Updated June 6, 2021
Can we help you by talking about euthanasia? We’ll try to talk about:
- Making The Decision To Euthanase
- Talking To The Family
- Deciding Where To Euthanase
- How Vets Perform Euthanasia
- What Happens After Euthanasia
- Pet Cremations & Burials
- Coping With Pet Loss
We find that the less mystery there is about euthanasia the less there is to fear. If you have concerns we hope we can put these at rest.
The pictures throughout are of our dearly loved patient Zeus. Whether you have a cat, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a chicken, a ferret or a rabbit, we are here to help.
Making The Decision To Euthanase
It’s natural to fear that you won’t be able to tell the right time for euthanasia.
The worst part of euthanasia is having the choice to do it. It might help to remember how much worse it would be to not be able to choose at all.
We’re all trying to do the same thing: decide when a pet’s quality of life is becoming so poor that euthanasia is a better path. Thankfully, despite the worry, in most cases at the right time the decision is clear and you will know.
If you are worried you are holding on for your sake and not your pet’s, here are some suggestions:
- Ask your vet. We often see a pet’s owners several times to talk about euthanasia before we actually do it. We won’t force you to make a decision; after all, we care deeply about getting this right.
- Get a friend’s advice, especially a close friend who is fond of both you and your pet.
- Don’t judge your pet by how they are at abnormal times like at the vets or with visitors. It’s how they are for most of their time that matters. Only you know that.
- Is your pet still doing the things they love? If you pick up a toy, a lead or a treat, do they still show interest? When you come home, do they greet you happily. Or are they withdrawn and not interacting with you?
- Do they have more good days than bad days? Do they still have quality of life?
- Don’t stress over a decision if it’s just a difference of a few weeks. It’s better to go a little early than to go too late and risk increasing the suffering. Owners rarely regret an early decision.
One problem can be that owners hope their pet will die peacefully at home when the time comes. The reality is that most diseases of animals are slowly progressive and require our help; they almost never get heart attacks or strokes for example.
A second problem is that sometimes no one can know for sure when is exactly the right time. Owners look to vets for the answer, and where we can we will help. If we know an illness is likely to cause untreatable pain or sickness, we will always tell you.
For many debilitating diseases such as arthritis or cognitive deterioration, there is no right time. You shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to choose any one day from a long-term decline. It’s enough to know you have done all you could and are making a decision based solely on love.
Sometimes, it’s difficult because the animal’s illness is treatable, but the odds of success are not high. We have to carefully weigh up the chances of success against the risk of prolonging suffering. We will always be as open as possible, and there is no right or wrong decision in these cases.
It’s hard for some people to accept the awful responsibility inherent in choosing to end a life. Perhaps a way of accepting it is to know that our pets have only attained the life they had because we provided for their needs and managed their health. The decision to euthanase is that one last act of love which is only necessary because we protected them for so long.
Talking To The Family
Often, not everyone agrees on the decision. Young children can’t be expected to understand whereas older children who have known no other pet can be in denial. Even spouses can disagree. Here we believe the vet has a vital role to play as an independent expert opinion. Please feel free to place us in the middle of the discussion.
A word of warning though. If you ask for our opinion to settle a disagreement, all parties need to be ready to accept the conclusion. Otherwise the party that shared our opinion has all that is needed to hold a longstanding grievance.
Throughout family discussions on euthanasia, keep calm and remember that everyone, whether you agree or not, is only doing what they feel is best for their pet.
If you decide to euthanase, we strongly advise you to talk about it openly and frankly with your children to make sure they understand what is about to happen. Often in a wish to soften the impact we use words like ‘injection’, ‘put to sleep’ or ‘anaesthetic’ without realising children may take these words at face value. This can give them anxiety in the future around these normal events. Thankfully kids are usually better than adults at coping with losing a pet.
Deciding Where To Euthanase
It’s quite natural to want to avoid your pet having to come to the vet for euthanasia. For dogs and cats it is possible to do this. Therefore, although we don’t do a lot of house calls, most of them are for euthanasia.
