Understanding Euthanasia in Pets

by Drs. Foster and Smith on January 7, 2011

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Chances are, you will outlive your pet and as a result, will need to make one of the toughest decisions you’ll have to make in your life – to put him “to sleep.” Although you may naturally want to avoid it, as your pet’s caretaker you must make the kindest decision, one that will bring the least suffering to your pet. Trust your instincts and enlist the advice of other people in your pet’s life such as your veterinarian or her staff, your friends, and your family. Knowing what to expect during euthanasia may make the process less difficult.

First, you will go to your veterinarian’s clinic to sign consent papers. Clinic staff will ask what you wish done with your pet’s remains: to take your pet home with you for burial or to have him or her cremated. If you choose cremation, you may have the ashes returned to you. In some areas, pet cemeteries and memorial services are available. Talk to your veterinarian ahead of time about the options available to you.

Making a euthanasia decision

Your veterinarian or her staff will show you to a private room for you and your pet. Your veterinarian may take your pet into another room to insert a catheter (a temporary fixed needle) into a vein in your pet’s leg, to make the final injection go more smoothly. Sometimes a drug will be given to place your pet in a state of relaxation. At this point you will have some time to be with your pet and say your goodbyes. It is up to you whether or not you wish to be with your pet during the actual euthanasia. If you feel unable to stay for this stage of the procedure, there is no reason to feel guilty. Your veterinarian will take care of your pet with compassion and dignity.

Your veterinarian will inject a concentrated solution of pentobarbital into the vein. You will see your pet relax, and soon your pet will be deeply asleep, similar to an anesthetized human patient in the hospital. In the case of euthanasia, enough extra pentobarbital is used so that after the pet goes to sleep, the heart stops. In cases where animals are quite old or very ill, this often happens very quickly. In other cases this may take several minutes, especially if the pet has poor circulation.

At this point, you may see your pet twitch or seem to take a deep breath. Remember that once your pet relaxes, he is asleep and not aware of anything else. The muscles of the urinary bladder and the anus may relax, releasing urine and stool.

Finally, a stethoscope will be used by your veterinarian to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped beating. If you wish, the veterinary staff will allow you further time to be alone with your pet. People show emotion in different ways, so don’t feel embarrassed if you shed tears, or guilty if you don’t. Although this is always a difficult time, try to take comfort in remembering the happy times you and your pet have had together.

In conclusion
The decision to euthanize a pet is a difficult one. It is helpful to prepare yourself for it, if possible, by becoming informed and making choices regarding the logistics ahead of time. It is important to have one or more friends you can talk to and spend time with both prior to and after the euthanasia. The decision to be present during the euthanasia is a personal one, and you need to do what is best for you.

Written by the Drs. Foster & Smith Pet Supplies educational staff.

See other posts about pet loss.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Lena January 7, 2011 at 11:57 am

Having this info BEFORE I had to put my dog down last summer would have been so helpful. It was so unexpected that I just never thought I’d even need to know. I hope people with pets of ANY age read this, good info to have on the “back burner” because you never know when an unexpected health issue will come up. Thanks for the post.

Rosemary January 7, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I’ve experienced both sides of this issue. I used to work for a vet, and have held more than one animal as the injections were given. However, I cannot be with my own pets for this. I have to say goodbye, and leave the building, before they can do anything.

All I can say is that if you really love your pet, when they are ready to go, let them.

Ellen B. January 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Rosemary – Thanks for sharing your experience. That had to be so sad for you to be there for so many other pets. But, I can only imagine how thankful those pet owners were for you to hold their pet. Each person has to decide what’s best for their situation. It was important to me to let my dog (Lucky) go with dignity.

Kim January 8, 2011 at 1:54 am

This is very good information. Although a painful subject, the fact of the matter is that many, if not most people will face this issue if they have a pet. Knowing what to expect can make things so much easier.
Thanks for the excellent post.

Chrissie January 13, 2011 at 9:45 am

This is excellent information. I recently had to put my 12 year old beagle to sleep…it was one of the most difficult & painful decisions that I’ve ever had to make. Most of what I knew about the process was from watching movies and I was entirely too emotional to ask many questions. Thanks for the post.

Ellen B. January 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thanks to all for your comments. It’s such a sad topic, but I’m happy to hear that you agree that the info is good for pet owners to know.

Chrissie, I’m so sorry for your loss. About 1 1/2 years ago I too found myself “entirely too emotional to ask many questions” so I can relate. Hugs to you.

