How Do You Know When It’s Time to Euthanize Your Pet?
Euthanasia literally means “gentle death”. As pet owners, we are in the unique position of being allowed to decide when to let another creature die gently. This decision is one of the most difficult and unsettling any person will make. Many pet owners question their decision after their pet is gone, asking themselves if it was really time. Our animals can’t talk to us and tell us when their suffering is too much to bear. But if we know what to look for, they tell us in other ways.
If you are facing this decision, you should consider your pet’s quality of life. Does she still derive pleasure from life? More pleasure than pain? Some signs that your pet might be suffering include:
No interest in food or water
Withdrawal or lethargy
Pain (perhaps crying when touched)
Inability to get comfortable
Unwillingness to move around
Severe injuries with no chance of recovery
Inability to hold head up
Staring into space, eyes unfocused
With cats, constant purring
Of course, these are all symptoms associated with other conditions and should be discussed with your vet. She will be able to tell you whether your pet has a treatable ailment or whether he is nearing the end of his life.
Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, you must ask yourself if the cost of treating your pet for a serious illness or injury is outside of y our financial means. It sounds cold, but sometimes economics do come into play. Many people cannot afford thousands of dollars for treatment, particularly when the outcome is not always certain or is limited in its potential. You will undoubtedly feel guilty for not being able to provide for your pet in such instances; but bear in mind that we all have limits and there is no “appropriate” amount that we should spend. If you find yourself in such a situation, be sure to educate yourself as much as possible about treatments. Don’t be afraid to ask about likely outcomes, or potential cost.
Your pet has depended on you to care for her, has trusted you, and loved you unconditionally. He has enriched your life in infinite ways. It is entirely appropriate that your final act of compassion for him is to relieve him from his suffering and to let him slip peacefully from this life. Allow your pet to tell you when it’s time to go, and recognize when you are prolonging a difficult life because of your own ability to let go.
What Can You Expect When You Euthanize Your Pet?
Once you’ve made the decision to euthanize, you have several other decisions to make. The first is location. Many vets offer you the choice of euthanizing either in your home, or at their office. The cost for a home visit is usually more, but many people feel that privacy for themselves and comfort for their pet is worth the extra money. Some people do not want their pet’s last moments to be in the strange and scary environment of the vet’s office. On the other hand, it can be difficult to live with the memories of your pet’s last moments in a particular room of the house. The decision is deeply personal and different for everyone. Know that if you opt for the vet’s office, your vet will likely do everything possible to assure you some privacy. Most vets invite you to spend time alone with your pet both before and after the procedure if you wish. You might wish to make your appointment for the last slot of the day so that you will not have to emerge from the exam room into a waiting room full of people.
If you opt for an office visit, you should strongly consider bringing along a supportive friend or relative who can assist you home. You might be surprised at how grief-stricken you are, and driving home could be difficult.
The next decision you need to make is whether or not you want to be present for your pet’s passing. Most people choose to be there to share the moment with their pet and to reach a sense of closure. For others, it is just too painful or difficult. You need not feel ashamed of this; each of us handles this situation in our own unique way. James Herriot wrote in All Things Wise and Wonderful: “Like all vets I hated (performing euthanasia), painless though it was, but to me there has always been a comfort in the knowledge that the last thing these helpless animals knew was the sound of a friendly voice and the touch of a gentle hand.” Perhaps the friendly voice will be yours. But if not, your vet will treat your pet with kindness, respect, and a gentle hand.
If you choose to be present, you’ll most likely be surprised at how quick and painless the procedure is. In some cases, the doctor will first sedate the animal with an injection just under the skin. She will then go to sleep (in your arms or on a blanket) before receiving the euthanasia injection. Euthanasia is an injection in the veins of an overdose of a barbiturate—the same type of drug used for anesthesia. The animal loses consciousness within a few seconds, and vital organs cease to function shortly thereafter. If you’re holding your pet, you’ll feel her relax and become heavier in your arms. When the muscles relax, the animal might pass some urine or feces. The eyes usually remain open. With muscles relaxed, the lips might pull back into what looks like a grimace. This is not a sign of pain. After death, chemicals from the nerve endings are released, causing muscle twitching.
