Pets “scared” when being put to sleep – wake up call or fake news?

Time to say goodbye

There’s another viral article doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment… but this one really is hitting a tender spot. The article, most recently reported by the Evening Standard, is a heartfelt plea from a vet for owners not to “make them transition from life to death in a room full of strangers in a place they don’t like. The thing you people need to know that most of you don’t is that THEY SEARCH FOR YOU WHEN YOU LEAVE THEM BEHIND!!!!”

So is this something we should be really guilty about, or is this Fake News? Or, perhaps, is there more going on here than meets the eye?

 

What are the substance of the claims?

The article makes 3 main claims:

  1. That 90% of people do not stay with their pet when they are put to sleep.
  2. That the pets are scared and lonely and feel abandoned if they are left.
  3. That anyone who leaves the room is a coward who is making their dog’s last minutes unnecessarily distressing.

 

But is that true?

Well, to be honest, this is a debatable article, to say the least.

 

Do 90% leave their pets?

To be honest, it is not my experience – or that of the majority of my colleagues – that 90% of people leave. It’s quite rare, I’ve found, for the owner of a beloved pet to voluntarily choose not to be in the room. In fact, I’d say that about 90% stay (or would if they could – see below). So I, personally, find the 90% figure very dubious.

 

Are pets really scared and feeling lonely if they are left?

To some extent, this is probably true, but it depends on their relationship with the practice. I know of dogs (and even some cats) who LOVE visiting the vets, and really enjoy all the fuss and attention they get. For these animals, I really don’t think that there’s any problem. There are also some who get very distressed being in the practice at all. However, I’m not sure that having their owner present really helps all that much.

I must have put at least hundreds, if not thousands, of animals to sleep, and even if their owner isn’t present, I can’t think of any who were distressed and searching for their owners. I’ve seen some that were trying to find a way out of the room (feral cats, for example), but none who I can honestly convince myself were searching “every face in the room for their loved person”. I’m not denying that it could happen, I just do not believe that is commonplace.

The problem, I think, with this claim is that it is a classical example of “anthropomorphism” – treating animals as if they were human. Dogs, cats and other pets are intelligent, social, sentient creatures (like us) but the way that their minds interpret the world around them is often very, very different. In particular, they do not foresee the future in the same way that we do. My behaviourist colleagues, for example, are adamant that in many cases comforting a dog who is scared of something actually makes them more worried because it confirms to them that there’s something to be afraid of.

The other thing to remember is that there is NO difference in the pet’s mind – or in what they feel and perceive – between being put to sleep permanently (euthanased) and being anaesthetised for a surgical procedure. We do not expect the owners to be present for the one, so why should we expect it for the other? In both cases, the pet is held and comforted by veterinary nurses, and is given an injection by the vet, at which point they fall asleep. The only difference is how much anaesthetic is given, and whether they wake up again later. This leads us on to the final point…

 

Is it cowardly to leave?

I absolutely, fundamentally, disagree with this. Being in a strange place with strange people is confusing to most pets, but not terrifying. Being in a strange place with strange people while your owner/packmate/carer/whatever is visibly distressed and really upset is probably far, far worse. Dogs and cats, especially, are very very good at picking up our emotional states. I would much rather that if you’re really distressed, that you say goodbye and wait outside, because otherwise you risk terrifying and distressing your pet.

If you are that upset, and cannot restrain the emotion of the moment (which is fine, by the way!), please let us do our jobs calmly and reassuringly so your pet’s last moments aren’t of distress because you’re upset. Remember, the biggest difference between our pets’ minds and ours is that they have very little conception of the future – they aren’t afraid to die, because they don’t understand the concept of it. They are afraid of pain, or of upsetting you – all of which are more likely if you are present in a distraught state.

There is another point to consider – in some cases it isn’t possible for the owner to stay with their pet. Small pets such as guinea pigs and rodents are often put to sleep with anaesthetic gas before the (potentially painful, in such small animals) injection is given. It is frequently not possible (or legal!) for a member of the public to be present when the anaesthetic gases are being used, for your safety.

 

Where did it come from?

This is where it gets interesting – and where the 90% figure might have come from. The original post was apparently from a vet in Knoxville, Tennessee – on the other side of the Atlantic. Curiously, the post went viral once shared by a South African veterinary practice. In these countries there may well be different cultural expectations, which may explain why the behaviour of the owners as described is not what we tend to see in this country.

 

Should we feel guilty about whether we stay in the room or not?

Definitely not. Ultimately, your pet will get the same loving, compassionate attention whether you’re there or not. If you can stay, I think it’s a little bit better for your pet – but if you’re going to be too upset, it’s counterproductive, so say goodbye and let us take it from there.



So should we be angry about this Fake News?

Actually, no, in this case I don’t think we should. The original post is signed “From a tired broken-hearted vet”. The veterinary profession is physically, mentally and emotionally draining at times, and a run of “put to sleep” appointments can dent anyone’s frame of mind. In this case, I honestly hope this vet is all right – the use of capitals and multiple exclamation marks, as well as the subject matter, make me worried about them.

Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re feeling better having got that off your chest – and if not, PLEASE talk to someone about how you feel.

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2 thoughts on “Pets “scared” when being put to sleep – wake up call or fake news?

  1. Thankyou so much for this excellent article,it will put so many folks minds at rest including my own.I recently had to have my elderly terminaly ill cat euthanised and was to distraught to stay in with him and waited outside of the surgery room.

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