H Beth LaBreche February 2, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Yes, if the veterinary clinic has books, make yourself read them, think about the euthanasia, as I went into complete denial that my pet would not die from cancer at home. I believe he would have suffered less and I could have let him go sooner knowing what I know now. I will never forget being able to hold my pet to the last, but I had not made good sense out of the rest of honoring my little Shih Tzu’s 13 years, 8 months of life with me (minus 10 weeks at his first “mom’s.” the breeder’s, home). I opted for no ashes, but I believe it would have helped me accept that my dog had really died, and that he had not miraculously woken up at the vet’s and gone home with someone else. I had hallucinations and visions for at least a week or two. I would recommend two good books, Loss of a Pet by William Sife, and Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet. Only you know yourself and your pet, “nobody else can walk it for you, you have to walk it by yourself,” but there are supports and information out there. I was very fortunate in basically what happened at my vet, based on how I just could not bear the thought that my pet would ever die. I know I could have done better to accept that my “happy little toddler” was getting old, feeble and in most likely terrible pain that was not being relieved at the last with any pain medicine. Read these books, especially if those around you just don’t understand. There is a light in the darkness.

Bonnie B February 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm

My Golden retriever is 7 years old. He has skin cancer that has spread. He has major anxiety now. I home school my children and when we use a stapler he is tipping over chairs and tables to hide. We boarded him and our Newf together in a kennel that he is very familiar with, during the holidays(they said he did great). When we picked him up he was so nervous that he vomited all over my mother in-laws house. If I leave the room he is scrambling to find me. My question is….is he suffering like this? His level of anxiety is my concern. If he is given anxiety meds he burns right through them unless he is totally out of it!

Ellen B. March 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Bonnie,

I’m sorry you are going through such difficult times with your dog. To answer your question, one of our veterinarians (Dr. Kathy Hillestad) wrote a blog post with some considerations you might think about: Dog Anxiety blog post. Thank you for your question, and best of luck.

Stacy Stott April 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I was so relieved to have read this before I had to put my 13 year old dog to sleep a few months ago. I knew about the process because my parents had to have my 17 year old cat to sleep. I was not there for my cat, I had surgery that morning and could not be there, but my cat was suffering and it could not wait for me to get better. This information helped to prepare me.

Anna Neporanny June 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I am on my bathroom floor weeping, almost ashamed to be looking at this, my heart just shattered, and at the same time, not wanting my precious 18+ cat, Pumpkin, to have to suffer needlessly just because of me. And the guilt is overwhelming. When I look into her eyes, I am starting to sense that she is ‘hanging on’ for me – even though I am telling her that I want her to leave when it is time and to not worry about me. She is nearing the end stages of chronic renal failure and although she is still eating, drinking …. I cannot subject her to another subcutaneous fluid injection. It just seems to cruel at this point….and to see her hover in fear when I approach with the IV bag is just….cruel at this point. Thank You All for adding comments to this blog — H.Beth — I especially thank you & am definately going to get the books…but I don’t know when because at the moment, this is so overwhelming & emotional. But I needed to see this and as it is almost 10pm, it will be something that I will sleep on (along with Pumpkin). Now it is time to compose myself and return to the livingroom with Pumpkin. It is amazing how intuative they are to how we are feeling emotionally …. but, all of you know this already. I envy how strong all of you are and I pray that I can be just as strong. If it does come to this, I want to be there, holding her and being strong so that she is not fearful. But she is so fearful of the outdoors and the car and the vet….she has been this way since we BOTH arrived nearly at the same time at the Humane Society over 18 years ago. I arrived approx 5 minutes before she did. I sincerely hope ALL of you are doing well and are able to remember only the wonderful happy times that you shared with your furry angels.

Barb June 24, 2011 at 8:54 am

Anna:
What you’re going through is heartbreakingly real for many of us. Pumpkin sounds like she was a wonderful companion and you are lucky you found each other.

I have had to have close companions euthanized and it is not an easy decision. I know the crying and the grief, as does everyone here. Although each of us make different choices, only you know what is right for you and your friend. Listen to your heart.

If it comes to that, have you considered asking the vet to come to your house, so Pumpkin does not have to travel? Many vets are willing to do this final act and it is easier on some animals, especially cats.

Please know that our thoughts are with you during this difficult time.

Barb

Yesenia Tapanes March 15, 2012 at 11:47 am

Thank you for posting this. I wish I would have read it before we put my dog to sleep in December. #CELEBRATE

Charles Grubbs May 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Thanks for the info and I too wish I had read this before we lost our Boston Terrier, Patch, it was pretty unexpected and was due to a snake bite he received about 10 days before we had him put to sleep…there is no greater love than a dogs love, and to lose our pet is still just the worst thing that has ever happened to me. He was the love of my life and without him is very hard to take…thanks for the other post here, that has helped too.

Kristen November 7, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I loved this post. My family and I lost our toy poodle to liver failure. I was not there when he was euthanasia, but my father was. The bond between “Bailey” and I was unbreakable. “Bailey” saw me as his mother. Before he slipped into the coma, I was holding him and I know that he knows that I was the last person that he saw and knew that his mother was holding him. I miss him greatly. “Bailey” passed away on 10/6/12. The pain is still very “raw. Bailey” was 15 years old. His brother/littermate, “BJ” misses him to.

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