You pick up that new kitten or puppy for the very first
time. Your imagination races years ahead and uncomfortable, fleeting
thoughts pass through your mind. "I hope this little rascal lives a long
time" or "I can't imagine this cute little puppy as an old dog" or
"Someday this little furry kitten will be old and unhealthy" are quite
typical of those thoughts we don't care to entertain at any time. But
those thoughts do come. And that time does come. And we pet owners
simply have to face our dear pet's mortality. I have often thought how
wonderful it would have been if my Golden Retrievers and dear feline
friends would have had life spans of sixty or seventy years!
Every individual pet owner faces that day slightly
differently from every other pet owner. I have seen totally objective,
and even outrightly callous, pet owners simply drop off their pet for
euthanasia with no more respect or empathy than a robot. I have never
been able to understand this type of pet owner who seems to be saying
"When you're dead, you're dead". They can still comfort or simply be
with their pet at the time of euthanasia; but for their own reasons they
choose to separate themselves from the final moments of their pet's
life. Maybe we humans are so close to our pets that we somehow project
our own humanity and mortality into them and we actually see ourselves
at our own last moments. Do some pet owners act out how they think they
would view their own passing?
On the other hand I have witnessed seemingly strong,
objective and matter-of-fact individuals who even seem to be somewhat
cold and distant who completely fall apart at the time of their pet's
passing. The theme to keep in mind, then, as you contemplate how YOU
will act at your pet's final moments is to remember that it is a
completely personal experience. You have to decide what is best for you
and your pet.
I have had people actually say to me "I am sorry,
Doctor, but I don't know how to act right now". My response usually
would be "Act like you. Your pet has been a huge part of your life for a
long time and this is not an easy thing for you to do." I often sensed
that people really had no guidelines to follow, had no firm ground on
which to stand while partaking in their pet's final time. For those of
you who have had no experience with euthanasia of a pet, I would like to
offer a few guidelines so that you will have some firmer ground to stand
on when "that time" does come.
Making the appointment
Be sure to tell the receptionist that you would like to schedule the
appointment at a time when the veterinarian is not in a hurry with other
appointments or surgery. You might even request that your appointment be
the last one of the day or the first one in the morning. Explain that
you have never had to go through this experience before and would like
to know what to expect regarding the euthanasia procedure.
You have a right to take your deceased pet home for
personal burial. You may also choose to leave your deceased pet with the
veterinarian for burial or cremation. Always ask what will be done with
your deceased pet after it is "put to sleep"! If you don't, you will
always wonder, and your imagination will not be kind to you.
Let me dispel an ugly myth. I can't tell you how many
concerned pet owners have innocently asked me "You aren't going to
experiment on her, are you?" or "You aren't going to sell him to some
lab are you?"
I have never known of any veterinarian anywhere who
sells deceased pets. There are no labs that would even consider taking a
deceased animal. And as for experimentation, what kind of an "experiment
" can a veterinarian do in his practice on a deceased pet that would
have any impact whatsoever on veterinary science? It is a totally
different matter for your veterinarian to ask you respectfully if you
would want an autopsy performed for a specific reason. Veterinarians do
not sell deceased pets and veterinarians do not do experiments on
deceased pets. So you can rest assured on these matters. But you
certainly have a right to know what will be done with your dog or cat if
you choose to leave it with the veterinarian. Do not be apologetic about
The Appointment... To Be There or Not To Be There
It is your personal choice whether or not to be present in the exam or
surgery room when the veterinarian administers the euthanasia solution.
Many people simply cannot bear to see the moment of their special
friend's passing. Others wouldn't let a tidal wave interfere with their
being present! It really is up to your personal preference. Some people
choose to stay in the waiting room during the procedure and then briefly
view their pet after it has passed away, maybe then spending a few
moments in private with their pet.
If you are not sure just what to do I will offer an
observation I have made from feedback from my clients. There are a
multitude of pet owners who have regretted NOT being there with their
pet when the pet was being euthanized, and their feelings that they may
have abandoned their pet at a crucial time has created a certain sense
of guilt that simply will not go away. So, think over very carefully how
you will feel long after your pet has been "put to sleep"...will you
No one is comfortable with death, especially your
veterinarian and animal hospital staff who face death every day. Your
discomfort with the event should not govern your decision whether or not
to be present with your pet at the time of its passing. Many
apprehensive clients, with a slightly surprised look, have queried after
the event "Is that it? That was very quick and peaceful. Thank you,
Let me be very clear about something...IT'S OK TO CRY! I
have often wondered why some people don't cry. This can be a very sad
time and even though the animal hospital staff might have to go through
this all too often, there really is no getting used to euthanizing a dog
or cat. The animal hospital staff has often formed a strong connection
with the pets in their care and often join in the crying, so you really
have no need to pretend that you can handle it when inside you feel
You might choose to leave your pet in the car and go in
first to see if there will be any delays prior to your scheduled time.
As a veterinarian I have never been comfortable seeing a client waiting
patiently in the waiting room with their pet for that final appointment.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask the receptionist to let you know when
the doctor is ready to see your pet...then bring your pet directly into
the exam room. You should not have to be isolated in the exam room for a
long period of time, either.
