Most owners would prefer their pets to die peacefully at home in their sleep. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and euthanasia (the humane destruction of an animal) may be necessary in order to alleviate suffering in the event of a terminal and painful condition. Sometimes euthanasia is necessary if an animal is aggressive and behavioural therapy has proven ineffective.
It is extremely difficult to come to terms with the death of a pet as a result of a tragic accident, or with the actual loss of a pet (i.e when it goes missing). When an animal is “put to sleep” the pet owner does at least have the opportunity to say goodbye, but it is nevertheless very distressing. Appreciate that it is normal to be upset, and make sure you talk to friends, family or counsellor if you are feeling depressed. To know that you are not suffering alone can give you strength.
The literal translation of euthanasia, from the Latin, is “good death”. That, of course, is rather a contradiction in terms, because the decision to euthanase an animal is never an easy one. Consent to put a pet to sleep can only ever be made by its owner (unless the owner cannot be traced in the event of a lost pet, or someone else is acting under his or her authority); but your vet can be a great support by helping you to decide whether the circumstances and timing are correct to make the choice to put an animal to sleep.
- Is the animal in pain? Is pain management no longer proving effective? Signs to look out for include vocalising, reluctance to move, loss of appetite and a generally lethargic, dull and depressed demeanour.
- How is the pet's appetite? A pet that is disinterested in food or drink, or has no appetite over the long-term has a reduced quality of life. Furthermore, if insufficient calories are ingested, loss of weight and energy result. If the animal is not drinking enough, this can cause dehydration and a serious imbalance to the body’s electrolytes.
- Is the animal able to maintain a good standard of cleanliness? Pets, like us, prefer to be clean. Matted coats and/or soiling of the coat or bedding indicate a serious deterioration in quality of life.
- Arrange assessment of the animal's condition by a veterinary surgeon if the pet has not been examined recently.
- Find out how your vet will perform euthanasia if you have not witnessed this before.
- Decide whether you want to be present during euthanasia (some owners like to be beside their pet, whilst others find the situation too distressing, there is no right or wrong – you need to do what you feel most comfortable with).
- Decide whether you would like the procedure carried out at home or at the surgery, and arrange a date and time.
- Sign a consent form (this is upsetting, but it is a legal requirement).
- Decide what you would like to do, or have done with your pet’s body, and whether you would like any belongings returned (e.g. your dog’s collar and lead, pet carrier for cats or small pets).
Euthanasia is performed using a very large dose of an anaesthetic drug, causing unconsciousness within a few seconds, followed by death. The route chosen depends upon the species and medical condition of the pet, and the procedure is quick and painless. The drug may be administered by any of the following routes:
- Injection into a vein in the forelimb (cephalic vein).
- Injection into a vein in the hindlimb (saphenous vein).
- Injection into an indwelling intravenous catheter (if the animal is on a drip for example).
- Injection into the liver, kidney or heart (this may be necessary if the animal has very poor circulation).
- Injection into a vein in the ear (usually the case with rabbits).
- Inhalation of a volatile agent (usually the case with small rodents such as hamsters, rats and gerbils since a vein is very difficult to visualise in these very small species).
Every animal is assessed individually, and the method chosen will be that which causes the least stress. If a pet is particularly nervous, then a tranquillising drug may be given prior to the procedure.
Consciousness is lost within a few seconds, but there may be some reflex actions evident which can include gasping, sighing, urination or defecation. Although these signs may be distressing, the pet is unaware of any pain or discomfort.
There are a number of options which may include :
- Burial at home - Many people with a garden chose to bury their pets at home. The size and depth of the grave must be sufficient to accommodate the animal without risk of disturbance from wild animals or future owners of the property. The pet should not be wrapped in plastic as this will affect normal decomposition. There are a number of companies specialising in memorials for pets, or a shrub or tree could be planted.
- Cremation - A reputable company will encourage inspection by clients and allow them to visit their garden of remembrance. Your pet will be collected from the surgery (or your home) by the pet crematorium staff. Services may range from basic (where several pets are cremated at the same time and the ashes scattered in the grounds) to a private cremation (where the pet is cremated individually and the ashes returned to the owner). Most crematoria offer a choice of container. A biodegradable box is one option - the ashes can then be kept, buried or scattered. A polished, wooden casket is more expensive, but preferred by some owners. There are some companies now who can turn ashes into unique memorial diamonds which can be inlaid into a special piece of jewellery.
- Burial at a pet cemetery - You will have the choice of making your own arrangements, or can ask your veterinary practice to organise this.
As discussed, it can be comforting to talk about the experience, especially with close family or friends and veterinary personnel. Anyone who has lost a pet themselves will know from first-hand experience how hard it is to deal with the huge gap that losing a much loved animal leaves. There are several books about pet bereavement and pet owners’ forums where you can find advice and support on how to cope.
Many pet owners find comfort in the “Rainbow Bridge”, which is a poem about an other-worldly place to which a pet goes upon its death, eventually to be reunited with its owner.