No one wants to think about the death of a beloved pet. But it may be helpful to know in advance, the options that you have once the time comes. It can be a very stressful and upsetting time. So having an idea of what to expect will take some of the pressure off and allow you to be there in the moment for your pet when they will need you the most. 

As vets, we deal with death regularly, often on a daily basis. But we appreciate that for most people, it is thankfully a rare experience. As pets get older, and owners start to think about the end, the majority of people will wish their dog could slip away in their sleep. Unfortunately, this is quite uncommon and except for the poor few that may succumb to disease or an accident, euthanasia is often required. 

Euthanasia – ending the suffering

The literal translation of ‘euthanasia’ means ‘good death’ and this is what we always strive for. The process of euthanasia is never a vet’s favourite part of the job. But it is always, always carried out with the animal’s welfare at the forefront. We often think of it as the kindest thing we can do for them at that time when all other options have been considered. We always try to make it as comfortable for the pet and the owners as possible. Many owners may have questions about the procedure but aren’t sure how or when to ask them. Hopefully, this article will provide a little more information.

Can I have my dog euthanised at home?

Owners often have a choice of either bringing their dog to the practice or having a home visit. Although, in these Covid times, call-outs may not be possible. Some people like to stay with their pet during the euthanasia and others prefer to leave the room. These are personal decisions and the owner’s choices will always be respected. We all want the procedure to go as smoothly and be as stress-free as possible for the dog. Therefore a number of techniques can be employed. 

We’d always want to choose a quiet room, away from interruptions, or if in the owner’s house, normally where the dog likes to spend most of their time or wherever their bed is located. In nice weather, a peaceful euthanasia in the back garden can be a lovely end. Some people like to have their dog’s blanket close at hand, their favourite toy, or a jar full of treats, however best to ensure their pet is calm and relaxed. 

Will my dog be sedated?

For pets that are in pain, or are very excitable or nervous, an initial dose of sedation can help to calm them and keep them settled. This can either be given by an injection into their muscle or via a cannula in their leg. If given into the muscle, it can sometimes take around 15 minutes for it to take effect. During this time, I have sometimes left the owner to spend time with their dog alone. Or at other times we have sat and chatted about their pet in their younger days.

What actually happens when my dog dies?

The final injection that is given is essentially an overdose of an anaesthetic and is completely painless. It is given into a vein, usually on the front leg. The only bit the animal may feel is the needle going in unless a cannula is already in place. In most cases, it is perfectly possible for the owner to hold or cuddle their dog as the vet gives the injection. Though a nurse may need to hold the leg to raise the vein. In old or fragile patients, sometimes the vein can ‘blow’ meaning the vein has ruptured and is leaking. This isn’t unduly painful for the dog but means the vet will have to use another vein to give the euthanasia agent. 

How quick is the whole procedure?

Once the injection is given, the drug acts quickly, normally within seconds. The dog will look like they’re gently going to sleep. Over the next few minutes, the breathing will slow, then stop. Shortly followed by the heart stopping, which the vet will listen for with a stethoscope or feel for via a pulse by the groin. Sometimes the dog can gasp or twitch. Although they can be distressing to watch, these are completely involuntary movements and are just reflexes as the body shuts down. The vet will then do a final check to be certain the dog has gone; by again listening or feeling for a heartbeat and sometimes by touching the eye to ensure there is no blink reflex. It is worth noting that their eyes will stay open, as most people expect them to close. 

Should I let my other dog see them?

If there are other dogs in the family, it can be a good idea to let them see the deceased pet. Some ignore them, some just give a cursory sniff, but in a lot of cases, it does seem to help them realise what has happened. The owner may also wish to spend a bit of time saying goodbye on their own, which is perfectly understandable. 

Can I keep a bit of hair from my dog?

Absolutely. Many owners like to take a small sample of fur or hair from their pet and some like to create a paw-print. You also have a choice as to whether their collar, tag, or harness stays with them for burial or cremation, or whether you keep them as mementos. 

What do I do with the body?

The final choice to be made is what to do with the body itself. There are usually four options– general cremation, individual cremation, burial in a pet cemetery, or burial at home. 

A general cremation is where the dog is cremated along with other pets. And a portion of the collective ashes may be scattered in a memorial garden at the crematorium. An individual cremation is where they are cremated on their own. The ashes are then placed in a container or wooden casket for the owner to keep. For either option, your vet will be able to arrange the cremation for you. Or you can often take them to the crematorium yourself if you wish. 

Burial in a pet cemetery is not particularly common in the UK. But they do exist and your vet may be able to help you find one close to you.

Can I bury my dog at home?

If you choose to bury your dog at home, there are actually laws by which you must abide. 

  1. The dog must not be buried near a water source.
  2. They can only be buried in the grounds of the house in which they lived and you must own, not rent, the land.
  3. The body must be placed at a depth of at least two feet in heavy soils or three feet in lighter soils.
  4. The body must not be hazardous to human health. For example if the dog has been treated with controlled drugs such as chemotherapy medications.

If you are going to bury your dog, once they have passed away, place them in a curled-up sleeping position and cover them with a blanket until you are ready. If, however, there is likely to be a substantial delay, you should store the body below 4°C. It is advisable to bury the dog within a plastic bag or coffin made of cardboard or wood. And place heavy objects such as paving slabs over the grave to prevent any disturbance. 

Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience but there are many resources out there for owners to help them cope. Knowing what to expect in advance can help to alleviate some of the stress. But always speak to your vet if you have any concerns or questions. Many of us have pets of our own and have been on both sides of the situation, as a vet and as an owner, and we would always want a pet’s final moments to be remembered as fondly as possible.

You might also be interested in: