an act of love and compassion
‘Euthanasia‘ is derived from the Greek, ‘eu’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘thanatos’ meaning ‘death’. Together they mean ‘good death‘
Even when we know we are giving our beloved animal companion a good death, it’s difficult to navigate the extreme emotions and feelings that accompany that most difficult of decisions.
Most people worry that they made the decision to euthanize their pet too late — or too soon. Rarely do people recognize they took the decision at the right time.
Choosing to end the life of someone we love so much is one of the hardest decisions many of us ever make in our lives. It is a decision we make out of love and compassion for our ailing animal companion.
It is natural that we have complex feelings afterwards. This is what we call ‘euthanasia remorse’. You need to recognize that the decision to euthanize was not yours any longer. It was taken away by your pet’s illness or circumstances. We had to do what we did to fulfill the humanitarian obligation of living with and loving a pet.
Euthanasia is perhaps the ultimate heartbreak individuals must be willing to endure for their companion animal. There are opposing truths in euthanasia: it is the humane thing to do to end suffering for your companion animal and at the same time a psychological nightmare of confusion, guilt, and even final responsibility for the human.
The more you educate yourself about euthanasia ahead of time the less likely it is you will question the decision or procedure. This can help ease the feelings of wishing something different could have been done and may relieve some of the guilt that inevitably follows.
Deciding When the Time Is Right
The decision when to euthanize involves great personal courage and sacrifice. Many people fear they won’t know when the time is right. Seek guidance from your veterinarian or a palliative care and hospice veterinarian. It can also help to include close family members or friends who share a close bond with the pet in the decision-making process.
When you know the time of death is not far off, you will need the support of those who truly understand the unique bond between humans and pets. APLB has online Chat Rooms for grief and anticipatory grief and video support grief groups facilitated by Pet Loss Grief Specialists.
When contemplating euthanasia, ask yourself these questions:
- Is your pet still seeming to enjoy life?
- Can they carry out normal body functions — eating, walking, and eliminating?
- Are they in pain?
- What is their medical prognosis?
- What are the treatment options?
- Will treatment compromise their quality of life?
You should also consider the cost of ongoing veterinary treatment. Sometimes this is the deciding factor. Many people get into debt treating their companion animals.
It’s important to weigh up your options when the time comes. In making the final decision, consider good days versus bad days. When the bad outnumber the good, it is probably the right time.
Remember, no one knows your animal companion better than you do. You have spent a great deal of time learning to communicate with them by reading their body language and observing their habits. Pay attention to what your pet may be trying to tell you and trust your heart.
Quality of Life Assessment
Pet caregivers can download and print these Quality of Life Assessments to help determine when the time is right.
These documents have been carefully created and generously provided by Dr. Mary Gardner.
Please visit her website at drmarygardner.com
These documents are the copyright of Dr. Mary Gardner.
Please do not edit or distribute without express written permission from the author.
Making the Appointment
Once the decision to euthanize has been made, you need to make the appointment. Timing is often critical, and you may need to act quickly.
Some people want to spend a few final days with their pet and enjoy the time doing things you both enjoyed. If you have time to plan, it is a good idea to first discuss with a veterinarian all aspects of what to expect.
Euthanasia may be done at the veterinarian’s clinic or at home (this will depend on your veterinarian). If this is something your veterinarian doesn’t offer, look for one who does. Euthanasia is normally a quick, peaceful and virtually pain-free procedure for a pet, regardless of where it is performed.
If you can, think about the time of day and the day of the week the procedure will be done. You will need to work through your emotional response, both at the time of the procedure and after. If you can, take a few days off from work – you need to look after yourself now.
‘Palliation’ is a medical intervention used in terminal cases. It may be an option and it can usually prolong life for a short while. Before you decide to go down this route, consider the financial and emotional expense on you and your family, as well as any possible additional stress and suffering it may cause your pet. Sometimes treatment can be aggressive and painful – it’s important to work closely with the hospice veterinarian and above all, trust your instincts.
Preparing for In-Home Euthanasia
We strongly recommend in-home euthanasia. It’s better for your pet, for you and your human family and for any pet siblings. However, sometimes it is just not possible.
Having your beloved companion animal euthanized at home can be the most personal and respectful thing you can do for them. It eliminates the trauma that most animals (and their owners) experience at a vet’s office. At home, you and your pet are in your own space where there is a special sense of intimacy and privacy that you can’t get anywhere else.
There is an indescribable sense of finality and breaking of the physical bond during euthanasia. Don’t torture yourself by thinking you could have done something more, or better.
The practicalities of in-home euthanasia:
- It will probably cost more. Check with your vet if there are additional costs for travel.
- Choose the date – be mindful of holidays, birthdays or anniversaries.
- Think about the space in your home where the euthanasia will be performed and try to prepare ahead of time.
- What will be done with your pet’s body afterwards? Some veterinarians may be able to take the body with them. There are also aftercare services that pick up your pet’s body – you may need to plan in advance. Another option is to find a burial site at the home. This may depend on the nature of your yard, the size of your pet and local government regulations.
- If the pet will be cremated or buried off-site, discuss the arrangements in advance. It is helpful to know the price ranges for all the options when making these decisions.
- If you want special people there with you and your pet, plan this ahead of time. In some cases, the fewer present, the better.
- Having a vision for the type of experience you want for the in-home euthanasia can be helpful when planning. Decide on music, talking (either the veterinarian explaining the procedure or inviting family and/or friends to share experiences with your pet), and having any pet siblings present. This should all be discussed ahead of time with the veterinarian.
The Euthanasia Process
The euthanasia process should be as quick and peaceful for the pet as possible. Discuss what will happen with your veterinarian to make sure the experience is least distressing for your pet and for you.
Ideally, euthanasia is a two-step procedure. First, a sedative is administered, relaxing the pet and literally putting them into a comfortable sleep. Then an IV will be placed and flushed with saline solution to make certain that it is inserted properly in the vein.
Based on our experience with thousands of pet parents, we strongly recommend the sedative be administered first, so a pet won’t be frightened by the IV or feel it being inserted. In exceptional cases other alternatives may be needed.
When the veterinarian is ready to begin, an assistant will usually be asked to help hold your pet. Once the euthanasia solution is given, their muscles will relax and their heart will stop beating. It is a very fast-acting medicine. Most owners are surprised at how quickly death comes – sometimes within seconds.
For very small, young, old, or exotic animals the procedure may be different. You must be comfortable with the procedure before you go through with it. Seek a second opinion if any of what is discussed is uncomfortable for you.
Should I be present during euthanasia?
Some pet owners think it will be too hard to be with their pet for their final moments and choose not to be in the room during the procedure. Those who decide not to be present often later feel a terrible sense of guilt they find hard to overcome. However, if your level of distress is too great, it may be best for you, your pet and any other family members if you aren’t there for the euthanasia. There is no shame in this choice.
If possible, discuss all these factors with your veterinarian, or their staff, before you make the appointment. Consider your pet’s medical condition, temperament and your preferences when making this decision.
Think about how you want to say goodbye. This is a deeply personal choice. If you choose to say goodbye before the procedure and leave the room during the euthanasia, ask for your pet’s eyes to be closed before your come back into the room to spend your final moments with them.
Many of us want to be present during the whole euthanasia process, as hard as this is. Others want to spend private time with their pets before, as well as after. Each veterinarian has their own policies and procedures which you should discuss with them beforehand.
Despite the heightened emotions at this time, don’t let anyone do anything you don’t want or aren’t comfortable with.
There are several options for aftercare for your animal companion’s body. Most veterinarians will discuss the options available. They generally have a relationship with a nearby crematorium or pet cemetery. Cremation or burial is the most common preference after euthanasia.
Cremation: This option lets you keep your pet’s ashes at home, bury them, or scatter them later somewhere important to you both. You can also put small amounts of your pet’s ashes into memorial jewelry or keepsakes, which many people find brings them comfort.
Cremation can be done either with other pets (communal or partitioned), or individually. With communal cremation, the pet is cremated with other animals, so an individual pet’s ashes are not available afterward. Partitioned cremations are a lower-cost option to individual cremation, where the animals are cremated together in partitioned sections. While you will receive the ashes, it is possible that other animals’ ashes will be mixed in. With individual cremation, the animal companion’s ashes are returned in the urn, or a container you provide.
Many veterinarians will be glad to make the arrangements and notify you when the ashes are ready for pick-up. Be aware that picking up the ashes is usually a very emotional experience. Many people choose to have someone with them for support. Having your pet’s ashes back home where they belong, although bittersweet, can bring a great sense of relief and closure.
Burial: Burial at a pet cemetery is a common choice. Each cemetery has its own requirements which you should discuss with them in advance. This option can provide a sense of permanence and respect that many pet owners appreciate. Some pet cemeteries or animal shelters also offer less expensive communal burials.
Many people prefer to bury their beloved pet at home, but this may not be practical or permitted where you live. Be sure to check the local zoning restrictions. Remember this may be an issue if you move home later.
There is a listing of pet crematoriums and cemeteries by location on our website.
Whatever choice you make, you may want to bring a few personal items to be buried or cremated with your pet’s body. Some people choose a special toy, coat, flower, poem or photo. It is best if you decide this ahead of time.
Aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis)
Aquamation – or alkaline hydrolysis – (also called biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation, or water cremation) is a comparatively new process for the disposal of pet and human remains. In this process the body is immersed for several hours in a strong alkali solution and heated under pressure in a metal cylinder where it breaks down into its chemical components. Everything but the bones are liquefied. These are then dried in an oven and reduced to white dust.
The process is considered more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation or burial but is not always available.
Your remaining pets may grieve too
The death of a companion animal affects your other pets as well as the human family. The structure of the household has changed with the loss, and surviving pets may grieve. Signs to look for include:
- loss of appetite
- looking for the missing pet
- a change in behavior
If your other pet is grieving, offer them a special treat, a new toy – and most of all, extra attention, love, and comfort. Their grief should diminish over time, as will yours.
The distress of other animals in the family is almost always reduced if they can see and smell the body of their companion. It helps them understand what has happened.
We get so much unconditional love from our beloved animal companions in life, and we grieve deeply for them when they die.
Dr. Sife, founder of the APLB, believed that “when a dear pet’s life ends, more dies than just a cherished friend and companion. We make them into living symbols of our own innocence and purest feelings, and so a treasured secret part of each of us also dies. This can be reborn as we slowly pick up our shattered emotional pieces and move on. Our dear ones bless us, just as we do them, and they enrich and prepare us for our moving on in life. The loving memories become a permanent part of who we are and they live on in our hearts. Our continuing and improving lives can be our best memorials to them”.
Some of this information has been taken from, The Loss of a Pet, 4th edition by Dr Wallace Sife. You can find a link to it on Amazon on our Recommended Reading page.