If this is what you prefer, we only ask for some flexibility in when to do it. We will bring both a vet and a nurse to your chosen place. In order to also be available at the clinic for emergencies we will try to arrange the time for when two vets and two nurses are working.
It can be hard at times to do a house call for euthanasia on the same day it’s requested but we’ll do our best.
If your pet doesn’t get too stressed by vet visits it’s still advised to make an appointment to come in. Although we will bring everything we’ll need to your house, occasionally having other equipment and medicines at our disposal can be useful.
When you make the appointment, once our reception staff know what it’s for they will make sure we have allowed enough time and that our private room is free. It’s a good idea to ask a friend or neighbour for transport to avoid having to drive at such an emotional time.
You can choose to make your selections and finalise any arrangements either in person or over the phone before the appointment.
How Vets Perform Euthanasia
To a pet, euthanasia would seem exactly the same as being given an anaesthetic. The only differences are in how we give them. Therefore, all euthanasia begins with an animal losing consciousness in exactly the same way as having an anaesthetic. Once this happens, more anaesthetic is given until it reaches overdosage levels.
The goal is to do this in the least stressful way possible. For most dogs, cats and rabbits it’s best to give a calming sedative first to reduce stress.
For small pets like rats, ferrets, guinea pigs or birds, we will use gaseous anaesthetics. We have a range of sizes of anaesthetic chambers which we use to provide a stress-free sleep not just for euthanasia, but also some routine procedures.
Once the sedative or gas is working, your pet should be unconscious. Then euthanasia is performed by administration of an intravenous dose of anaesthetic.
What Happens After Euthanasia
Once the vet has given the final part of the anaesthetic, it only takes 20-30 seconds to work. The process is quick, painless and peaceful. You can ask us to wait at any stage; it should never feel rushed.
We encourage owners to be with their pet for their final moments. It is never as bad as people imagine and later they are glad they were able to provide a reassuring presence. Sometimes after death there are reflex body movements such as a gasp or twitch and some pets may urinate.
We always use a private room to allow owners and families if they wish to spend time with their pet both before and after. The only request we make is that children are not present at the moment of euthanasia. A nurse can look after them if necessary and bring them back when ready.
Pet Cremations and Burial
If you have not already indicated, a nurse will ask you about your wishes for your pet’s remains. You are entitled to take them home and either bury them in your yard or arrange your own cremation. Alternatively, we will arrange for the Animal Welfare League to collect your pet. Whichever choice you make, you can be assured that the AWL will treat your pet with respect and dignity.
You can choose between a low cost general cremation or an individual cremation where your pet’s ashes are collected for you. These are then returned in the container of your choice: either a plastic container for scattering or a more decorative ceramic urn or wooden box. If you prefer to have the decision made before your visit, you can view the options at AWL Pet Cremations.
We always stress that there is no right, wrong or normal way. Each family or individual is different, will choose the path that they need and will grieve in their own way. Click here for information on home pet burial in Australia.
Can I Trust Pet Cremations?
It’s OK to ask whether pet cremation is trustworthy; there are a lot of conspiracy theories online. That’s one of the reasons we only use the Animal Welfare League: we can guarantee they will provide a reliable and compassionate service, with all proceeds going to running their shelter.
The AWL is full of dedicated animal lovers, both paid and volunteer, many of whom we know personally. There is no way any rogue employee could mix up the ashes of your pet without someone blowing the whistle. You can be sure the ashes they return will be from your beloved pet alone.
Coping With Pet Loss
In a sister article we talked about the distress caused by the death of a pet, which is real and can be extreme.
If you are having trouble or know someone who is, please read Dealing with the loss of a pet. It’s written by those who see it happen every day and have experienced it themselves.
In conclusion, we hope that by understanding the process of euthanasia, it’s possible to fear it less. And by fearing it less we can focus on what really matters: making our pets comfortable while we pay tribute to their beautiful lives.
Images of Zeus were used with permission from https://www.eonimages.com.au
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!