“This must be the hardest part of your job” I said to the veterinarian as she prepared the needle. She shook her head no, “This is the hardest part of pet ownership” she said.
Whether it was compassion in the face of my poorly restrained emotions and open expression of pain and loss or the truth of how she felt, at that moment it was the only truth of the world to me.
Twelve hours earlier I had come rushing in through the doors like a thunderstorm with my eighteen year old cat, Boscoe, in my arms, wrapped in blankets. Ushered quickly into the examination room he was assessed and treated for Addisonian shock.
No response to the treatment or medications. No improvement from re-hydration. Not responding to warmth. He was 'shutting down'.
The logic was simple, it was the rational decision to make, the right one for him ... and incredibly hard. I suspected it would be, but I wasn't expecting it to be this hard. I had to make the choice of what to do. I wasn't ready for it.
I had assumed he was aging appropriately and gradually - slowing down in every way, eating and drinking less, missing the litter box a little more often and sleeping a fair amount. Just six or so months past he was diagnosed with Addison disease and had responded to treatment.
I would like to say I didn't see this coming, but I knew it was coming. I pushed it off to the far recesses of my brain and stubbornly ignored it, while doing all I could to keep him happy, safe, living a good life. It wasn't until he fell to his side one day and couldn't get up that I said to myself, "I can't keep doing this to him".
I never gave this day much thought, what I would do or could afford to do. I never pondered on the what and hows of the act either. I didn't even know how to decide or what to expect.
Signs Of Dying In Older Pets
The signs of aging in our pets and the signs of approaching death are quite similar, the only distinction being the severity or degree of the symptoms. As older animals shut down there are some basic symptoms common across the board.
Nearly all animals stop eating and drinking when death is imminent, but this is not always noticed by the pet owner till the animal starts to look a little dehydrated or wasted. Sunken eyes, lack of elasticity in the skin or less need to use the litter box are all signs of anorexia.
Your pet stops using the litter box (for cats), dogs no longer want to go for walks. They become incontinent as their muscles relax and they lose control of their bowels. Some illnesses can cause an odour that starts as bad breath and soon becomes an all over effect.
They lose interest in the things around them - toys, you, that noise down the hall, food and water.
The heart rate lowers, dramatically, to just a fraction of its normal rate. Breathing becomes laboured as less oxygen is available to the lungs due to the lowered heart rate. Blood pressure drops quickly, causing weakness. The body temperature begins to cool and does not respond to being warmed up.
Deciding It's Time
There are no hard and fast rules to deciding when it is time to euthanize your pet. Every situation, illness and pet is different. But you can do a few things to help you get to the answer for your pet and situation.
One of the first things you should do is speak with the vet on your pets condition. Bringing someone along who is not as emotionally invested in your pet as you are is a good idea too. They can add a perspective that you the pet owner may miss. Ask questions about everything – is there any further treatments, what to expect, is pain involved, how long, what are the odds of recovery, quality of life and so on.
Once you're done questioning the vet and gleaming medical information and professional advice, you have to ask yourself a few questions. Particularly if you have not fully come to terms with the situation and are hemming and hawing over it. Ask yourself whose interests are you taking into account, is this the best decision (either for it or against it) for me or for my pet, and be honest with yourself, even if you find you are thinking of only your own interests. Talk to others around you or who have gone through this already.
Look at the quality of life your pet will have if you decide it is not the time. Has the pet stopped eating and needs force-feeding? Has the pet become incontinent to the point of soiling themselves? Do they have any interest in their favourite activities, treats or people? Is mobility hindered to a great degree? Laboured breathing?
As hard as it is you have to look at what is best in regards to both emotional cost and the financial. While you want to do what is best for your pet, you also have to do what is best for everyone else involved. Be honest and ask yourself if you are actually able to manage the care they will need at home, often high needs care. Can you afford all the extra costs, the time and the emotional ride of watching them decline and or die at home.
