Euthanasia, or “putting a pet to sleep”, is one of the hardest decisions we ever have to make as pet owners. In the seemingly short time that they spend in our lives our pets become much loved and cherished companions; they are part of our family and for some people they are a best friend, so letting go is always going to be a really hard thing to do.
Most of us hope that when our pet dies, that they will pass away peacefully in their sleep, in their own bed and in their own home, but sadly for many pet owners this does not happen and, in these cases, euthanasia is the kindest thing that we can do for them to prevent unnecessary suffering and pain.
When Is The Right Time?
Every pet and owner and situation is different. There is no set rule about when a pet may need to be euthanased because each circumstance is individual. The most important fact to take into consideration is your pet’s quality of life – is it good or not?When the time is close, ask yourself these questions
- Can my pet walk to the food/water bowl, to the litter tray or out into the garden without pain and/or lots of assistance?
- Can my pet eat and drink normally on his or her own?
- Can my pet pass urine and faeces normally?
- Is my pet in pain or does he or she have a debilitating condition that is not going to get better?
- Can I cope with my pet’s problems and needs?
Many of us just don’t know when to make the decision or we just can’t accept that it is time, especially when we have a pet that goes back and forth between having really bad, painful days where they look depressed and can’t get around, to having relatively OK and happy days. To help you be objective in this situation
- Ask your vet for advice about your pet’s health, condition and pain levels. Your vet cannot make the decision for you, but they can advise you of how much pain your pet is in and what, if anything, can be done.
- Get advice from a relative or friend who is not as emotionally involved with your pet as you are. Sometimes we are too close to our pets to see or admit to what is really going on and someone else may help make things clearer.
- Keep a daily diary about your pet as it will help to show you how many good days and bad days your pet is having. Examples of things to keep a note of include
- Behaviour – happy / wagging tail / grumpy / snappy / lethargic/slept all day
- Eating – wolfed down the lot & asked for more / ate nothing / ate a bit when hand fed
- Drinking – increased / decreased / drank nothing
- Pain levels – good / bad / can hardly move / ran down the garden
- Mobility – slow / managed a short walk / went in garden for 10 mins / couldn’t get up without assistance / fell over/ couldn’t get upstairs / walked fine once helped up
If the quality of life for your pet is not acceptable and your vet is unable to help with treatment or medication, then it may be time for you to make your decision.
You can make an appointment with a vet to give your pet a check over and discuss your options or you can make an appointment with a veterinary nurse for a chat in person or over the phone and they can talk everything through with you, before you come in.
The final days
With the exception of a few sudden injuries and acute conditions, for most pet owners the decision to euthanase is not a sudden one. When you have made the difficult decision you will need to think about final arrangements.
You may find it a nice idea to give your pet a final few days of being spoilt rotten with favourite foods, or by taking them somewhere they and you have really enjoyed in the past. It is also an opportunity for any family members and close friends to come to terms and say their goodbyes. Some owners also like to take a nice photo of the pet on his or her own or with the family, keep a lock of their pet’s hair, or even make a paw print or cast to remember their pet by.
Where Can Euthanasia Be Carried Out?
It is usually possible for a vet and nurse to visit your pet at home and many owners prefer this because their pet is in his or her home environment. However, this does not suit everyone and is not a suitable option for every pet. A home visit will need to be arranged in advance and will usually be late morning or early afternoon on a weekday as these are generally quieter times for the veterinary practice.
Euthanasia is still most commonly carried out at the veterinary surgery, rather than at home. At Castle Vets you are welcome to use our Quiet Room, which is a non-clinical environment, so can be much less stressful for your pet. We also like to make sure that you are not rushed and can spend as much time as you wish with your pet after euthanasia to say goodbye.
What Happens During Euthanasia?
It is possible to say your goodbyes and leave your pet with us prior to the procedure being performed. Please do not feel embarrassed or guilty if you don’t feel able to stay with your pet, many people feel they cannot stay and would like to remember their pet as they were and not their last moments in the veterinary surgery and this is absolutely fine. Our staff will look after your pet and treat him or her as we would our own pets and make every effort to keep your pet as comfortable and relaxed as possible if you can’t be there.
If you wish to remain with your pet, as many owners do, it is important that you know what to expect.
Euthanasia is usually performed by the injection of a concentrated anaesthetic liquid into a vein in the pet’s front leg. In most cases it is performed via a needle and syringe and we encourage you to stroke and talk to your pet throughout. If you would prefer to hold and cuddle your pet, if there a few family members present (especially children) or if your pet is anxious, we can place a catheter into the vein prior to the procedure and in this case a nurse may take your pet to another area to do this. It is then usually possible for you to continue to hold, cuddle and talk to your pet during their last moments.
