As a Veterinarian, I am often asked the difficult question – “when is the right time to let my pet go?” In this month’s blog post I will be sharing some insight and resources on humane euthanasia.
What is Euthanasia?
Euthanasia is a term that is derived from two Greek words – EU, which means good, and Thanatos, which means death. The American Veterinary Medical Association defined euthanasia or “good death”, as the act of inducing humane death in an animal. They went on to say that as veterinarians and human beings, it is our responsibility to ensure that if an animal’s life is to be taken, that it is done with the highest degree of respect. Also, with an emphasis on making the death as painless and distress-free as possible.
When we become pet owners, we take on the responsibility of making decisions about the health and well-being of our animal. For the majority of our pets’ lives the decisions are pretty simple such as what food to feed them, when to take them on their daily walk, or whether they should be allowed on furniture. Sometimes, we are faced with tougher decisions such as taking on costly medical expenses if they are diagnosed with an ailment or disease. The hardest decision we face though, are those that regard end-of-life care. Each and every pet owner has different needs and beliefs. What may be the right choice for one pet and their family may not be the right choice for the next.
As veterinarians, we are here to help each family do what is right for them as they navigate the process of owning a pet at every stage of its life. I am often asked “what would you do if this was your pet?” When faced with that question I often try to put myself in the shoes of my client and their pet. My job is to advocate for what is best for the pet, while also being sensitive to the needs of their owners.
There are tools that we can provide you with that may help you make the decision somewhat less difficult. The Ohio State University has a program geared toward this specific stage in your pet’s life, it is known as “Honoring the Bond”. They have created a chart for pet owners to go through to help them visualize the general well-being of their pet. While the chart is just a general guide, I have found it helpful when trying to gather my own thoughts and emotions. There is a link to the chart at the end of this blog.
A phenomenon that is not often discussed is known as anticipatory grief. It essentially entails the emotions whether they be physical, or mental, that an owner can experience when their pet goes through a serious illness or decline in health. One could experience a slew of emotions that can lead to sadness, denial, or difficulty processing what your pet is experiencing. This stage of grief is one that can make the end-of-life decision that much more overwhelming. If your pet is struggling through a terminal disease, and you are unsure at what point their medical care should be stopped, or can no longer see them suffering at home, feel free to ask your veterinarian for guidance and support during this time. While we cannot make the decision for you, we can give you an honest medical perspective.
Understanding the process of the procedure of euthanasia is one that I hope to educate pet owners about to help them make a more informed decision. First and foremost, there are options. Each pet owner must do what they are most comfortable with. For some owners being present during the procedure is too emotionally upsetting, while others find peace in being with their pet. At our clinic we also offer an at home euthanasia service and will travel to your home if that is where you’d like to spend your final moments with your pet. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions that service has been placed on hold for the time being. As veterinarians it is our goal to make both you and your pet as comfortable as possible.
An IV catheter is placed in your pet’s arm for access to its vein. We can then ensure that the euthanasia solution is delivered quickly. The solution is usually a barbiturate that is pink in color. While that class of medication is usually used to induce anesthesia in a pet, this medication is administered at a much higher dose. This is to ensure loss of consciousness, loss of pain sensation, and suppression of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
As the solution is injected an animal will lose consciousness, and heart and lung function within minutes without feeling anything. This transition from life to death is one that is smooth and pain free for your pet. I often warn owners that sometimes their pet will take a few last breaths, those are known as “agonal” breaths. Those breaths are involuntary muscle contractions that can happen after your pet has passed and its muscles have relaxed. This can be followed by urination and defecation. These are all completely normal and are not signs that your pet is trying to come back to life.
Once your pet is euthanized you may choose to spend time with their body. At East El Paso Animal Hospital we offer cremation services. The two options available are known as private cremation and communal cremation. Private cremation means that you will get your pets ashes back. Communal means that you will not get your pets ashes back. We also allow you to take your pet with you and bury it at home. It is our sincerest wish to support our clients and their pets through this stage of their journey.
Feel free to contact us or bring your pet in to be evaluated if you are struggling through this decision.
Written by: Dr. Raquel Ellis