Pet Euthanasia: Dealing with the Death and Dying of a Pet

Dealing with death and dying is always traumatic. Pet death, like any other death, can be devastating, especially when people grapple with the decision to use pet euthanasia. People who chose euthanasia are usually performing a final act of kindness for a pet whose illness restricts its quality of life. Still, choosing euthanasia is a hard decision to reach.

A good veterinarian understands the pain associated with pet death and pet euthanasia, and can offer advice and support on dealing with death and dying animals. No vet likes pet euthanasia, and the option of euthanasia is only brought up when the vet believes that it is the most humane act for your pet. Even then, the choice is yours.

Deciding on Pet Euthanasia

Veterinary medicine offers many options to pet owners today; even some terminally ill pets can enjoy a reasonable quality of life in their remaining time. However, sometimes nothing is available to help an ill and dying pet.

Quality of life is the benchmark for whether you should consider euthanasia. Is the pet in severe pain? Does he have enough energy to still enjoy activity? On a personal note, are you ready to say goodbye and deal with death and dying?

Unless a pet is seriously injured, pet euthanasia need not be a sudden and immediate decision. Take some time to observe you pet and assess his or her overall health. Ask yourself:

  • Are there any personality changes or sudden behavioral problems?
  • Can the pet still walk, or is balance extremely difficult?
  • Does your pet still interact with you?
  • Has the pet lost sight or hearing?
  • How much pain is your pet in?
  • Is breathing becoming difficult?
  • Is incontinence an issue?
  • Is the pet still interested in food, and can he or she keep food down?

Not all these questions apply to every pet, and some may be a serious issue for one pet, but not for another. A small house dog may adapt to blindness, for instance (I’ve known some that did), but quality of life will be very affected for a dog used to lively outdoor activities. Consider your pet’s quality of life: Are most of his or her days still good ones? If the answer is no, pet euthanasia may be a kindness.

You’re closest to your pet, and best able to judge how he’s feeling. One cautionary note about pain though: Unless you’re very observant, you may not be aware of how severe a dying pet’s pain is. Dogs, cats, birds, and other pets may be domesticated, but they retain enough of their wild instincts to remember that displaying obvious pain in nature is dangerous. Pets often hide pain well, and their owners are surprised to find they aren’t simply getting old, sleepy, or sluggish. Your veterinarian is much better qualified to judge a pet’s pain level.

Preparing for Pet Death

Humans live longer than most of their pets. When we welcome a new pet into our lives, we need to accept the inevitability of pet death, including the possibility of pet euthanasia. It may be helpful to make decisions on pet health and euthanasia while your pet is still healthy. Thinking about such issues early in your pet’s life may make dealing with your pet’s dying and death easier when the time comes.

Elaborate life-extending treatments and pet surgery can become extremely expensive. Hard though it is dealing with death and the loss of a pet, it’s harder still knowing than money played a role in a pet euthanasia decision. How much is extending your dying pet’s life worth? Again, deciding ahead of time how much you can afford to spend on veterinary medical expenses can make dealing with death and pet euthanasia a little easier.

Death, Dying, and Euthanasia

Understanding how painless pet euthanasia is may help pet owners decide on the best course of action for their pet. Pet euthanasia uses a mixture of anesthetics designed to cause complete muscle relaxation.

The euthanasia solution completely shuts down all nerve transmissions. The dying pet feels no pain or other sensations. About ten seconds after the euthanasia solution is administered the pet draws a rather deep breath, and then appears to drift into a deep sleep.

Euthanasia does cause some physical effects immediately after pet death that can trick people into thinking their pet is still alive, or dying in pain. Neither is true. These apparent signs of discomfort occur as the animal’s nerves release their store of chemicals into surrounding muscles. Some of the effects include:

  • bowels and bladder may void as muscles relax
  • muscles may spasm just after death
  • lips may pull back
  • on the point of death, the pet may take a last gasping breath.
  • Pets also usually meet death and dying with their eyes open, which can be disconcerting for their owners.

Dealing with Death and Dying Pets

When the time comes to make an appointment for pet euthanasia, ask the vet when the least busy time at the clinic is: The area will be quieter, so your pet will be less likely to be nervous. As a benefit for you, you won’t have to spend a long time in the reception area waiting.

When you do go to the euthanasia appointment, it’s often best to have a friend drive you there and home. People often underestimate how upset a pet’s death makes them, and you don’t need to be in the first stages of grief and trying to get home at the same time.

Everyone handles dealing with death differently. Some pet owners prefer to stay in the waiting room until after the euthanasia procedure, and then spend some time afterwards with their pet. Other people see the euthanasia appointment as one last opportunity to comfort and be near their pet, and want to be present for the euthanasia. Neither choice is right or wrong. Go with what feels best for you: You vet will honor your choice of dealing with your pet’s death.

If you are unsure about whether to stay with your pet until the end or not, it may help to know that many people who didn’t feel they could watch their dying pet pass on later regret not having stayed with their pet. Again, everyone’s way of dealing with death and dying is different: If you’re not comfortable being in the room for the euthanasia, accept what your heart is telling you and stay in the waiting room.

Grieving a Pet’s Death: Getting Support and Dealing with Scorn

After pet euthanasia, please don’t be afraid to cry at the clinic. Pet death and dying animals are distressing to the vet and veterinary staff too, especially if the pet has been a long-time patient. More than one grieving pet owner has been joined in tears by members of the clinic. Many vets now receive training on helping bereaved pet owners deal with death and dying and can be a source of comfort and support. They understand what you’re going through.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of everyone. People whose lives haven’t been touched by pets may not understand that pet death can be as traumatic as the death of any close human. They tend to blurt out thoughtless or unthinking comments. “It was just a pet,” is a common reaction, as is “just get a new one.” Worse yet, these comments can leave you feeling guilty about “just” mourning a pet death.

Mourning a pet’s death is like mourning anyone else’s passing: You need time to deal with the reality of your pet’s absence in your life. You may feel guilty for deciding on pet euthanasia, or angry at your vet for suggesting the idea. Try to remember that you made the choice that was best for your pet, and give yourself the time you need to grieve the loss of your friend.

If no one around you really understands, ask your vet if there are any local pet death support groups. In such support groups you can share your experiences about pet death and dying, and about pet euthanasia, with other grieving pet owners.

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