Our most important duty as pet owners is to make sure that our pets stay happy, healthy and pain-free throughout their lives. Sadly, this may mean that at some stage, we may have to make the decision to have them euthanised, rather than allowing them to suffer further.
Although this is the right decision for them, it can be devastating for us to go through this experience. However, preparing ourselves in advance, and discussing it with a vet ahead of the event, can make a big difference to both us and our rabbits as we navigate this difficult process.
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Knowing The Right Time
Rabbits are very good at hiding signs of pain and illness. So it can be difficult for us to know when is the right time for euthanasia.
Signs of illness can include:
- Being less active
- Not enjoying the company of other rabbits or humans
- Eating less
- Producing fewer or no stools (including both caecotrophs and pellets)
- Drooling or wetness around the chin
- Not grooming themselves
- Not cleaning the stool from their bottoms
Your vet should also be able to help you know when is the right time for euthanasia.
Some owners wish to be present when their pets are euthanised, but others may prefer not to be. There is no right or wrong answer here – this is a personal decision. Some owners prefer to stay with their rabbits whilst the effects of sedation take hold (see later) and then leave before the final injection is given.
Contrary to popular belief, our pets do not know that they are being euthanised. And the process is no more stressful than a routine blood sample or anaesthetic. Your vet will take steps to make sure your rabbit feels safe and comfortable throughout the process.
In some circumstances, where it is necessary to use gas anaesthesia (see later), then sadly it is not possible for owners to be present.
Sometimes, the vet will recommend giving a sedative injection before euthanasia. This does mean the process takes a little longer, but can make it much smoother and less stressful, too. This injection may be given under the skin, or into a muscle or vein, and usually takes ten to fifteen minutes to take effect.
You can usually sit with your rabbit whilst the sedative is taking effect. You should notice that they relax and become drowsy, or sometimes even fall asleep completely. They may also twitch a little, due to the effects of the drugs. This is normal and usually not distressing for them.
The Euthanasia Process
Euthanasia in rabbits is usually carried out with an injection of pentobarbital – an anaesthetic drug. The vet will give an overdose of this medication, and your rabbit will drift into a deep sleep, and then pass away. From your rabbit’s point of view, this is painless and feels similar to falling asleep for a general anaesthetic.
In larger rabbits, this injection can sometimes be given directly into a vein via a cannula, and you can usually be present for this. However, in smaller rabbits, or those who are sick, their veins may be too small or fragile to place a cannula.
In these cases, the rabbit is given a few breaths of an anaesthetic gas, to relax them and allow them to sleep. Then, the injection can be given directly into the heart – but only after the rabbit is unconscious.
If you are able to be present for your rabbit’s euthanasia, then as they pass, you may notice them twitch, or gasp. This can sometimes appear quite violent, but do not worry – your rabbit is not aware of any of it. This is a normal change that happens around death and only distresses us, not our rabbits.
You will normally have a choice between either taking your rabbit’s body home or leaving it at the vet practice. If you take them home, then you can either bury them in the garden (though be sure to dig a deep hole) or arrange for cremation yourself, directly. Some owners prefer to take their pets to the crematorium themselves, but others prefer to allow the vet to make the arrangements. If you leave your rabbit’s body at the practice, your vet can usually arrange the cremation for you.
You will usually have two different options for cremation.
- Communal cremation, where your rabbit’s ashes will be scattered at the crematorium – often in a garden that you can visit.
- Individual cremation, where your rabbit is cremated separately and their ashes are returned to you, either in a small casket or another container so that you can scatter them in a place of your choosing.
The euthanasia process can be very difficult for us as owners. The best thing that you can do to make it as smooth as possible is to be prepared. Try and discuss the process with your vet in advance and make a plan, so you both know what to expect. Consider what you would like to happen with their body so that you do not have to make that decision on the day. This will allow you to relax and enjoy spending the remaining time that you have with your rabbit.