If you think your pet would be more comfortable and less
apprehensive (not all pets relish coming to the animal hospital!) you
may ask the veterinarian to provide your pet with some sedation prior to
your visit. This can be administered at home at a directed time interval
prior to the appointment or often sedation is given in the animal
hospital via a painless injection under the pet's skin. After a short
time the pet is relaxed and calm.
In order to administer the euthanasia solution* your
veterinarian must gain entry into a vein. The solution is specially made
to act quickly and painlessly but it must be administered intravenously.
This requires that your pet be calm and confident. If the veterinarian
requests your permission to sedate your pet, please understand that the
request is made in order to humanely and peacefully accomplish the task
at hand. If your pet is uncooperative, defensive, afraid or even
fractious, your veterinarian and you will not be able to properly carry
out the procedure.
* Most euthanasia solutions are a combination of
chemicals whose intent is to effect a quick and painless termination of
nerve transmission and muscle relaxation. When nerve impulses are not
conducted there is no thought, no sensation, no movement. The solution
is available only to licensed veterinarians and your veterinarian must
possess a special certificate in order to purchase the solution.
The Last Moments
When the veterinarian is ready to administer the euthanasia solution the
assistant will help hold your pet and put a slight amount of pressure on
a vein, usually in the foreleg. This allows the veterinarian to see the
vein better and aids in passing a fine needle into the vein. When it is
certain that the needle is within the vein the veterinarian slowly
injects the solution. Many pet owners choose to help hold their pet and
if possible even have the pet in their arms at the time of euthanasia.
Your veterinarian will try to accommodate your wishes, but remember that
it is imperative that the solution be injected within the vein for the
procedure to unfold properly.
Usually within six to twelve seconds after the solution
is injected the pet will take a slightly deeper breath, then grow weak
and finally lapse into what looks like a deep sleep. (This state gives
rise to the questionable euphemism "to put to sleep".) The pet, although
completely unconscious, may continue to take a few more breaths before
all movement ceases. I have found that the older and sicker the pet the
longer this unconscious breathing state goes on.
It is at this point when the veterinarian has completed
the procedure where great empathy and support for the pet owner is very
important. I generally ask the owner if they would like to spend a few
moments alone with the pet. Some people do and some people do not. If
the client chooses to take the pet home, by pre-arrangement a container
is at the ready to receive the pet.
The veterinarian usually will place the pet into the
container and carry the deceased pet out to the car for the owner. If
the pet owner chooses to have the pet cremated the veterinarian
generally will make the arrangements through a cremation service and
notify you when you can expect to have the ashes returned. Generally,
pet owners are surprised at the small quantity of ashes that are
returned. Remember, most living creatures are about 95% water.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask "How do I know that
the ashes that I receive will actually be those of my pet?" Everyone
wonders about that. Your veterinarian should be willing to provide you
with the name and phone number of the cremation service that will
provide this service for you. Don't be afraid to call up the cremation
service and tell them your concerns about your pet. You should get
courteous and respectful answers to all your questions and if you don't,
let your veterinarian know. In fact it would be a good idea to call the
cremation service long before that final day so that the last moments
with your pet are as unstressful as possible.
It is not unusual nor unreasonable for pet owners to
save a bit of their pet's fur as a physical remembrance of their special
friend. Some people want their pet to be buried or cremated with a few
photos, or a rose or even a personal letter or poem from the pet owner
to their pet. Just remember it is YOUR friend, YOUR pet, that is passing
away and you can do anything you wish to ease your transition into the
time of separation from that friend.
Suggestion: You may want someone to be with you after
the appointment to drive you home. You may be surprised how difficult it
can be to concentrate on driving after such an emotional event as what
you just experienced.
Many, many pet owners experience a very strong and lasting sense of pain
and grief after the passing of a special pet. Part of their trouble
stems from having so few human friends who actually understand the deep
sense of grief they are experiencing. Even a close friend might say "Oh,
just go get another one" or "Gosh, it was only a cat". This can be a
very lonely and private grief since the pet owner often is reluctant to
disclose the source of their saddened state for fear of ridicule. Plus
it is very common for the pet owner to think they see or hear their
deceased pet in the home or out in the yard long after it is gone. If
someone hasn't personally experienced the loss of a dear pet they simply
will be unable to connect with the pet owner who is grief stricken.
The bereaved pet owner often is self-critical, too.
Reading their thoughts we would recognize self chastisement such as "Oh,
this is ridiculous feeling like this over a Cocker Spaniel" or "I can't
believe loosing a cat would wreck my entire life!" And the loss of a pet
often brings up memories of other losses in a person's life and a
vicious cycle of sadness, helplessness and even clinical depression can
result. Our pets are THAT important to us and we don't have to apologize
for feeling that way!
Those pet owners who feel they need to talk to someone
who understands their sadness have hope! There are a number of grief
support groups and counselors who specialize in pet loss counseling.
Never feel ashamed or belittle yourself for having strong feelings of
loss and sadness over a deceased pet. You are NOT alone in your sadness.
Go on to Poem: The Last Gray
Return to 26 September 1999 Issue
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