Euthanasia – What to expect by Lisa Michalik

Euthanasia – that single one word capable of evoking tears and intense emotion at the mere thought of….

Many pet owners choose to not think about euthanasia because to many their pets are their children. They are members of the family. The bond shared between pet and human can be an amazingly powerful one. Nobody wants to imagine life without their furry best friend or fur baby. When they DO think about it, they like to imagine that their pet will pass away peacefully at a ripe old age, at home and in his sleep.

The fact is that many do not leave the physical world this way. The majority of the time the owners are left to face the decision of humanely ending their pets’ life for them. It’s never an easy decision. Hopefully this blog will help you to understand what euthanasia is all about and what you can expect.

I can really only speak from experience, as a professional Veterinary Technician about how euthanasia is handled in the hospital that I work in. All veterinary hospitals do things differently. I can also speak from personal experience as a pet owner who has also had to make the decision to euthanize a beloved pet.

Euthanasia is a VERY personal experience for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to deal with it. Everybody goes through the process very differently and that’s ok.  Never be afraid or embarrassed to cry or express yourself in whatever means you need to. Believe me, we have experienced it all and we DO understand.

Most people struggle with fears and doubts of euthanasia… “Is s/he ready for this?” “Am I making the right decision?” “Am I being selfish because I just simply cannot afford medical treatment anymore?” “Should I wait?” “How do I REALLY know it’s time?” “Who am I to make this sort of FINAL decision regarding another living being?”  Believe me, I struggled with most of the above questions myself. The answers never came easy and some never came at all. I had to resolve to trust what my gut was telling me to do. I also had to resolve to let go of the guilt.

  • Making the appointment – this is truly the hardest first step. At our hospital we try to schedule the euthanasia at as quiet a time as possible (end of morning, afternoon or evening appointments) We do not want you to have to sit in a waiting room pretending to be happy. Nor do we want you to have to listen to the hustle and bustle going on outside of the room during such a personal moment.
  • The appointment time has arrived – as soon as you come in, if we haven’t seen your pet recently, we may ask to weigh and record his/her weight (for appropriate drug calculations) At this time we will ask you to sign the consent form and go over the after-care options with you. We will also settle up with the billing since it’s not something we want you to have to deal with AFTER the procedure has taken place and during your time of grief.
  • In the exam room – We try to get you comfortably settled into an exam room, as soon as possible, while you wait for the veterinarian. This gives you more personal and quiet time with your pet during his/her final moments. Some people choose to stay with their pet until the very end while others choose to not be present for it. Some prefer to wait in the waiting room until the procedure is done. Some choose to leave their pet with us and go home.  Again, this is a very personal decision. We never question “why?” or “why not?” We never judge anyone’s decision.
  • The veterinarian – The doctor will go into the room to briefly talk to you. Not only to make sure that you are at peace with your decision to euthanize but to explain the procedure and answer any questions you may have.
  • Sedation – Some owners choose to sedate their pets before the procedure. Some pets require sedation to make it safer to handle them (aggression, extreme anxiety, extreme pain etc)  We want this procedure to go as smoothly and peacefully as possible for both you and your pet.
  • The procedure – Euthanasia is generally a very quick procedure. Most times a veterinary technician is present to assist the doctor. The medication used for euthanasia is injected into a vein.  The most difficult part of the procedure is finding a viable vein. This is even more difficult in very sick/very old patients or patients that are struggling. This (the needle) will be the only discomfort your pet may or may not experience. The technician will give your pet a gentle hug while at the same time holding the limb (often the front leg) to help expose the vein for access. Owners are encouraged to hold, pet, talk to their pet as well. An owners anxiety is often peaked at this point, especially if the pet is struggling or crying out from the restraint or if the veterinarian is having a difficult time placing the needle into the vein. This is truly the worst moment for professionals. As I mentioned above, we want this procedure to go smoothly and quickly to help minimize the anxiety and fear in both you and your pet. Once the needle is in place the doctor will begin injecting the solution.  Your pet does not feel pain during the euthanasia. Usually within six to twelve seconds after the solution is injected the pet will take a slightly deeper breath, then grow weak and finally lapse into what looks like a deep sleep. (This state gives rise to the questionable euphemism “to put to sleep”.)  The pet, although completely unconscious, may continue to take a few more breaths (sometimes even gasps) before all movement ceases.  Your pet may or may not urinate/defecate as the body completely relaxes. The eyes will remain open. The doctor or technician will then use a stethoscope to confirm that the heart has stopped beating.
  • After the procedure – The doctor and staff will encourage you to stay with your pet for as long as you feel necessary before saying your final goodbye.
  • Aftercare – If you have chosen to take your pet home for burial the technician will offer to assist you in taking your pets remains back to your car. If you have chosen cremation the doctor and technician will wait for you to leave the room before taking your pet away. There are 2 kinds of cremations: General – you do not receive your pets ashes back after cremation and Private – your pets ashes are returned to you after cremation.

As professionals, we sometimes deal with euthanasia on a daily basis.  The 100th one is just as difficult as the 1st. It NEVER gets easy. If we have been around long enough to watch your pet grow from a tiny baby until old age (or until illness deems it necessary to let go of sooner) or if you’ve been a frequent visitor to the hospital we often form attachments to your pets as well. Sometimes for us, losing a patient is as painful as losing one of our own. Don’t ever think for a minute that many of us don’t leave the room and cry or grieve for your pet. We often do.

It’s important that you take the time that you need to grieve for your loss.  There is no dictated time frame in which this needs to happen. Some people may even require specialized help (therapist or counselling) to help them deal with their loss. That’s ok!

I admit to shedding a few tears as I wrote this. It’s only been 1 year since I put my beloved cat of 16 years to sleep. The pain is still there and I suspect it will be for a while. But I do now at least find myself smiling, more than shedding tears, when I think about her.  Time really does heal all wounds.

I wanted to end this by sharing a very heart-lifting experience…  We once had a gentleman euthanize his 2 senior dogs simultaneously. They came into the world together, therefore, he wanted them to leave together. He lovingly sent them off with a prayer that he read out loud to them as they drifted into eternal sleep. It was probably the most painful euthanasia I have ever witnessed. Yet it was also the most incredibly beautiful one that I felt so blessed to have been a part of.