All Pets Veterinary Clinic
Having a pet can be one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. A pet can
provide companionship and unconditional love like no human ever could. Unfortunately,
just like humans, pets age and can have medical problems that seriously affect their
quality of life. Often times it then becomes necessary to consider humanely ending a
pet's life. The remainder of this article will discuss the issues from the beginning to
the end of the euthanasia process. The decision making process, the actual procedure,
and the grieving process will all be discussed. This article and its contents are likely
to be very upsetting for some people. However, if you own a pet, you owe it to yourself
and to your animal to read this article because it contains information that you will
likely need at some point, if you haven't already.
Probably the hardest part of the euthanasia process for most people is actually making
the decision to end the life of a beloved pet. Most people agonize over the decision for
a long time before they can ever even think about calling their veterinarian for an
appointment. It is not uncommon for people to wait weeks or months before ever facing
the fact that their pet is uncomfortable. Deep down, most people know when it is time
but cannot bear to face the fact that they are ultimately making the decision to end their
pets life. The decision for euthanasia should not be seen as a heartless, uncompassionate
act. On the contrary, euthanasia can often be the most kind, humane, and loving decision
you can ever make for your cherished friend.
The reasons for euthanasia are virtually endless. The reasons I have been given range
from behavioral problems to medical problems and from financial concerns to purely
convenience. No matter what the reason, there are often multiple factors involved and
the decision is ultimately a very personal one for the family. For the remainder of
this article I will assume that we are talking about choosing euthanasia for an older
animal with some sort of complicated medical problem/condition, such as cancer.
One of the most common things people ask me when they are considering euthanasia is how
do you know when your pet is suffering or in pain. This question, unfortunately, is not
an easy one. Just like people, all animals respond differently to various physiological
states, like pain. Some animals, and people, will show very outward signs that they are
uncomfortable while others will not. There isn't a fixed definition of what an animal
in pain or discomfort looks like. There are, however, several indicators that an animal
may be uncomfortable. The following items should be considered when deciding if your
animal is uncomfortable:
1. Appetite. A large percentage of the time animals that are uncomfortable will
not eat as well as they did previously. The change in appetite may vary from a mild
decrease to flat out refusal to eat anything. Animals that are uncomfortable can have
a decreased appetite very early on or very late in the course of a serious illness.
2. Attitude/Alertness. Animals that are not comfortable will often have subtle
changes in their overall attitudes. Animals that were once very active and bright may
seem dull and depressed. Sometimes these signs are blamed on aging--Fluffy lays around
all day because she is old. It may well be that Fluffy has slowed down as she has aged.
However, Fluffy may also lie around a lot more than she used to because she is
3. Behavior. Animals that are uncomfortable may demonstrate characteristic
behavioral changes. These behavioral changes often relate to changes in attitude/alertness.
Some of these behavioral signs may include changes in the way an animal interacts with
the family members, changes in sleeping and bathroom habits, and changes in grooming
patterns. For example, Fluffy used to sit on your lap any chance she would get. Now
she avoids you completely and hides under the bed all day long. She used to groom
herself all day long and now her hair coat looks rough and dull. She used to use the
litter pan without hesitation and lately is defecating out of it. These changes in
behavior can be signs that Fluffy does not feel well.
4. Physical changes/Verbal signs. Animals that are uncomfortable may cry, whine,
or whimper. Generally, most animals will not do this, they will often hide their
discomfort, but some will openly display verbal signs. Animals that are painful may
do nothing but shake/tremble. In addition, some animals will pant heavily, have an
increased heart rate, and/or have an increased respiratory rate. While these may be
signs of discomfort, they can also be signs of something else.
It is important to note that the presence of one sign or another may or may not mean
your animal is uncomfortable. These things must be considered as part of the "total
picture" of the animal. Nevertheless, they are a good starting point.
Once a person has determined that their animal is uncomfortable/painful, sought
veterinary care/medical advice, and decided follow through with euthanasia, there are
several questions and issues that arise. Many people do not know what happens during
a euthanasia and do not know what to expect. This next section will cover these issues.