In rare cases, a pet may have very low blood pressure and it may not be possible for the vet to locate an appropriate vein for injection. In this case the injection may be given directly into an organ in the body. This does not cause any more pain to your pet, but may be distressing to witness if you are not forewarned.
With very small mammals such as birds and rodents it is just not possible to give an injection into a vein and in these cases the pet is often given an anaesthetic gas until they fall asleep and then we may give the final injection into their heart. They do not feel this injection because they are under an anaesthetic. For safety reasons it is unlikely that you would be able to stay with your pet in these cases.
Once the injection has been given, your pet will rapidly lose consciousness, stop breathing, and finally his or her heart will stop. This whole process usually takes a few seconds, but in older pets with poor blood pressure and circulation the heart may continue beating for a minute.
Although your pet may feel the initial needle scratch (as with receiving any injection), the injection itself is not painful. Some pets may also get a little distressed by feeling sleepy from the injection or just because they are being held.
After euthanasia, muscles and limbs may tremble and your pet may gasp a few times; this is perfectly normal and these are reflex actions of the body and not signs of life, but it can be upsetting to see. Your pet’s eyes will remain open after death and sometimes the bowel and bladder will empty. After the vet has examined your pet and confirmed his or her death, you will be able to stay with your pet and say your goodbyes if you want to, for as long as you need to.
Please don’t feel embarrassed to show your emotions, everyone at the surgery understands exactly what you are going through.
What Happens To My Pet Afterwards?
It is a good idea to have a think in advance about what you would like to happen once to your pet after he or she has passed away. If you can let the veterinary practice know this when you make the appointment, it can take away the need for you to make more difficult decisions at the time of euthanasia when you are going to be very emotional. If you cannot bring yourself to make your decision in advance do not worry; if you need a day or two to decide we can keep your pet safe for you while you decide on final arrangements.
This is by far the most popular choice for many pet owners as it means that your pet will be cremated and their ashes will be returned to you in a way of your choosing; examples include a casket or an urn to keep or bury, a pouch or container so that you can scatter your pets ashes at home or in a favourite place or a pretty memorial stone, wooden carving or photo frame containing your pets ashes.
You veterinary practice will be able to recommend a local pet cremation company for you. At Castle Vets we recommend Dignity and CPC pet crematoriums because they offer a wide variety of options for pet owners at this difficult time. You can personalise all of their available options to whatever it is that you want, to help you remember a special pet in your own way. We can arrange for your pet to be collected or you can take your pet to the crematorium yourself if you prefer.
‘Routine’ or Mass Cremation
Your pet will be cremated alongside other pets and no ashes will be returned. Rest assured that your pet will still be treated with the same dignity and respect as he or she would be if having an individual cremation.
This option is private, personal and less expensive than other alternatives; however, you must own the property and give thought to what might happen if you ever move away. Your pet’s grave will need to be at least 3-4 feet deep and away from walls and any watercourses for health reasons. You may not be able to bury your pet at home if he or she died of a disease or illness that could be transmitted to people or other animals.
Burial at a Pet Cemetery
There are only a few places in the UK where it is possible to bury your pet at an official Pet Cemetery, you could contact the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria to find out where these places are.
It is entirely up to you which option you choose for your pet, so do what feels right for you and your family. Whichever option you decide on, you can be assured that the staff at Castle Vets and the cremation service providers will treat your pet with the utmost dignity and respect whilst they are in our care.
Coping With The Loss Of A Pet
When a pet dies, it is a very difficult time for all the family, because of the strong bond that develops between people and animals as they interact with each other. The loss of a much-loved pet can be a very traumatic experience and it is natural to encounter a variety of emotions depending on how strong a bond you had and what your pet meant to you; you may experience emotions ranging from disbelief and denial to despair, anger and very often guilt, before you get to acceptance and the ability to grieve properly. Should you wish to talk to someone at any stage we can offer support by phone or in person. Alternatively, the Pet Bereavement Support Service has set up a telephone help line to help you through this difficult time and you can find a link to them at the bottom of this article.
Helping Children Cope With Pet Euthanasia
The relationship between children and their pets is unique and the loss of a pet can be very traumatic to a child and is sometimes the first time that they will properly understand that living creatures and people eventually die. It can be very hard for parents to deal properly with their child’s emotions, especially if they are feeling the same way about a much loved pet. Children need to know that it is ok to feel sad and that grief is a normal and necessary process, they may also need to be told that the pet did not die because of what they did or did not do.
