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Euthanasia - What You Need To Know

by Dr. Sue A. Whitman, D.V.M.

Most pet lovers have at some time in their lives dealt with the agonizing decision to put a suffering pet to sleep. I am often thankful to have this option available, and yet by no means take it as a small responsibility. Euthanasia is a huge burden for a conscientious veterinarian, and although I admit to knowing people in my profession that view euthanasia as "all in a day's work," I never take this aspect of my career lightly. It is not a place where a mistake can be made, and it requires that the veterinarian know both the pet and the owner well before making this choice. Euthanasia can, if thought through and used as the last resort, be the most pure and unselfish way to say, "I love you." When an owner loves a pet enough to suffer heartbreak and say good-bye, to set their pet free of pain, that is love. But in the grips of all these painful emotions there is often a dreaded fear of the unknown that unfortunately is not always addressed by the veterinarian, as it should be. Many vets are uncomfortable dealing with peoples' emotions and anguish, and therefore will overlook the fact that they have the responsibility to alleviate some of these fears.

Today I'm going to fill in the "gaps" of the euthanasia mystery. Once the decision has been made to euthanize your pet, what options are available to make it easier? What exactly happens after the veterinarian carries your friend away? How long will the process take, and does it hurt? What choices are available for dealing with my pet's body? The place to be confronted with these questions is not the day of trauma. Feeling rushed at such a difficult time only makes the whole painful situation worse. Let's prepare everyone now, so if the day comes when you are faced with saying good-bye, the choices are clear, and the process is not an unknown...

First of all, what is the euthanasia process? Although large facilities such as shelters in the bigger cities may use different techniques than discussed here, the practicing veterinarian will use an injection of a drug called phenobarbital. This drug is actually an anesthetic agent that is given in a larger dosage for euthanasia purposes. If you have ever been anesthetized for a surgical procedure, you have felt what a pet would experience: a light-headedness, followed by a foggy drift into sleep. Once into the sleep of anesthesia, your pet will not be aware that he/she is receiving more drug and being taken deeper, to where respirations stop and the heart stops beating. The length of time from injecting to an anesthetic sleep where there is no awareness takes 2-3 seconds. From that point to death requires another 30 seconds to one minute, depending on the physical condition of the pet at the time of euthanasia.

Is there any pain associated with this process? The only pain occurs as a result of the needle, which unfortunately, cannot be left out of the procedure. The injection must be given intravenously (into a vein), and most vets use the vein in the animal's front leg (the equivalent of a human's arm). Most animals have experienced a needle prick here in their past for a heartworm test, an anesthetic for a spay or neuter, or an intravenous catheter. I personally believe that in general, animals are not upset by this pain; however, I do feel that they are upset by the restraint required to insert the needle properly. It is critical that the needle be placed well into the vein (the injection will sting if it is not perfectly placed), so the animal must hold still. A veterinarian cannot take the chance that the pet is not going to be restrained well, so most vets will have a skilled technician hold the animal rather than an owner. Being restrained by a stranger can be frightening, and you have options available to take the fear out of this part of the euthanasia...

If your pet is not easy-going with restraint or strangers, and is not so sick or injured that it is unaware, ask that your veterinarian to administer a tranquilizer or anesthetic gas before giving the injection. Perhaps there will be an added charge, but I feel this stage of euthanasia is the most important, as this is when your pet is fully aware. If you are able to plan for this day with your vet with a pet having a long, chronic illness, ask him/her to dispense an oral sedative that you can give your pet at home before the trip to the office. If your friend's illness or injury was more sudden, your vet can give a simple injection of a tranquilizer while you pet your dog (this does not go intravenously, and requires minimal restraint). Ask for a drug that does not cause nausea or discomfort- there are many. Then sit with your pet until he/she is relaxed and unafraid before turning him/her over to a technician.

Many veterinarians also have an inhalant anesthetic gas, called isoflurane, that an animal can breathe prior to euthanasia. This is what I routinely use with cats, because it works faster than a tranquilizer, and cats are typically more stressed than dogs at the veterinarian's office. Isoflurane actually anesthetizes a pet, as opposed to tranquilizing (tranquilizers allow some awareness of surroundings to remain). Dogs can have isoflurane as well, and if your pet is excitable or aggressive, you may even ask for a combination of tranquilizer followed by inhalant gas. All pets that I euthanize receive some chemical or inhalant method to eliminate fear from the restraining process. If your vet is not willing to take this step for you, change veterinarians...

Could my pet be euthanized at home? Some pets are good candidates for home euthanasia, and others are not. There is no isoflurane inhalant gas at home, so an excitable or easily stressed pet will generally benefit from the added technology available at the clinic. This is especially true of cats and tiny dogs, since they have very small veins that need excellent light and possibly a bit of hair shaved to view. At- home euthanasia has the potential to become unpleasant with poor lighting and a lot of tension and emotion present in both the owners and the vet. (Remember that if the injection goes under the skin rather than in the vein, it stings). I feel that large, calm dogs are the only good candidates for an at- home procedure. I have been lucky and have had cats and tiny dogs go smoothly, but I was very tense and stressed because the potential for something to go wrong is great.

May I be present for euthanasia if it takes place in my veterinarian's office? This depends on your relationship with your vet, and on your vet's emotional abilities. I once had a client that I trusted (and felt I knew well) grab her cat from the table when the injection into the vein was already underway. It made the experience for the cat horrible, with stinging and mental confusion (it did not get enough of a dose to reach the anesthetic state). I do not tell this story to terrify you, but rather to help you understand the sort of previous experiences that may make a vet say "No". People sometimes act erratically in emotional settings, and I have found that I am not able to predict which people can remain in control. I still have nightmares of that bad experience, and now cannot allow family members to be present for their pet's euthanasia. This is my own little emotional hang-up, and your vet may be fine with you being present for the entire process. Don't hesitate to ask...

After euthanasia, what will happen to my pet's body? In most regions, it is legal for you to take your pet home for burial, but some areas have laws against this. If this is an option for you, bring a blanket or box to place your friend's body in after euthanasia. If you have never seen an animal shortly after death, be prepared and do not be alarmed if there is some brief muscle twitching. This is not voluntary, and is strictly reflex in nature. Also, eyes are not generally closed in death. We humans suture the eyes of our deceased closed, but that is not the norm in nature.

If burial is not an option, you may have your pet cremated. Most vets are able to tell you where you may call to have the animal's body cremated and the ashes saved for you (this is usually a funeral home). It is not expensive in my area, and there are urns to select from if you want to save the ashes long-term.

There are also pet cemeteries around the country- ask your veterinarian if this is an option.

If you ask your vet to take care of your pet's body, most have an arrangement with a local humane society for cremation. This cremation will be with a group of other animals, not individual cremation. There are some veterinarians still taking deceased pets to landfills or burying them in a large community grave on a farm, etc. Don't wonder- ask!

I hope this has not been too descriptive or upsetting. I believe everyone deserves the facts about euthanasia before being rushed into difficult and emotional decisions uninformed...

Copyright 2000 by Suevet, P.C., Dr. Sue A. Whitman, President.

Sue A Whitman D.V.M.
8262 Switchboard Road
Spencer, Indiana 47460
Emergencies call above number.