The Last Goodbye


The word "euthanasia" translates into "good death" or "easy death". When I talk about the trials and tribulations of being a veterinarian, people always automatically assume that the job of euthanizing my patients is what makes it so hard. However, this is far from the truth. I consider us blessed to be able to provide a gentle and pain free passing from this world for our patients. As an advocate for animals, there is nothing worse to me than to witness needless or unfair suffering of an animal. The topic is often fraught with high emotion and many uncertainties so today I will cover some of the most asked questions.

Almost every client I have encountered in my 16 years of practice has struggled with the question of "When is it time?" This is an important question, and the answer will differ slightly from animal to animal. However, it all comes down to one thing - quality of life. There are some hallmarks to look for in your pet so that you may assess their enjoyment of their life. The number one thing to look for is appetite. When an animal loses their desire to eat, on a consistent basis, this is a huge red flag. The other thing to consider is, does the pet still do the things they have always enjoyed? Do they want to be petted? Do they participate in the family's life or are they hiding under a bed or in a closet? Are they going to the litterbox or out to the yard to go to the bathroom? Lastly, time matters. Everyone has a bad day. Illness happens. But in end-of-life situations, if an animal's quality of life is poor for multiple days in a row and the prognosis does not call for a recovery, euthanasia may be indicated. I often tell owners; it is better done a day too soon than a moment too late.

The other issue that has been swirling around on social media quite a bit lately is that of whether owners should stay with a pet during the euthanasia or go if they feel the need. I have strong feelings on this particular social media post, claiming to be written by a veterinarian, that shames owners for leaving. This is a very personal decision, and each person must do what is best for them. I can tell you that you need to discuss it with your vet, and we will make sure to do what is best for your pet as that is our job. The issue has been hugely anthropomorphized, with people claiming that pets "left" will be sad to "die alone". First, these pets have no idea that they are there to be euthanized. To them, its just another trip to the vet. It is no different than how they felt when they were left for an exam, their sterilization surgery, or any other procedure they have had over their lifetime. However, since the vet's office is probably no pet's favorite place, we sedate pets prior to euthanasia to make the experience smooth and relaxing. This is what is important to your pet and what should be of utmost concern - the fact that their anxiety and their needs are being addressed. I can also tell you that what does make a pet nervous and anxious is their owner in these situations. Where all the times before their owner has dropped them at the front desk and waved a cheery "goodbye! I'll see you this afternoon!" now the owner is crying and upset, and the pet feeds off that and knows something is wrong. Of course, the situation is upsetting, but having your owner wailing and crying and clinging to you when you don't feel well and don't know what is wrong is extremely upsetting for a pet. In these situations, it may absolutely be in the pet's best interest for the owner not to be present. The bottom line is that owners are always welcome to be with their pet, but every situation is different, and no one should be judging anyone else. Each owner should discuss with their veterinarian and decide how to proceed with the pet's comfort and peace as the utmost priority.

The last question I will address is the procedure itself. Many owners wonder what will happen and feel much more at ease when they know what to expect. This may vary slightly from hospital to hospital, so talk to your veterinarian. In our hospital we block off extra time for a euthanasia. A candle is lit on the front desk with a sign alerting any other clients coming in that there is a euthanasia in progress and to please be respectful. Upon arrival the pet is taken to the treatment area where sedation is administered, and an IV catheter is placed (there are other options for some cases). While the technicians are placing the catheter, the owners are counseled in our euthanasia room. This includes discussing cremation options and signing consent forms. We also take care of checking the client out so that when they are ready to leave afterwards, they can leave without having to visit the front desk. The pet is brought back to the room, and everyone is allowed to visit as long as they would like. When everyone is ready the doctor comes in and explains the procedure. Some owners choose to leave at this point as the pet is heavily sedated. That is perfectly acceptable, and the pet is none the wiser as they are peacefully asleep. The euthanasia solution will be administered via the IV catheter. The pet can be held or petted; however, the owner is comfortable. In the absence of an owner, a technician holds the pet. The euthanasia solution is pentobarbital, which is an anesthetic agent, but at an extremely high dose. The pet is anesthetized initially and feels no pain, and then the overdose stops their heart. It is very peaceful and occurs in a matter of minutes. However, depending on the pet's physical condition, some stiffening of the limbs, gasping breaths, or other movements may be seen. This is totally normal, and it is important to remember the pet is not conscious. Immediately afterward the doctor will listen for a heartbeat and confirm the pet's passing. Of note, the pet's eyelids will not close. Some small muscle twitching can persist in the body for quite some time, and this is normal as well. Owners are welcome to stay and spend time with their pet for as long as they need. A clay paw of the pet can be made upon request as a memento.  

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