Euthanasia: The Pet Owner Viewpoint
The room is quiet except for the gentle breathing of a dog and the sobbing of their beloved family. They are here to say goodbye for now and to give their pet a gift of freedom from an uncomfortable life. She has been a loyal dog for 13 years, giving her family unconditional love and devotion. I remain as quiet and still as possible so as not to distract the family from this moment. I ask them if they are ready…which is really asking if they want me to start the euthanasia process, one that will only take 15-20 seconds and dim the brightness in the eyes of their beloved friend. The truth is, you’re never ready; as the pet owner or the veterinarian. But how did we get to this moment?
This is one of the conundrums of veterinary medicine. One of the hardest questions I get asked is “how do I know when it’s time?” Certainly, some cases are obvious that letting go is in the best interest of the patient. What we don’t want is people hanging on too long and inadvertently causing unnecessary or prolonged suffering. The truth is, there is no easy answer to this question and the answer really is different for every person.
In the Disney ending, I’d like to believe that each animal will tell you when it is time. But ultimately, we have to make that decision. There is typically a few criteria that I try to outline for clients trying to make these decisions.
First and foremost, what is your pet’s quality of life? Are they eating and drinking? Can they walk around on their own? Do they still have that occasional burst of energy? If you are noticing that they just aren’t acting like they used to, you should have them checked out by your veterinarian. After a discussion with your vet, it may be decided that euthanasia is a reasonable course of action. It is best to review what options you may have before making a decision.
Next, do they have a history of chronic diseases? For many people, this is where a lot of pets are. If they have already been diagnosed and treated with a condition, and have now become sick, these may be signs of the diseases’ progression and humane euthanasia may be the best option.
See, I told you this was tough…I’m not sure that I’ve clearly answered the question. As I said before, it’s a very personal decision. What it really boils down to sometimes, I think, is when you ask yourself if Sparky or Fluffy are themselves anymore. You know your pet best, and you know when things are out of sorts. If you’ve done your best to care for them by exploring reasonable options, and you’ve given them a fair chance at a happy life, then you should take solace in knowing that you are making the right decision to let them go.
When preparing for a euthanasia, I always discuss two things with owners. One is the option to be present with their beloved pet. Choosing to stay with your pet is an intensely personal decision; a decision I can’t help you make. You alone must choose if you want to be there until your pet’s final breath or if you want to say goodbye and not be
present for the end. And that is okay! You should not feel guilty nor let anyone make you feel guilty about it. Losing a loved one is intensely emotional and everyone handles it differently. Personally, I could not imagine not being there for any of my pets. They have given me unconditional love & companionship that I feel I owe them those final moments, no matter the heartache.
The second discussion (if they wish to stay) is the euthanasia process. We place an IV catheter to avoid having to struggle to find a blood vessel in compromised patients. I feel that you witnessing your pet get poked with a needle can only potentially add to the emotional trauma; as well as if they move, the vessel sometimes gets damaged. It’s also important to give you the time you need to say goodbye, or “until we meet again,” so it’s up to you to let us know when you are ready to begin. The drug we use is essentially an anesthetic, in a highly concentrated dose. Once the injection is given, after 10-20 seconds, the heart stops followed by the nervous system. Sometimes this is where you may witness a reflexive breath or some twitching after their heart has stopped. This can be a startling sight which is why it is usually recommended to give sedation before hand as it can limit this reaction. Lastly, it’s important to know that the eyes don’t close like in the movies.
Back in the exam room, my patient’s family has been recalling stories of her first day at home as a puppy, how she would hide her toys in the couch, and the holiday dinner she helped eat the turkey by pulling it off the counter. These are the happy memories they recall and this is how they cherish her memory. “We’re ready now,” they tell me. I join them on the floor, take her paw in my hand, and tell her that she’s free from any pain. I give the injection and she slowly lowers her head. Her breathing has stopped and I listen to her chest to confirm that her heart is stopped. Once I have heard silence, I let the family know, give my condolences, and quietly step out of the room. Outside of the room, I let out a sigh over the thought that I’ve lost another patient but then I realize it’s more because I know a family is heartbroken over the loss of a family member.
Here is some information (literature or hotlines) to help those who are grieving the loss of a pet:
When the body that lived at your single will, With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!). When the spirit that answered your every mood Is gone—wherever it goes—for good, You will discover how much you care, And will give your heart to a dog to tear -- Rudyard Kipling
Disclaimer: All blog posts are personally written and my opinion and do not reflect those of current or former employers.
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