Humane euthanasia can occur in one of several ways. The most common method used will be
a single IV (in the vein) injection of a medication that will stop the heart,
respirations, and brain activity. The medication used is an ultra-concentrated form of
an injectable anesthetic. Essentially, the euthanasia solution is a fatal overdose of
anesthesia. The medication works very quickly. Once injected, the medication will
typically take only seconds to work.
The actual preparatory procedures will vary only slightly by veterinary clinic. Most
clinics will ask you to sign some sort of consent form authorizing the euthanasia for
legal reasons. Some clinics may place an IV catheter to facilitate the injection of
the euthanasia solution. Other clinics may give a sedative to the animal prior to
administration of the euthanasia solution. Your veterinarian can often clarify specifics.
Several clinics will allow the family to be present during a euthanasia and/or may
perform the euthanasia at your home. There are several pros and cons to each of these
Being present for the actual euthanasia is right for some owners and wrong for others.
The decision to be present or not present is often a very personal one and is best left
to be made by the owner and veterinarian on an individual basis. If you do choose to be
present, you should be adequately prepared for what you will see. Typically, the method
of euthanasia and procedure will be discussed with you. What may or may not be discussed
are the physical reactions/changes that may occur after the animal has died. Once the
animal has died, everything that was under conscious control of the animal will be unable
to be controlled. What this means is that an animal will typically empty it's bladder
and bowels once it has died. The animal may take a few gasps or breathes that look as
if he/she is trying to breathe again--these are agonal breathes and are fairly common.
The animal's muscles may twitch or tremble--this is also fairly common. The eyelids of
the animal will remain open and if observed for a period of time, the animal's muscles
will tighten/stiffen (i.e. rigor). While these things are all perfectly normal
physiological reactions/responses they can be quite upsetting to the family members
that are not prepared to see them.
The above considerations hold true for an euthanasia conducted at your home. While it
is often nice to keep your animal in it's own environment, you must keep in mind the
potential for soiling once the animal has died. In addition, you must consider if small
children, that may not understand what is happening, will be present. The emotional
scar of seeing a dead pet at home can be tremendous for children and adults both. Other
considerations for euthanasia at your home can be discussed with your veterinarian.
After euthanasia has been performed, one must consider options for final disposition of
the remains. Again, what is offered may vary by veterinarian, so specifics should be
discussed with him/her. For the most part, you have three options. The first is burial.
A few veterinarians offer burial at an outside location (i.e. at their clinic, etc.) but
most will depend on you to find a suitable location. If you are going to consider
burial you should determine local laws for such as some cities have weight restrictions.
Before burial you should also consider if other animals have access to the location and
your permanence at that location. The reasons I mention these two considerations may
not be obvious, but can be very important for some people. First of all, I have had
people report that another dog was attracted to the burial site and actually dug up the
dead pet. This could be very upsetting for obvious reasons. Secondly, some people have
also mentioned that they experience some grief at a later date if they move from location
in which the animal is buried. Regardless of how you think you may feel, you should at
least consider these factors before burial is considered.
The second option for disposition of remains is cremation. Most veterinarians are served
by a cremation service. Most crematoriums will perform a communal cremation, in which
the animal is cremated with other animals and the ashes are not returned, or a private
cremation, in which the animal is cremated alone and the ashes are returned to you. For
private cremations, you will often have the option to have the ashes returned in a plain
box, so you can spread them or bury them, or in an urn. Cremation options can vary so
you should contact your veterinarian for the details.
The final option for disposition of remains is rendering. This option is not commonly
used for small animals but is often the only option available for horses. Details can
be obtained from the specific rendering company.
The last thing I wish to briefly discuss with respects to euthanasia is the grieving
process. Again, the amount of grief one experiences varies greatly. Some people can
cope with the loss of a pet very easily and move on. Other people may never recover
fully from the loss of a pet. Grief is a perfectly normal emotion to have following
an euthanasia. If you need help dealing with the loss of a pet there are several means
of support ranging from family members to books to pet loss support hotlines, such as
the one provided by the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association (630-603-3994). Your
veterinarian can help you locate additional resources if needed.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not
intended to take the place of your regular veterinarian. Please do not hesitate
to contact your regular veterinarian if you have questions regarding your pet.
Karen Blakeley, DVM, MPH
13 December 2002