What To Do with Your Pet’s Remains
Another decision you’ll need to make is what to do with your pet’s remains. It is best to begin thinking about this while your pet is alive and well, so that you will not have the added pressure of deciding while you’re in a state of shock and grief.
Check with local codes about burying remains in your yard. Many communities today have laws prohibiting such a practice. If you do go this route, you’ll need to bury the body within a few hours of death, before decay sets in. If you are unable to bury your pet in your yard, but feel that burial is the best option, ask your vet for information about local pet cemeteries. Ordinarily, your vet will arrange to have your pet’s remains taken there.
The alternative is to have your pet’s remains cremated, but even here you might have another decision to make. Cremation facilities near you might offer general cremation, or a private cremation. With private cremation, your pet’s ashes are returned to you. Ask your vet for information about facilities near you.
Coping With Grief From Your Pet’s Death
Your pet is a member of your family. You have shared a lot over the years and she has given you companionship and unconditional love. Though each pet owner has a different kind of bond with their pet—with single people, childless couples, only children and the elderly often forming the strongest attachments—each of us grieves when we lose a cherished pet. Unfortunately, people who have never been attached to a pet do not always understand our grief, so too often we’re left without the support we need. Our grief is minimized, brushed aside, because “it was only an animal”.
It’s important for you to know that your deep feelings of loss are completely appropriate. If at all possible, talk to a friend or relative who is a pet lover. Talking really does help, and a good friend will allow you to talk as much as you need to without making you feel like a burden. If you’d rather not talk to a friend, ask your vet for a referral to a grief counselor. Or, you can call the CARE (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Hotline at 877-394-CARE. CARE is staffed by veterinary students who have received grief counseling training. The service is free. See their website: http://vetmed.illinois.edu/CARE/ There are also sites online where you can post memories of your pet, such as http://www.pets-memories.com/ If you don’t wish to put these memories online, or talk to someone, try writing your feelings or memories down. It’s very important that you allow yourself to grieve.
It’s normal for you to feel depressed or even ill following your pet’s death. You may experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in life, fatigue and headaches. If any of these symptoms persists for more than a few weeks, you should seek professional help.
When a pet is euthanized, it’s not uncommon for the human companion to feel some guilt in addition to depression. You may question whether or not you did the right thing. You might, in retrospect, think that your pet was not as ill as he really was. Again, this is a normal reaction. But remember that your pet’s quality of life was indeed poor, and you acted out of compassion.
Children, too, need to grieve and should be encouraged to talk about their pet, draw pictures, or write stories. Generally, children under age five can’t grasp the concept of death, and they believe that the separation from their pet is only temporary. Still, the separation itself can cause distress. It’s up to your family to decide whether or not older children should be present for the euthanasia. For many, it can be a positive experience to see their pet pass peacefully. Others might find it too upsetting. Talk to your family beforehand to determine what’s best for you. Children who do not fully understand the circumstances—concepts of quality of life, incurable disease, or even economics issues—will likely feel some resentment toward you for making such a decision. So it’s important to include them in discussions about your pet right from the beginning.
You might want to consider holding a simple memorial service. If you bury the ashes or remains in your yard, you may wish to plant a shrub or tree in the same spot, so you’ll always have a living reminder of your pet. Some people find comfort in donating a gift in their pet’s name to a local shelter.
Grieving takes time, and we all grieve differently. But when you begin to think of your pet with feelings of happiness for the good times you shared, when you can laugh about the way he ran aimlessly around the house, or how she used to hog the bed at night, then you know you’re starting to recover. You’ll know that your pets’ life was well worth the pain of your loss.