As pet owners, none of us want our pet to suffer. Sadly, the hope that they will pass away comfortably in their sleep rarely happens. Delaying euthanasia can cause unnecessary or prolonged suffering for your pet.
Euthanasia, otherwise known as ‘putting an animal to sleep’ is the ultimate kindness as this ends the life of your pet in a dignified, peaceful and pain-free way.
It is often one of the most important decisions we must make as pet owners, and it is an essential and significant part of a vet and veterinary nurse’s job to help you and your pet through this time.
Please remember that if you have any questions or are worried about any part of what will happen do not be afraid to ask the veterinary staff.
This is the hardest part for any pet owner. It can make you feel guilty and worry deeply about whether you have made the right decision. It is perfectly normal to feel this way when deciding to end a pet’s life.
There are many people who can help you make this decision, but ultimately it comes down to one single question:
Does my pet have a good quality of life?
The decision may be easier if your pet is seriously injured or has an incurable disease. if your pet’s quality of life has gradually deteriorated, it can be hard to know when the time has come. For your pet, quality of life is far more important than quantity of life.
So how do you know when the time is right?
Much of this is up to you and please be aware there is no right or wrong choice whatever you decide. Veterinary staff will do their best to accommodate your wishes, making this as convenient as possible for you and your pet.
Many veterinary practices offer a home visit, usually with an extra charge. A vet and a vet nurse will come to your house and put your pet to sleep in your home. This can be more comfortable for pets who get stressed by visits to the veterinary practice.
Veterinary clinic visits
If you take your pet to the vets to be put to sleep, you will have the choice of remaining in the room with them or not being there at all. Again, there is no right or wrong decision, it is up to you. A vet with the help of a veterinary nurse or care assistant will perform the euthanasia.
Sometimes the time and place of euthanasia is out of your hands. For example, if your pet is under anaesthetic during surgery and the prognosis turns out to be poor. Your vet may feel the kindest thing is to put your pet to sleep on the operating table whilst under the anaesthetic. The vet will always contact you before they do anything under these circumstances, and when possible they will offer you the chance to say goodbye.
However, there may be situations where it would be too painful and distressing for your pet to wake up from the anaesthetic so you can come and say goodbye. In this situation it may be better to allow euthanasia on the operating table rather than waiting.
Whatever happens, don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification. It is important you know exactly what is happening and your vet’s reasons for everything they are suggesting.
This will depend on the species and temperament of your pet. Ask your vet how it is done and what the most suitable options are. Your vet or vet nurse will be happy to discuss the options with you and will try and find a way you both think will be best.
The simplest way to explain pet euthanasia is an overdose of anaesthetic. For many animals, especially dogs and cats, this is a specific drug injected straight into a vein just like giving an anaesthetic. For this, veterinary staff will need to clip a small patch of fur on your pet’s leg to help locate the vein. It may be possible for you to help hold and comfort your pet whilst they fall asleep.
In some cases, your vet may give a sedative first to make your pet comfortably drowsy before the injection is given. A sedative is a painkilling, light anaesthetic. Although it may sound ideal, in some cases it can make finding a vein harder, especially in older or ill pets. To help this, some vets may place an intravenous catheter directly into the vein to make it simpler and smoother to give the necessary drugs. Please note that occasionally the sedatives can make your pet feel a little sick as they become drowsy so do not be alarmed if they are sick.
For small pets like hamsters, rats and guinea pigs, your vet will need to sedate them first. Unfortunately, these animals do not have veins big enough to allow the same type of injection as cats and dogs. A sedation makes the whole process much quicker, easier and more comfortable for the pet.
Sedation is done either by injection or with an anaesthetic gas. To do this, your vet may take your pet out of the room for a short time to administer the injection or gas and bring them back when they are asleep to perform euthanasia. The euthanasia can also be done when they are out of the room being anaesthetised – ask your vet about this option especially if children are present as the whole process may be upsetting for them.
Usually, euthanasia will be over very quickly. The important thing to remember is the anaesthetic injection reaches the heart and brain within seconds, making your pet relax, fall asleep and the whole process is pain free. If you or your vet has chosen to use a sedative first, it may take a few moments longer, simply because the blood pressure is lower and the anaesthetic doesn’t circulate round so quickly.
It is important to be prepared for some things that can happen immediately after the injection and your pet has fallen asleep. All animals, including humans, have reflexes at the time of death. These can include:
It is important you make sure you have had enough time to say goodbye to your pet. Grief affects people in many ways, so don’t be embarrassed about getting upset or wanting to spend time alone with your pet afterwards. It is all an understandable part of coming to terms with your loss.
You may want to hold and pet your animal for some time, or you may want to leave straight away.
After euthanasia, there are some important decisions to make about your pet’s body.
The main three options are:
If you are unsure about which option is most suitable for you, talk to your vet or vet nurse. They will be able to advise you on the different options, and if they offer keepsakes.
Many crematoriums are also happy to answer any questions you may have. They are open about their level of service and client care. Many will be happy for you to visit beforehand or will let you take your pet’s body yourself. You may even be able to attend a service or wait while they are cremated. Lots of owners find this added peace of mind really helps them cope with the process.
We recommend that you pay for the procedure before it is carried out. Discussing the bill with veterinary staff beforehand means you will have an idea of cost before any decisions are made. Most importantly it means you do not have to have that conversation immediately after your pet has been put to sleep, when you just want to focus on spending some last moments with them before you leave.
There is no easy or quick way to get over the loss of a much-loved pet but there is some excellent help and support around. Here are some useful organisations and links that may help:
Blue Cross Bereavement Support Service
Run by Blue Cross volunteers, this service provides help, support and practical information about pet loss and grief to pet owners. Their helplines are open 8.30am-8.30pm every day. Alternatively you can contact them via email or via their website: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss
Samaritans is a listening service which provides emotional support for people who are emotionally distressed or are struggling to cope. Their helpline is open 24/7, or you can email them: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
Megan’s Journey: A Story to Help Children Through the Loss of Their Much-Loved Pets
This book was written to help children understand the loss of their pet and to provide them with comfort and support as they learn to cope.
You can also ask your vet or vet nurse for further information on grieving and bereavement.
Remember that it also helps to talk openly to friends, family and other pet owners. Share your grief and talk about the many wonderful memories you shared with your pet.
Saying Goodbye – Euthanasia and Your Horse
Horses seldom die of natural causes so, as a horse-owner, you may one day be faced with the difficult decision of having your horse put sleep. In this video we look at what you need to know about euthanasia so that you know what to expect and the choices that you will have.
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Saying Goodbye, June 2020 © Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF).