Some of our beloved pets are living longer and longer lives. This is due in large part to the amazing care we provide for them. As our time with them grows, so does our bond and devotion. As they approach the end of life, it can be a very challenging time filled with questions and concerns. When it becomes clear your pet’s life is drawing to a close, you may face a painful and difficult decision about whether your pet should be euthanased due to unmanageable illness or advanced age changes. This factsheet is designed to help you understand euthanasia options and provide guidance to everyone caring for the pet.
Euthanasia (often called ‘putting to sleep’) is a medical procedure to humanely end life. It means ‘good death’ in the Greek language, and should be a gentle way to relieve an animal’s suffering. Euthanasia is commonly chosen for animals when no other care can be provided and suffering is taking place.
Before choosing euthanasia, it is important to talk to your vet about the changes your pet may be going through. Some may consider euthanasia when or if their pet is experiencing one or more of the following:
- Untreatable pain
- No longer able to eat or drink normally
- Unable to breathe properly because their lungs or heart are diseased
- No longer able to empty their bowels or bladder without pain or they are incontinent
- Unable to stand or move safely
- So blind, deaf or aged that they cannot cope with everyday living
There are different forms of suffering worth mentioning: physical and emotional. Physical suffering can come from pain, nausea, too cold/too hot, hunger, breathing troubles and more. Emotional suffering can be anxiety, fear, feelings of being lost and alone, and more. Any form of suffering can lead to a decrease in a pet’s quality of life. When it becomes too great, and all options for care have been explored, euthanasia may be ncessary.
It is never an easy decision to end the life of a beloved pet. There may be more factors to consider than the pet’s physical condition:
- Your ability to provide daily care
- Financial limitations
- Physical challenges moving big dogs
- The dog’s willingness to receive care
- The emotional strain of care giving at the end of life
Whatever the reason to choose euthanasia, your vet can help you to decide how to proceed and to make all the necessary arrangements.
Your vet may shave the fur from a patch of skin on one of your pet’s front legs and insert a needle into a vein. Your pet will them give an overdose of a drug (similar to an anaesthetic). This will make your pet lose consciousness (and they will no longer be able to feel pain or fear). Your pet will be asleep in a very short time (usually a matter of seconds). Breathing and heart beat will stop a few seconds later. If your pet is fearful or aggressive it will often be given a sedative before the fatal injection is given.
The process is completely painless. In its last moments your cat may give a gasp. Your pet is asleep and the sound is caused by a spasm of muscles that is perfectly normal. Other muscles in your pet’s body may also twitch and, as its body relaxes, your pet may empty his bowels or bladder.
Discuss in advance with your vet whether you wish to be with your pet when it is put to sleep. It may be less stressful for your pet to be held in your arms and to be able to hear a familiar voice. You may be conforted by knowing that your old friend suffered no pain and met a peaceful end. However, if you are frightened or anxious your pet may sense this and may also become upset.
It is you who must decide whether, or when, euthanasia is the right thing for your pet. Your vet will be able to advise you on what the options are and make a sensible recommendation but will not make the decision for you. It is rare that a decision has to be made on the spur of the moment, so it is much better to make your choice after talking it over with your vet and with other members of your family.
It is important that all members of the family are involved in the decision-making process and that they are all in agreement. Do not exclued children from this – talking with them before the decision has been made may help them to come to terms with it.
It is perfectly natural to feel grief after losing a pet and there is no shame in feeling strong emotions. Sometimes the first response to a pet’s death is anger or guilt. Often people wonder whether anyone could have done more for their pet. The depth of friendship with pets may be greater than that of many human friends and a period of mourning is quite normal. However, people experience grief in different ways and there are no hard and fast rules about what you will feel. It may help to have someone to take you home after your cat has been put to sleep so that you do not have to return to an empty house. Talking to friends and family is important, especially your children (if you have any).
Losing a pet is often the first time that a child becomes aware of death. It is usually best to be honest with a child and explain the truth as clearly as you can. Children may want time to say goodbye to their pet and seeing the dead body may help them understand what has happened. It can be very therapeutic to mark the occasion with some kind of memorial such as a burial. Talking about the happy times you shared will often help them and you to come to terms with the change in your lives. Children frequently get over the loss of a pet much more quickly than do adults.
Your vet will explain what can be done with the body of your pet. They can arrange for your dog to be cremated, or you may choose to bury the body yourself. If you want to bury your pet in your garden check first with your local authority that this is allowed and make sure that the body is buried at least 2 feet (about 600 mm) below the surface. If your pet is cremated it is usually possible for your vet to arrange for you to have the ashes returned, but you must inform them of your wishes at the time of euthanasia.
After the experience of losing a pet some people say they never want to own another pet. However, many others find that getting another pet helps them deal with their grief. The relationship you build with another pet will never be the same as the one you had, but it can be equally rewarding.