This article comes with a warning. It covers topics such as death and euthanasia which some readers may find distressing.
Death, unfortunately, is inevitable and comes to us all, humans and animals alike. Our pets live such short lives in comparison to ours. And we are rarely prepared to lose them whenever their time comes. Unlike end-of-life decisions made for people, dog owners ultimately have the final say on how their pets will die. Occasionally, this decision is taken out of our hands due to an accident or sudden illness. But it is more likely that we will need to ‘help’ them if they are in pain or suffering. At this stage there are two choices to consider, we can either allow them to die ‘naturally’ or we can ‘put them to sleep’.
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Dying ‘naturally’, expectations vs. reality
First, let’s explore the concept of ‘dying naturally’. In human medical terms, a person is said to have ‘died of natural causes’ if they pass away from old age or disease as opposed to accident or trauma. This description seems to be appropriate for our canine companions too.
The widespread view of a natural death is generally influenced by what we have seen on TV or in the movies, which often shows someone dying peacefully in their sleep. There is also the false notion that wild animals will go off to die quietly under a bush.
Sadly, this rarely happens in real life.
In reality, dogs tend not to go to sleep feeling well and just not wake up. Dogs are tenacious and cling to life, often for far longer than we as vets or you as owners expect, despite serious medical conditions and great suffering. In fact, they usually experience many prolonged and unpleasant symptoms leading up to their death such as:
- Loss of mobility
- Loss of appetite or inability to eat
- Not drinking
- Extreme fatigue
- Muscle twitching
- Change in temperament
- Altered respiration
- General discomfort
If you decide to ‘let nature take its course’ you must be prepared for some distressing times. And perhaps heart-breaking memories of your dog in their final days. Veterinarians will be able to make them as comfortable as possible and manage their symptoms with medication. But it could take days, weeks or even months before they eventually die ‘naturally’.
For humans, euthanasia and assisted suicide is only accessible in a handful of places across the globe (including some countries in Western Europe, Canada, Colombia and a number of States in North America). Whereas euthanasia (via injection) for our pets is universally legal. It is a service offered by the vast majority of veterinary practices across the world. Obviously, our dogs are unable to choose this option for themselves so the decision falls to us as their guardians.
The process of humane euthanasia in dogs involves giving an overdose of anaesthetic into the vein. It is usually administered into the front leg, but the injection can sometimes be given in other areas depending on the age and breed of the dog. Once the drug has been given, the dog will fall unconscious within seconds and then a few minutes later their heart will stop.
Most euthanasia proceeds peacefully without any difficulties and with minimal distress to the dog. Even if there are complications, it is still considered a more favourable option that could save you and your dog from days or weeks of suffering.
Advantages and disadvantages of a ‘natural’ death vs. euthanasia
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both options, which is why this is such a difficult decision for any pet owner to make.
Allowing your dog to die ‘naturally’ at home, in a familiar environment, may be less frightening for them. However, it may be hard for you to watch. Alternatively, a great number of veterinarians offer ‘home visits’ to perform euthanasia which avoids the need to travel to the vet’s office.
There is sometimes less guilt associated with a ‘natural’ death, although this is a recognised sign of the grieving process so it is likely you will feel this emotion regardless of what you decide to do.
No pet owner wants to see their dog in pain or needlessly suffering and euthanasia can provide immediate relief from this anguish.
Euthanasia also gives you and your family a guaranteed chance to say goodbye to your beloved companion which cannot be assured with a ‘natural’ death.
Making the decision
Although the final decision will have to be made by you and your family, please remember you are not alone! Your veterinarian will be there to discuss all the options with you and offer advice and support to help you come to the right decision for you and your dog.
There are lots of factors that will be taken into consideration including your pet’s personality, their condition and quality of life (QOL), your personal ethics and beliefs as well as financial and practical aspects of caring for a dying pet.
If you need advice on end-of-life care for your dog or support following the death of your pet, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your veterinary practice.