As my pet was not in pain, the main deciding factor was the quality of his life. Was palliative care an option? Are there more good days than bad days? Does he still do the things he loves? In my case, my cat's quality of life would have been me carrying him around all day, holding him up in the litter box, force feeding and rehydrating. His life would have been a joyless drag as there was little to no hope of improvement.
I made the difficult decision.
Pets live in the moment, not in the past and no concerns for the future. They are always in the present. It doesn't matter how many times you walk in and out of the door, they're always happy to see you. I don't believe for a second my cat was reliving his life and all the joyous moments. He was laying there afraid and sick and dying.
Saying good-bye is never easy, it's not any easier either when you are confident that you made the right choice, for your pet and not for yourself. Relive some great memories, tell them how good they were, how loved, how much they will be missed. Give them hugs, kiss them, stroke their heads and talk assuredly to them.
How you say good-bye is up to you, but it is important that you (and other family members) do say good-bye. Choosing to be present at the time of euthanizing or not, is also up to you. For many pet owner watching them go is heart wrenching, while others take comfort in being there for their pet. Not all want their last image of the pet to be of them dying.
From my experience, I am glad I was there for him and could hold him while it happened, but I do hold some regrets in looking down and seeing the needle empty into the shunt he had in.
What To Expect and What Happens
Euthanasia is virtually a pain-free and peaceful process. It can often be done at the pets home by a veterinarian, but all too often it is done in the examination room or the vet's office.
Our vet explained everything that was going to happen step by step and even explained what would be happening with our pet. In an odd way it was comforting to know, but made the whole experience no less emotional.
We had to sign papers that we understood everything explained to us, we spoke briefly on what we wanted done with the body – burial, private or public cremation. I choose public as I did not want his ashes. I would never fully let him go if he was in my living room even in ashes form.
Whether you are holding the pet it's on a table or the floor with you stroking them, the veterinarian will likely use an over dose of pentobarbital. The first shot depresses the central nervous system, starting with the part of the brain that is responsible for awareness, the second shot causes anesthesia – an absence of pain and induces death by stopping the lung function followed by cardiac arrest.
The entire emotionally intense experience was quite quick, no more than fifteen or so seconds. It was peaceful in every sense of the word.
I do want to point out that when I asked the veterinarian about letting him die at home on his own, she was quite honest and blunt with me. Animals die in your sleep, not theirs. They lay awake the whole time while their body shuts down, panic and fear arise when the breathing becomes laboured or confusion hits. It could take hours for an animal to die 'naturally'. Euthanasia is a quick, clean and relatively pain-free death in comparison.
The decision to euthanize a loved pet is a difficult, emotional, stressful and intense one. Preparing yourself for it if possible, is always smart. It really does help.
Humans and their pets, often irregardless of the amount of time spent together, whether a few years or twenty, develop strong bonds that run deep. You are going to grieve your loss, some will grieve as deeply as if they just lost a family member or friend.
Your pet was likely your companion, devoted family member, the best friend that was always there – good or bad. They become members of the family. Grieving their loss is only natural.
Everyone grieves in different ways, different intensities and react differently to grief. Most people will experience the multi stages of grieving.
Cry, show outward signs of sadness, your loss and how you feel. Talk to people who you believe would understand what you are experiencing. Try and go out often or stay busy and try not to dwell on it.
You may feel guilty after the fact, convincing yourself there was more you could have done, it would have turned out all right. It's natural to feel guilt when you have made the decision to euthanize your pet, but you really shouldn't as you probably put a lot of thought into it and it was the right choice.
There are a plethora of way to express your grief and to do things that your feel honour your pets memory. Have a back yard memorial. Make a ceremony out of the scattering of the ashes (if you kept them). Write about you and your pets memories. Draw them if that works better for you. Plant a tree or a garden in his memory. Donate to animal shelters in the pet's name.
They enriched your life, touched your heart and became your best friend – choosing to let them go when they are too old to enjoy life, in pain or have a low quality of life takes a lot of strength, love and compassion to do.
Feel free to share your experience, so that others may learn from your experience too.