It goes without saying that euthanasia is often the most difficult decision a pet owner has to make.
There are many variables that relate to the decision and the practicalities of euthanasia when the time comes to say goodbye. Whilst everyone’s circumstances are different, the following themes have to be considered in relation to the euthanasia of your pet.
- How? To sedate or not to sedate?
- Options regarding your pet’s body
Sometimes pet owners just know the end is approaching and have the time to prepare for the euthanasia, whereas at other times euthanasia is indicated with little or no warning, such as when a sudden illness or injury occurs. Decisions relating to ‘when’ to euthanise are most relevant when owners are aware that their pet is deteriorating, either through old age, or as a result of a long term medical condition. The main challenge in these circumstances is to decide when is the right time – not too soon, but not too late.
One of the most common questions we get asked is “How will I know when it’s the right time?” Whilst it is impossible to give definitive guidance on this, timing relates to the following considerations; those relating to the pet, the client and the physical circumstances.
The following rules of thumb are useful.
When considering the timing of euthanasia it is important to consider the avoidance of 2 ‘regrets’; the regret of saying goodbye too soon as well as the regret of saying goodbye too late. The ‘right time’ lies between these two points in time. Some vets say that “they would rather an owner said goodbye a week too soon than a day too late”.
Bad-days versus good-days?
Some clients find the notion of saying goodbye to their pet ‘unfair’, despite physical and mental deterioration, because their pet is still having some ‘good-days’. They therefore conclude that it isn’t fair to end a pet’s life when they are still having at least some moments of enjoyment. Whilst this is entirely understandable, it is important to maintain a perspective about the overall quality of life. Pets are not like batteries that should be drained of all life. As sentient beings we should consider an animal’s relative proportion of good-days versus bad-days over a period of time. The exact period of time will vary as your pet’s status deteriorates, but generally when a pet is having more bad days than good days within any given month, unfortunately that time is approaching.
Signs to consider
There are many clinical signs that can prompt the need to consider euthanasia – they include:
Physical pain and distress
Some species display signs of pain more obviously than others. For example, rabbits and other so-called ‘prey’ species evolved to hide signs of distress because it helps protect them from attracting attention from predators – this can make it difficult to know if they are in pain. Similarly, cats are renowned for masking signs of pain. Common indications that an animal is in pain include:
- Crying out, especially when moving
- Difficulty breathing
- Open, bleeding or infected lumps or wounds
- Regular collapse or fitting
But please note that just because an animal is not exhibiting these symptoms, this does not mean they aren’t in pain. The two most common under-rated or misinterpreted symptoms relating to the presence or absence of pain are 1) stiffness on rising and 2) a retained appetite. Many owners assume that if an animal isn’t crying out or is still eating that they can’t be in that much pain. Whilst stiffness and limping may not manifest as agony, they are definitely signs of discomfort. Whilst this may not indicate the need for euthanasia just yet, it implies these animals do need some assistance managing their pain, often for the remainder of their lives.
Psychological pain and distress
- Pacing and persistent restlessness
- Random vocalisation
- Aggression that is out of character
Signs of physical deterioration that may not be compatible with life that may or may not be associated with pain. These include an inability to perform vital functions unassisted such as:
- Inability to rise and move to access drinking water
- Inability to urinate +/- urine overflow
- Inability to defecate +/- regular faecal soiling whilst recumbent
When the decision is made to euthanise, the next decision to consider is where.
At home or at the veterinary practice?
Whilst most pets are euthanised at the practice, some owners prefer to say goodbye to their pets at home in a familiar environment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this option as long as you are aware of some of the following considerations.
Considerations relating to saying goodbye at home
- It is important to anticipate that the vets may not be able to attend your home at relatively short-notice due to pre-scheduled consultations and operations. That said we would never want an animal to suffer and would do all we can to attend promptly.
- It is not uncommon for clients to request a home visit for euthanasia ‘in the evening’ when members of the family who wish to be present have returned from work. Once again, whilst we will do all we can to accommodate your wishes, the logistics of arranging for the vet and nurse to attend your home outside of normal work hours usually need to be pre-planned.
- Gentle but adequate restraint is essential in order for the euthanasia process to go smoothly. This is because the euthanasia agent is delivered intravenously (see below). In order to achieve clean and secure intravenous access, a veterinary nurse or care assistant usually has to hold your pet. Should you wish to hold and hug your pet as they drift away, we will have to consider how to best restrain them.
- Light and visualisation for iv access / catheterization
- Achieving intravenous access requires an adequate light-source. Whilst we understand that a dim candle-lit ambience is soothing, it is important to realise that the vet will require adequate light to achieve uncomplicated access to the vein.
- The practice charges more for home visits because of the significant time they require for a vet and nurse to leave the surgery, travel to your home as well as insurance charges on vehicles used for a business-related journey.
How is the euthanasia carried out? What to expect?
- Euthanasia is performed by the intravenous administration of an overdose of powerful anaesthetic that renders your pet unconscious
- Typically the animal sniffs, sighs, licks its lips and goes unconscious. This takes about 20 seconds from injection until the animal is deceased.
- Reflexes are common, some include;
- Gasping – this is known as agonal breaths. It occurs when the diaphragm spasms once the brain has shut down. Dogs typically take 3-6 gasps. This reflex can occur up to 2-3 minutes after unconsciousness
- Toileting – it is not uncommon for animals to urinate and even defecate as their bodies relax once deceased
- Vocalisation – this is the symptom that causes owners the most distress. It only occurs in about 1% of dogs, but it can sometimes be quite loud and sound terrible. It is hard to predict which animals will actually vocalise but it seems to occur most commonly in dogs that are ‘confused’ or ‘stressed’. Pet owners often wonder if something has gone wrong when their pet vocalises during euthanasia. This is understandable, but it is a recognised, but rare, response to inducing unconsciousness. Human anaesthetists tell us that people can very occasionally display a range of behaviours as they become unconscious as anaesthesia is induced ranging from laughter, shouting and even aggressive cursing.
To sedate or not to sedate?
Some vets prefer to sedate all their patients before administering the final injection. There is no right or wrong approach and each individual circumstances differ.
Some of the Pros include:
- Less manual restraint required
- Less awareness and less distress
Some of the Cons include:
- Unpredictability of effect – especially if the sedation cannot be given intramuscularly.
- Intramuscular injection can cause discomfort
- Accessing the vein to deliver the euthanasia injection can be harder with with diminished blood pressure
- There will be an extra cost
To catheterise or not to catheterise?
Some of the Pros include:
- Clean, secure access to the vein
- Owners can hug the pet during the euthanasia
Some of the Cons include:
- Some vets will not attempt to place an IV catheter in front of the client and prefer to take the pet away from the owner. However, we prefer not to separate a pet and owner in the last few moments of the pet’s life.
Options regarding your pet’s body
You have 4 options regarding your pet’s body:
- You can take your pet away from the practice for burial
- You can have your pet cremated but without any ashes returned
- You can have your pet cremated and have their own ashes returned in a casket with your pet’s name on it
- You can have your pet cremated and have their own ashes returned in a pouch that can be opened to scatter the ashes
How to cope with Bereavement
Losing a pet can be a very challenging and emotional time – there is pet bereavement support out there to help, from knowing the right time, to grieving after the death of your pet.
For help and advice please take a look at the websites below.
RSPCA – https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare
PDSA – https://www.pdsa.org.uk/taking-care-of-your-pet
Blue Cross – https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement
Support line – https://www.supportline.org.uk/problems/pet
Cats Protection – https://www.cats.org.uk/what-we-do/grief