Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to euthanize pets or "put them to sleep" when they are no longer experiencing an acceptable quality of life. It is often an incredibly difficult decision to make and can be extremely distressing for the people who care for the animal and have very often come to view their pet as a valued member of their family. Nothing can really make this time any easier but knowing what to expect may help, so this article aims to provide information to pet owners who may be facing this difficult issue.
The decision to euthanize or "put to sleep" a much loved pet is a difficult one and will usually be made after consultation with your veterinary surgeon. Vets will do their very best to keep your pets happy and free of discomfort for as long as they can, but unfortunately there does sometimes come a time when even the best possible treatment cannot sustain a good quality of life for animals.
All vets take an oath upon admission to the RCVS to safeguard animal welfare and prevent unnecessary suffering of the animals in their care; so if a time comes when they feel that treatments are no longer effective and your pet is in distress it is their duty to gently inform you that no more can be done and suggest euthanasia. Likewise a pet owner may feel that their pet is no longer enjoying an adequate quality of life and they may make the initial approach to the veterinary surgeon to discuss the options available for their animal.
In either case the decision to "put to sleep" will not be taken lightly. The vet should give you adequate time to discuss all the options available and some clients may also request a second opinion. Vets will understand if you feel that you would like a second opinion before going ahead with euthanasia and should be happy to refer you to a colleague if you request this. Some people prefer to go away after the consultation and think and prepare themselves before making the final decision and this is something your vet will understand.
Once a client has decided to go ahead there are a few other issues which need to be discussed before the procedure takes place. These include:
Where would you like to be when your pet is put to sleep? It is usually in the veterinary surgery but some people may prefer a house visit so they and their pet can be in a familiar environment. Sometimes clients may even request a special place such as in their garden or even their car- wherever they and their pet will be most relaxed. In most cases your vet will do their best to accommodate your wishes, however please be aware that the vet will require certain criteria to be met such as adequate light and space to work effectively.
Would you like to stay with your pet throughout the procedure/ leave the room then return to say goodbye/ or say goodbye and remember your pet but not return when they are gone?
Would you like a family member or close friend to be with you for support?
Would you like a particular time? e.g. when the kids are at school, or at the weekend so that you have time to take care of things afterwards etc.
What would you like done with the body afterwards? The options are usually cremation or burial via your vet at a special pet crematorium or burial at home if you have adequate space in the garden. If you choose to bury your pet at home ensure that you are able to dig deep enough so that foxes or other animals will not be able to unearth the body later (I suggest at least 3-4 feet if possible). Remember that you will need to bury your pet reasonably promptly especially in warm weather. It may be that you would like to include a special blanket to wrap your pet in or a toy or collar etc. It is possible to purchase special pet caskets to bury pets in if required but a blanket is often all that is used. It may be possible to mark the grave with a cross or plaque or perhaps a special tree or shrub so that you have somewhere to visit as time goes by.
If you choose to use a pet crematorium there are various options usually available these include:
Bulk cremation where your pet is cremated in with several other pets.
Individual cremation where your pet is cremated on its own and you may receive the ashes back in an box or scattering container. It is also possible to be present during the cremation and have a short service for the pet. Crematoriums may also provide a place where you may keep the ashes and visit occasionally if you prefer.
Burial within the grounds of the crematorium where you can once again visit. (The grounds are usually pleasantly landscaped)
There may also be other more unusual options such as taxidermy and there is even a company who will make a jewel from your pet's ashes for you to keep (a yellowish coloured diamond).
Once all these issues have been discussed the procedure for euthanasia usually occurs something like the following although individual vets may vary slightly in their approach.
You will be asked to read and sign a consent form for euthanasia which states your name, address and contact details together with your pet's details.
The animal is made comfortable on the examining table/ floor or other safe surface. It will probably be necessary to gently restrain your pet and occasionally the use of a muzzle or sedative drugs may be necessary.
Usually the vet will ask a veterinary nurse to raise a leg vein in a dog or cat (usually the cephalic vein, located on the dorsal or upper surface of the foreleg). This is done by applying gentle pressure around the limb usually with the thumb across the top part of the leg and the rest of the fingers supporting and steadying the limb. Alternatively a tourniquet may be applied.
An injection of pentobarbital is made into the vein (you may see a small amount of blood come back into the needle before the injection is made). The pentobarbital is an aneasthetic agent and will quickly stop the heart. Once the injection has been made death follows very quickly with loss of consciousness occurring within a few seconds. The animal is gently supported into a recumbent position and the needle and any tourniquet removed. Any small amount of blood is wiped away and the pet's owners are then usually allowed to spend some time with their pet to say goodbye before leaving the surgery.
In some cases the procedure may differ from the one above with perhaps the injection being made into a different part of the body; e.g. the abdomen from where the drugs are more slowly absorbed or perhaps the ear vein of a rabbit etc. Some vets will use anaesthetic gases at a lethal dose for very small animals in an anaesthetic chamber e.g. chloroform for small mammals such as mice where an injection may be difficult and /or distressing. In all cases the vet will be pleased to explain to you what they are doing and their reasons for doing so. Please remember that all cases are different and the vet must do the best for YOUR pet at the time.
Occasionally as an animal dies its body goes through a series of involuntary convulsive type movements (commonly known as the last gasp) this may seem to be the animal trying to breath as it looks like large intakes of breath and there may be some noise associated with this. These movements are often very distressing for the owner to witness but be assured that if this occurs your pet knows nothing about them it is merely the way of the body shutting down. If owners know that these involuntary spasms are a possibility they may choose to leave the room until they have ceased.
Once the pet has passed away and the owner feels ready to leave the vet will make provision for the animal's body. If the owner has chosen to take their pet home the vet may be able to supply a blanket or waterproof lining for the journey in the car (it is wise to take this kind of thing along if you intend to transport your pet afterwards as there may be bladder and bowel leakage). If the owner has opted for the vet to dispose of the body it will be kept in cold storage until collected for transport to the pet crematorium. Ashes from individual cremation can usually be collected from the surgery after 10 days or so.
When leaving the surgery it may be possible to take an exit away from the main waiting areas. Do not feel that you can't ask for some quiet time alone before you leave, all vets will understand how distressing this can be and will be happy to help support you in any way they can.
After the death of a pet from whatever cause there is often a period of grief, but especially with euthanasia there can often be strong feelings of guilt too. This is a natural part of the grieving process and will ease with time. Rest assured that you have done the best you possibly could for your pet and if you feel you would like to talk through your feelings get in contact with your vet who may be able to direct you to counsellors with experience of bereavement counseling following the loss of a much loved pet.