Pet Euthanasia - Knowing When its Time and What to Expect

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Pet Euthanasia - Knowing When its Time and What to Expect

No one ever feels ready to say goodbye to a beloved pet - it’s often one of the most difficult things that you’ll face as a pet owner. Our pets are considered dear friends and members of the family, and it's ok to have questions and fears about putting them to sleep peacefully when the time comes. Please continue reading to learn more about pets and old age, making the difficult decision to euthanize your cat or dog, and what happens when your pet is humanely euthanized.

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Simply stated, ‘euthanasia’ means “easy death” or “peaceful death”. While many pets die peacefully in their homes of old age, many others, unfortunately, become acutely ill, injured, or experience a severe decline in their quality of life as they age. In these cases, it may be up to you, as a pet parent, to make the difficult decision to provide your pet with a peaceful death through euthanasia in order to limit pain and suffering.

How can I tell if my pet is suffering?

If you have questions about your pet’s health or quality of life, speak with a veterinarian. Your vet is highly qualified to discuss your dog or cat’s condition and will be able to offer some insight into symptoms that you might not easily pick up on at home. Remember - animals don’t often show signs of pain or illness in ways that we would expect.

Contact your vet or chat with one of our FirstVet vets if you’re concerned about your pet’s:

  • Chronic pain (especially if the pain is not well-controlled with pain medications)
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite or refusal of food
  • Lethargy, weakness, sleeping all the time
  • Loss of interest in playing or spending time with the family
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
  • Incontinence (urine or stool)

Questions to think about include:

  • Does your pet still have a good quality of life? Do they have more good days than bad?
  • Can your pet still eat, drink, sleep, and move around comfortably?
  • Does he or she respond to your presence and greet you?
  • Does feeding time still attract some interest?

Persistent and incurable inability to eat, vomiting, signs of pain, distress or discomfort, or difficulty breathing are all indications that euthanasia should be considered. You and your family know your pet better than anyone else, but a vet can help you with this decision. Your vet may be able to make recommendations for diagnostics or treatment to rule out manageable conditions.

It’s common to feel guilty for having to decide to put your pet to sleep. It’s also common to question whether you’re doing the right thing. While this is a heart-wrenching decision to make, remember that you are still showing your pet love and compassion by putting their care and well-being before your own thoughts of loss.

Making an Appointment for Euthanasia

When it’s time, contact your veterinary clinic to make an appointment for euthanasia. While this can be a difficult conversation, the staff is there to help you in any way possible. Be sure to ask any questions you may have and let them know if you have any special requests.

Can the vet come to our house?

Yes, some vets offer this service, while others only accept clinic visits. Call your vet to find out what the options are, especially regarding safety measures and COVID-19 protocols in your area.

Should children come along?

Children are welcome to attend a euthanasia appointment. However, this is a very personal decision. As a parent, you know your child best. For helpful resources on helping with children's thoughts and understanding of death and grief, follow these links:

How to Talk to Kids About Pet Euthanasia

When a Pet Dies

What to Expect During the Euthanasia Process

When planning your visit to the veterinarian, decide if you’d like to bring along a friend or family member for support. Consider if you’d like to take some time off work. You may also want to decide if you’d like to stay with your pet until the end. While some people are comfortable with the entire euthanasia process, others prefer to leave their pet under the care of the vet and technician. This is a very personal choice. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t be afraid to discuss them with your vet - they want you and your pet to be as comfortable as possible.

Once in the exam room, your vet will explain the procedure and what to expect. You’ll be asked to sign a consent form to show that you understand what will happen and to give your permission for euthanasia.

The appointment should be calm, and your pet will be treated with dignity and respect throughout. Pets who are stressed can be given a light sedative beforehand to make their last moments more comfortable.

Many vets will place an intravenous catheter in the pet’s leg, through which the euthanasia injection is given. The drug given through the catheter is an overdose of anesthetic medication. When the injection is given, the pet will sink into a deep sleep before becoming unconscious, and finally, the heart will stop. This happens over just a few minutes. Sometimes there may be heavy reflex breathing, sighing, or small muscle tremors afterward. This is normal but something to be aware of, as it may be alarming to some people. Your pet will not close their eyes after they have passed away - this is also normal. The vet will listen to the heart to check that it has stopped.

What happens after the euthanasia?

After your pet has passed away, you’ll be offered the opportunity to spend some time alone with them to say a final goodbye. Everyone grieves differently, and the veterinary staff will be understanding of your wishes. Don’t feel embarrassed about showing your emotions.

Don’t be afraid to ask the vet or technician if you wish to keep a lock of hair, say a prayer, or take a photo. Veterinary staff are quite used to such requests and will be very sympathetic.

The vet staff will review options for caring for your pet’s remains. Many owners choose to have their pet’s body cremated. There are usually several options depending on how you’d like the ashes returned to you. In some cases, you can choose to take the body home for burial. Please check with your local authorities for guidelines on burying your pet at home. Some areas also have pet cemeteries that can facilitate the burial of your cat or dog.

Your home will likely feel quiet and empty upon your return. It’s hard to prepare for this, and it may take time to adapt and come to terms with your loss. Give yourself time to grieve and remember your pet in whatever way helps - talking, writing, looking at photos. You may consider connecting with an organization such as The Rainbow Bridge Pet Loss Support Group or The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Your other pets at home may also grieve the loss of their friend. Be prepared to spend extra quality time with them if they’re feeling lonely or depressed.

Read more:

Signs of Pain in Cats

Warning Signs of Cancer in Dogs

Arthritis in Dogs

Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding your pet’s quality of life or another condition?

Click here to schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets. You can also download the FirstVet app from the Apple App Store and Google Play Stores.

Published: 10/13/2020
Last updated: 10/29/2021
Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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