Be open and honest with children – If your pet is ill or elderly and euthanasia is necessary or death is imminent, tell your children early on so they will hear it first from you and not from someone else. If possible (and age appropriate) involve your children in the discussion about your pet’s health and decision to euthanase.
Offer explanations and answer questions – you may need to explain what dead means for example ‘The body stops working completely’ and why euthanasia is necessary; for example ‘Barney is in a lot of pain and his body has stopped working properly, there is nothing anyone can do to make him get better and feel well’
Avoid using substitute terms – children can be easily confused by the terms we use to soften things, such as
- ‘Put to sleep’ – this could imply that the pet will wake up at some point or it may even trigger problems of sleep anxiety.
- ‘Passed away’ and ‘gone to another/better place’ – could imply that the pet has gone on a trip and may return.
- ‘Left us’ – could imply that the pet didn’t want to be with the family/child any more.
Should A Child Witness Euthanasia Of A Pet?
Only you as a parent can decide if this is appropriate for your particular child. Children do not necessarily need to be there for the actual procedure (it could lead to injection phobias in very young or sensitive children), but seeing their pet afterwards can help with closure. If you chose to let your child witness the procedure it will be important that you talk to them about exactly what will happen. Please also consider the effect it will have on your pet as a very upset child could distress your pet during the procedure.
Will Other Pets In The Household Grieve?
Unfortunately our pets cannot really tell us how they feel and we can only judge their mood by their behaviour, which is something we may overlook if we are grieving ourselves. There is much debate in the animal world about how much emotion pets show and perceive, but regardless of this it is well documented that the sudden loss of a companion of the same species can be difficult and cause some behavioural changes in remaining pets, it is also possible that the pets are perhaps picking up on the emotions of their owners.
You may notice that your pet is not as keen on interacting and hides or wants to be alone (particularly in cats). A decrease in appetite, which can lead to weight loss may also occur. Some dogs may be restless or more vocal and may even seem like they are searching for their lost friend. However, don’t be alarmed if you notice the complete opposite of these things, such as the remaining pet suddenly seeming to have a new lease of life, being happier and more outgoing than before; this may be because the remaining pet is getting more one-to-one time with you or it is often seen in cats when the cat that has died was at the top of the pecking order.
To help your pet cope you can try to increase the time spent and activities you do together. This can be play time, walks, training sessions or grooming. You can also use pet pheromone diffusers such as Pet Remedy, Feliway for Cats or Adaptil for dogs as it will help them to feel more secure in the home.
Should You Let Your Pet See His Or Her Companion After Death?
There is no evidence to suggest it is either good or bad for the remaining pet, so we leave it up to you to decide. If you have your pet euthanased at home, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t let the other pets see, sniff and spend some time with your pet after death. However, if the procedure takes place at the veterinary surgery this may not be practical at all, especially for cats as it may distress the remaining cat further to have to visit the practice, again the decision is yours. The staff at Castle Vets are happy to arrange this with you if you would like your pets to visit after the procedure.
Should I get another companion for my pet?
Whether to get another pet to ‘fill the void’ is a difficult decision and should be thought through carefully. Just like people, pets will deal with their loss in their own way and will adjust in time. Dogs can still be socialised in the park and on walks so that they are not necessarily missing out on canine companionship. Many cats may actually be better off without a new companion, as it can take a lot of time and effort for them to adjust to a new cat in the household and you will may find that they will never get on as well with the new addition. The exception to the rule is that Rabbits, Guinea Pigs and some other small pets do have a need for companions of their own species, so in these cases it is often best to find them a new friend, especially if they live outside.
If you do decide to introduce a new pet to the household, do it gradually and carefully over a period of a few weeks to ensure they get on well together. You can always contact us for advice on introducing a new pet.
Remembering Your Pet
Some owners like to plan a memorial for the pet and this may be a particularly good idea if you have children as it can provide them with an opportunity to say goodbye in their own way. Some nice ideas for pet memorials include
- Placing a memorial stone in the garden
- Visiting a favourite place that was special to you and your pet
- Scattering your pet’s ashes in a favourite place.
- Planting a tree or scattering wild flower seeds over a pet’s grave or just as a memory
- Keeping a picture of your pet
- Lighting a candle to remember them
- Children may like to draw or make pictures of their pet or keep a photo of them with their pet
- Many owners like to keep their pet’s collar, they may keep it somewhere safe or pass it on to their next pet.
Do what you feel is right for you and your family and don’t worry about what anybody else says or thinks.