The loss of a pet is devastating. As an owner making the decision to euthanase a pet, we can experience huge emotions, grief and distress. As someone who has supported many owners on this journey of loss, I have experienced the vast array of emotions that grief can cause – great sadness, denial, distress, anxiety.
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What does euthanasia mean?
Euthanasia is a hard topic to talk about for some. But it is vitally important to talk about, so you know what to expect. 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 can provide a peaceful passing to their pet, should the time come.
What does this mean for my cat?
A mixture of emotions is brought up when you acknowledge that the time is coming to euthanase your beloved pet cat; it is often a selfless act that causes you grief; though it is often in your pet’s best interest to relieve suffering.
Euthanasia in cats generally, apart from in some circumstances, involves the injection of an anaesthetic agent into your cat’s vein. They are given an overdose so they quickly fall asleep/unconscious and then their heart will stop.
This current method in cats involves injectable medication. The process of injecting into a vein isn’t overly painful as any of us who had blood samples taken knows. However, it can cause some discomfort, especially if cats are already in pain from other illnesses and have reduced tolerance for handling and stress, and it may also be worrying to the cat if they don’t like the vets anyway.
So when would sedation be needed?
Sedation still involves injectable medication. But, rather than into a vein, we may be able to do it under the skin or into a muscle; which is easier to access. Then once they are calmer and sleepy, we can then proceed to find an appropriate vein to place an intravenous catheter in and administer the anaesthetic overdose.
As some cats may get very upset at the vets, and we want their passing to be as calm and peaceful as possible, sedation may be suggested to allow your cat to happily snooze unaware while access to a vein is achieved. Another option if your cat 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.
Considerations for sedation
Sedation drugs can often cause hypotension (low blood pressure); which may make venous access even harder than it already is in a very poorly and old cat. It may be in these circumstances that a calm cat may be better having EMLA rather than sedation. This decision will be guided by your veterinary team who will be looking after you during this process. We know which cats need to have additional support to relax, we know who will be better with light handling; we will treat all cases with kindness and compassion. Some vets may sedate before every euthanasia, some may judge each patient on a case-by-case basis.
Times when I would want to sedate include when your cat is stressed, fractious, in pain or upset by handling at the vets, as we do need to try to get access to a vein, but we don’t want your cat to be distressed and want the process to be as calm and peaceful as possible.
On some occasions we may also place a needle into an organ with a large blood supply like a kidney, as some older and very poorly cats may have very low blood pressure on presentation or have veins so small that they are hard to inject into. If this is done, we may decide that some sedation would be more comfortable for your pet.
So, to conclude, sedation before euthanasia may be right for your cat and may help to make their passing peaceful and calm. Please do let your veterinary team guide you through this difficult and upsetting process, and if you need support afterwards there are pet bereavement services available to help support you.