $225. Ashes are returned in an engraved wood box at no additional charge or a black or white ceramic urn (for an additional cost).
  • Burial is another option. You may want to bury your pet in your own yard, but before doing so, be sure to check your local ordinances for any restrictions. For example, Chesterfield county does not allow the burial of pets. There are also many pet cemeteries that offer burial options. To locate a pet cemetery, check with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries (www.iaopc.com).

FIND SUPPORT FOR GRIEF

Grief is the natural response to loss. Each of us grieves differently, but we all grieve. Below is a list of Pet Loss Helplines and links to grief support websites and articles.

https://fetchacure.org

ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline

877-474-3310

www.aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/end-life-care

Chicago Veterinary Medical Association Pet Loss Helpline

630-325-1600

www.chicagovma.org/pet-loss-support/

Cornell University Pet Loss Support Line

(staffed by Cornell veterinary students)

607-253-3932

www.vet.cornell.edu/about-us/outreach/pet-loss-support-hotline

University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Pet Loss Helpline

(staffed by University of Illinois veterinary students from 1pm-6pm Central Time, Tuesdays and Thursdays. If calling outside these times, leave a message and it will be returned within 24 hours.) 217-244-CARE (2273)

vetmed.illinois.edu/animal-care/care-pet-loss-helpline

Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support Hotline

517-432-2696

cvm.msu.edu/hospital/services/pet-loss-support

Tufts University Pet Loss Support Hotline

(staffed by trained student volunteers)

508-839-7966

vet.tufts.edu/petloss/

Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support

866-266-8635 or local 509-335-5704

www.vetmed.wsu.edu/PLHl/

Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital

970-297-1242

csu-cvmbs.colostate.edu/vth/diagnostic-and-support/argus/Pages/default.aspx

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