Ask the Vet! Saying Goodbye: Euthanasia
Sadie. Photo by Clare Foley
Trigger warning. This article discusses the death of a beloved pet. Seattle Pup Magazine understands how difficult it is to lose a member of the family. If you or someone you know is having difficulty with the loss of a pet, we encourage you join a pet loss support group--you are not alone. Click here for a list of Grief and Loss Support Groups.
Initially, I was going to write an article on choosing the best pet for your family. But over the weekend, I had to experience what every pet owner faces with dread. I had to say goodbye to my sweet Sadie girl. She was a 13.5-year-old female Australian Shepherd. I acquired her as an adult ten years ago as a friend for my Louie, who I lost last year. They really loved each other.
Saturday morning, Sadie started having lots of seizures, one after the other. These are called cluster seizures and are a medical emergency. Veterinarians worry about the pet’s temperature reaching dangerously high levels when these seizures happen. I immediately brought Sadie into my work. We gave her some Valium intravenously to help relax her and stop the current seizure. I opted for euthanasia because as a veterinary professional, I knew the reason for her seizures was a brain tumor. I didn’t want to put her through hospitalizations and anti-seizure medications when I knew the outcome would be letting her go anyway.
"What do people expect when they say goodbye to their pets?"
This got me thinking, “What do people expect when they say goodbye to their pets?” Well, I hope I can help you understand the process a little better so that maybe if you ever must face that day, it’s just a little bit easier because you know what to expect.
Firstly, how do you as a pet owner, make that decision that it is finally “time” to let your pet go? Sometimes, your pet makes the choice for you and passes by itself, but that doesn’t always happen and sometimes, it is not what is best for the pet. We can all only hope for a painless and peaceful passing and owners want the same for their pets. That’s why as veterinarians, we are very lucky to be able to provide this service to our clients. Now, I’m not saying I enjoy putting animals to sleep; that is the last thing I want to have to do. The way I think of it though is that I can provide my patients with a loving gesture with no pain at their final moments. The last thing for any living creature is to not experience love at the end.
Louie, photo by Clare Foley
Let’s say the day has come to let your pet go (hopefully this only happens when your pet has lived a long happy life). First you must decide if you want your pet to pass at home or at the veterinary office. Sometimes, euthanasia comes as a shock due to accident or sudden illness. So, what are your choices if you can set it up in advance?
This is when a veterinarian comes to your house for a fee and euthanizes your pet there. The vet will usually take your pet’s remains with them for whatever aftercare you decide upon.
Euthanasia in Veterinary Office
This is when you make an appointment with your regular veterinarian for euthanasia. Your vet’s office will usually take care of the remains for you, depending on which type of aftercare you choose.
Private cremation is where your pet is cremated by itself and the ashes returned to you in a special urn. Some companies let you choose the urn you want for an additional cost. Non-private— sometimes called communal—is where your pet is cremated with other pets and their ashes are scattered in an orchard. Home burial is also an option; however, you should always be sure to check with your county about the legalities involved, especially if your pet has passed due to an infectious disease.
Louie, photo by Clare Foley
There are also other alternatives: For example, Rooted, a Seattle-based company, “Provides an aftercare service to ecologically honor companion animals. We have developed technology to convert deceased pets and ash from previously cremated animals into a thriving, organic soil.” Some companies also offer turning your pet’s cremains into stones.*
What Happens During the Act of Euthanasia
Most veterinarians will place an IV catheter. This is to allow smooth injection of the medications into the vein. It also means your pet gets only a single needle prick as opposed to several. Sometimes, due to illness, a pet’s veins are not amenable to the placement of IV catheters. Your veterinarian may choose to inject into a different vein or sometimes into the abdomen if the pet is particularly small or ill. The process can differ from one veterinary professional to the next based on that person’s experience and preferences. I personally always place an IV catheter if the pet is in the office.
Sometimes, in an owner’s home, a catheter is not possible, and a butterfly catheter is used. A butterfly catheter consists of a needle on the end of some tubing to allow for injection of the medications on one end and the needle in the vein on the other. Your veterinarian may want to sedate your pet prior to the procedure to reduce stress on you and your pet.
I will inject what we call an induction agent (a medication used to induce anesthesia) first so that the pet goes to sleep as if we are going to do surgery. This, I find, helps the process to go a little smoother. Remember, every veterinarian has their own method, so this description is based only on my own experience and practice.
After the animal goes to sleep, I will slowly inject the euthanasia solution. Sometimes this is pink or blue in color, all depending on which manufacturer your vet uses. The medication is an overdose of a sedative. It will stop the brain first, then the rest of the organs.
Key things to point out are that not all pets will close their eyes when they pass. Please do not be alarmed by this. Also, some pets may gasp or twitch even after they are gone. This is a completely natural response that can occur in death. It is not an indication of the pet fighting it or suffering.
Remember, we are all circuits with electrical impulses passing through our bodies. Sometimes, these circuits continue to fire for a few minutes after death occurs. Please understand, I am not writing this as a morose way of scaring people. I know that death is very difficult, and the death of a beloved pet can sometimes be unbearable. I just want to try to help educate you about the process so that when the time does come, this information will help you cope a little easier.
In loving memory
Sadie- Red Tri Australian Shepherd was adopted as a 4 year old adult when I was in my last year of veterinary school at Purdue. She was adopted as a friend for Louie. She would always bring me a toy when I got home and wag her whole behind!
Louie, a Chow/Shepherd mix, was one of a litter that was left in front of a Big Lots in New Orleans. He was approximately 10 days old and I had to bottle feed him. He lived in the Cayman Islands and Indiana with me. He went to work with me every day of his life. He loved food and liked to sleep under the bed. He preferred being in his cage or run at work rather than in the office with me. He would even take his chew and run straight back to his run. He loved Sadie very much.
Here at Seattle Pup Magazine we understand how hard it is to go through these life cycle transitions. If you or someone you know needs help we encourage you to visit the “Grief and Support Groups” page. Here we have listed several groups that meet weekly to help each other through the loss of a pet. Sometimes, the loss of a pet causes severe depression. If you or someone you know is suicidal it is a medical emergency. Please call 9 -1- 1.