Euthanasia is a hard topic to talk about for some. It’s vitally important though. Euthanasia is the painless killing of a patient, usually because of suffering, disease, poor quality of life or incurable illness.
Although euthanasia can bring up many sad emotions, the etymology of the word euthanasia can bring us some comfort; ‘eu’ meaning good, and ‘thanatos’ meaning death. This is what veterinary professionals always aim for at the end, a good death. I believe that many owners find great comfort in the knowledge that they are able to provide a peaceful passing to their pet, should the time come.
A mixture of emotions is brought up when you acknowledge that you have to euthanase your dog; it is often a selfless act that causes you grief; though it is often in your pet’s best interest to relieve suffering.
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Grateful we have this option
I have a lot of sympathy for owners who have reached the decision of euthanasia for their pet. It is not very often that a member of the public has to make a decision to end a life. And it’s heart-breaking when that life is one that you love and cherish. Medics, doctors and veterinary professionals alike deal with the concept of death regularly. However, even those who have had more experience with the concept of death find the decision incredibly difficult when it is their own pet. Owners should feel NO shame in being emotional, openly grieving or crying when the decision comes. Trust me when we say that we know how you feel.
Although I deal with euthanasia on a weekly basis, it never ceases to be an act that I am simultaneously grateful for and one that causes me to empathise and grieve with an owner over the loss of their pet, many of whom are akin to their family members.
I am grateful we have this option, the option to respectfully and peacefully allow an animal that is suffering to pass away, so they don’t have a prolonged death where there may be unnecessary distress. The idea that a dog will pass away in its sleep is one of the least likely eventualities. Many natural deaths are not quick and peaceful for animals which is why we often choose to euthanase.
So, if it was my own dog how would I want to do it?
What are my priorities?
My main priorities for euthanasia are:
- A calm environment
- A comfortable environment
- Surrounded by people the animal knows
- Allowing the family time to say goodbye and grieve
- As little discomfort as possible
- As little stress as possible
- A quick process once it starts so the animal is unaware
- Support for the family after the event – grief does not have a time scale, if you need support then ask
How can we achieve a ‘good death’
There are a number of ways I can achieve this. If it came to my dog, I may choose to have a home visit (offered by some veterinary practices but also offered by mobile services that are specifically run to provide this service). Or at a quiet time with my team helping me in the veterinary practice.
Euthanasia in dogs generally, apart from in some circumstances, involves the injection of an anaesthetic agent into the dog’s vein. They are given an overdose so they quickly fall asleep/unconscious and then their heart will stop.
Of course, if I had it my way there would be a magic potion they could eat in their favourite food and they would be none the wiser. However this isn’t realistic and the current method in dogs involves injectable medication. The process of injecting into a vein isn’t overly painful as any of us who had bloods taken knows. However it can cause some discomfort and may also be worrying to the dog if they don’t like the vets anyway. For this reason, sedation may be suggested to allow your dog to happily snooze unaware while access to a vein is achieved. Another option if your dog is calm is to clip up their vein area and then apply a topical local anaesthetic agent, such as EMLA. This is so that their skin is numb for when the needle or intravenous catheter is placed in the vein.
When making the decision to euthanase I would always prefer to choose a time when our dogs still have some joy and comfort; rather than making a decision too late when it becomes an emergency and things may have to be rushed to relieve suffering quickly. Sometimes when unexpected events happen this decision is taken away from us. But if we have an old dog or a dog with a progressive condition and we know the time is coming then we can start to plan so that it can be as peaceful and comfortable as possible.
The reason for this is it allows us to plan a little easier; have the people who the dog wants around available to be there; have an appointment time planned; and spend the few hours leading up to it surrounded by love and treats!
Their last day
Many owners wish to stay with their pet, this would be my choice and has been my choice in the past. Staying with your pet allows you to comfort them, hold and stroke them, talk to them and calm them as they pass away. It can be incredibly hard for you to be present. But many dogs will fall asleep and pass away very quickly once the injection is given. They may have a few involuntary movements after that which they are not aware of.
Often, the veterinary team will ask if you wish to spend some time with them before and after the euthanasia. It is up to your discretion if you wish to spend some time alone with them after, or if you wish to leave straight away. If you feel that you can’t be present, know that your veterinary team will treat them with kindness, respect and tell them how good they have been and how loved they are when they do perform the euthanasia.
After a euthanasia of a pet, we do need to allow ourselves to grieve, always make sure to ask for help if you need it. Contact pet bereavement support such as the Blue Cross if you would like to talk to someone. In time, try to remember all the happy memories you have. A peaceful euthanasia will allow you some comfort that your dog was allowed a dignified death surrounded by those that love them.