Thursday, September 9, 2010

Humane Euthanasia

Unfortunately a time may come when our beloved pet is suffering from disease and a decision about humane euthanasia must be made. The disease may be one that requires extensive hospital visits, at home treatments and expenses which you may not be able to provide for physically, mentally or financially. The disease may be one in which the pet is unlikely to make a recovery no matter how dedicated you are to your pet. When this time occurs it requires the owner and veterinarian to have a frank conversation about humane euthanasia.

Euthanasia is an option that allows one to make the decision to end a pet’s pain and suffering. Your veterinarian may bring up euthanasia as an option during certain situations as they serve as an advocate for your pet. The veterinary oath states “I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering…” As hard as the decision can be for both the owner and the veterinarian, it is the kindest thing that can be done in the final stage of a life. Sometimes the decision needs to be made due to an unexpected emergency that has occurred (a pet that ingested a toxin or one hit by a car). Other times the owners know that their pet is fighting a chronic disease (kidney failure, heart failure, cancer) and that the time will come when the disease becomes too advanced.


Owners frequently ask when the right time to perform the procedure is and how will they know when that time comes. This varies from person to person and I tell owners to pick a few things that their pets love to do. For some pets it’s eating and going for their walks, for others it’s the car ride and playing with other pets in the house and for some it’s having free roam of the house and jumping on and off of furniture. Other things to keep in mind are pets that are no longer able to get up and walk on their own and are urinating and defecating on themselves. I ask owners when their pets stop doing the things they love to do, appear to be in constant pain or are soiling themselves, it’s a sign that their quality of life has deteriorated and most likely the right time has come.

I had to make the tough decision myself a few years back. When my dog stopped barking at the mailman, no longer wanted to eat as much and she stopped going on her walks and was in pain every time she moved, I knew then she was not enjoying her life anymore. As much as we would like to hold on for our own reasons it is important to realize that our beloved pets are suffering and it is now the chance for us to give back to them for all the unconditional love they have given us. It’s a final gift we can provide them.


The euthanasia solution used is actually an anesthetic, which makes it a pain-free procedure. To be present during the procedure or not is a personal decision. Some owners want to comfort their pets during their final minutes. Others prefer to say good-bye and not have the procedure be their final memory or feel that they would be too emotionally upset which would just upset their pet more. Some owners, while not present for the procedure, would like to view the body and spend some time visiting afterwards.

Sometimes the procedure can be planned ahead of time and be performed at home where the pet may be more comfortable. If your veterinarian does not perform house calls they may be able to provide the contact information of one that does. The procedure may have to be performed in the hospital for a pet that is not stable enough to be transported back home.

If a pet is anxious or painful a tranquilizer or pain medication may be given before the euthanasia solution. Sometimes a catheter is pre-placed in the vein to allow for easier administration. The anesthetic agent is given at a very high dose that not only causes an almost instant loss of consciousness and loss of pain but also within seconds to minutes causes the heart and lungs stop functioning. Since the pet is not conscious, they do not feel anything. Most times, the animal passes away very quickly and peacefully. The veterinarian listens with the stethoscope for absence of a heartbeat.

The eyes will remain open in most cases. Sometimes there is a last few breaths, one large gasp or a vocalization that occurs during or shortly after the procedure. These all occur due to the respiratory muscles shutting down and it is important to remember that this is not the pet fighting the anesthesia or feeling any pain, as they are pain-free and unconscious once the solution is given. Other natural reactions that occur include complete muscle relaxation causing the loss of urinary and bowel control causing urination and defecation to occur. Final release of chemicals in nerve endings may cause occasional muscle twitching.


Some owners wish to take the body home to bury it (please check your local and state laws regarding this). Others wish to have their pets buried in a cemetary or privately cremated and have the ashes returned to them in an urn. Your veterinarian can help arrange for this. Finally, some owners do not want their pets ashes returned. In these cases the pets are still cremated as a group with other pets and the ashes disposed of appropriately. If you are unsure of your decision at the time, your veterinarian will most likely be able to hold the body in their morgue for a specified amount of time to allow you to time to make a decision.


After the procedure is performed it may be best to have someone drive you home and spend some time with you. Should you need additional support after the loss of your pet there are a variety of free hotlines you can call. The lines are staffed by volunteers which are usually veterinary students. If you have any questions regarding the process of euthanasia or need support afterwards please speak with your veterinarian or visit the following web-site from the Cornell Veterinary School full of various resources which you may find helpful before and after euthanizing your pet.

Remember that euthanasia is emotional for the veterinarian and staff as well, regardless of how long they have known you or your pet. James Herriot stated the view of most veterinarians in All Things Wise and Wonderful:

"Like all vets I hated doing this, painless though it was, 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."