Rabbits are a popular pet in the UK – the PDSA Paws Report estimated there are around 900 000 pet rabbits! With the increased population and education attempts by organisations such as the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund we are seeing owners much more knowledgeable on their rabbit’s health and welfare. At some stage in a rabbit’s life, you may as an owner have to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanase them. It is an upsetting time, with many emotions for everyone involved.
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Rabbits are charismatic little animals and often become integral to their owner’s happiness and enjoyment. Many owners are researching well before getting them; providing excellent complete diets; providing enriching accommodation and environments; using preventative veterinary health care like vaccinations and bonding closely with their pets. This means that many are living happily to a ripe old age. Their life expectancy is over 10 years with many pushing that.
Sadly however, rabbits can get a wide range of health issues in which they need to visit the vet for. Common issues in rabbits include digestive tract disorders, eye and ear disorders, bone and muscle issues, lung/respiratory abnormalities and infections, skin and parasite issues, reproductive issues, injuries and many more!
Euthanasia is a hard topic to talk about for some. The term refers to 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 in this situation, 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 have to acknowledge that you should euthanase your rabbit; it is often a selfless act that causes you grief. However it is often in your pet’s best interest to relieve suffering.
Grateful to be able to relieve suffering
As a pet owner, and owner of a number of rescue rabbits, I have a lot of sympathy for owners who have reached the decision that euthanasia is the best option for their pet.
Understanding and acknowledging that it is not very often that a member of the public has to make a decision to end a life is important. It’s heartbreaking 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 for 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.
Rabbits hide illness
Unfortunately for some rabbit owners, the decision to euthanase can often come as a shock. Rabbits are prey species and so hide illness remarkably well until they are very, very sick. This may mean that by the time you notice changes in their health and go to get them examined at your wonderful veterinary surgery they may be in a critical condition and as such the suggestion of euthanasia, or the possibility of a very poor prognosis with treatment may be mentioned when you as an owner were not expecting the illness to be so serious.
Empathy and Compassion
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 considered as 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 that they don’t suffer prolonged deaths where there may be unnecessary distress. The idea that a rabbit will pass away in its sleep is one of the least likely eventualities. Although some diseases in rabbits do appear to cause quick and unexpected deaths, many natural deaths are not quick and peaceful for animals; which is why we often choose to euthanase.
So, if it was my own rabbit how would I want to do it?
What are my priorities?
My main priorities for euthanasia are:
- A calm environment
- A comfortable environment
- A quiet environment
- Allowing the family time to say goodbye and grieve without stressing the rabbit
- 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 rabbit, 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 rabbits most commonly involves the injection of an anaesthetic agent into their vein. This may be via a needle; or your vet may ask you if they can take them away for a moment to place an intravenous catheter. As you can imagine their veins are often very small and fragile. This can be difficult to achieve, something other methods may have to be used. They are given an overdose of anaesthetic agent so they quickly fall asleep/ unconscious and then their heart will stop.
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 rabbit is already stressed and unwell. For this reason, sedation may be suggested to allow your rabbit to happily snooze unaware while access to a vein is achieved.
Another option that I choose to use in rabbits, if they allow, 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. The EMLA does need time to work however. So you may have time to spend with your bunny while it takes effect before the injection is given.
Their last day
When making the decision to euthanase I would always prefer to choose a time when our rabbits still have some joy and comfort, rather than making decision too late when it becomes an emergency and things may have to be rushed to relieve suffering quickly.
Unfortunately, we know in rabbits this isn’t always achievable as they hide their illness until they feel extremely poorly. So the decision often has to be made quickly for their welfare. This can be really difficult for you as an owner. But the decision is often selfless, to ensure your rabbits suffering is relieved.
Sometimes when unexpected events happen this decision is taken away from us. But if we have an old rabbit, or a rabbit with a progressive condition (like arthritis), and we know the time is coming then we can start to plan so that it can be as peaceful and comfortable as possible.
Try to plan ahead of time
The reason I prefer owners to be aware that euthanasia may be needed is it allows us to plan a little easier. The people who want to say goodbye can plan to be there, we can have an appointment time planned, then spend the few hours leading up to it providing love and treats to the poorly pet!
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. Remember that as a prey species, many rabbits don’t actually like excessive handling. So we need to ensure we keep them as calm and happy as possible. This may mean being more ‘hands off’ with them if you know your rabbit was never the pick-up and cuddle type!
What if I can’t stay?
It can be incredibly hard for you to be present, but many rabbits will fall asleep and pass away very quickly once the injection is given. They may have a few involuntary movements after losing consciousness, but if this happens, it is something 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 compassion, providing comfort 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 rabbit was allowed a dignified death surrounded by those that love them.