As the art and science of veterinary medicine progress, many diagnostic and treatment options formerly offered only to human patients become available to pets. But one option that is denied human patients has always been there for veterinary patients and their families. When the time comes, a decision can be made to end a pet’s life purposefully, humanely and with dignity. This option, so often a great blessing brings with it a great responsibility.
Friendships, which have been so dear, are terribly hard to let pass into cherished memory. We want our friends to live, but we also with to spare them pain and indignity. We hope to time their passing wisely, to recognise the moment when prolonging their lives serves only to postpone the pain of losing them. We should not require them to suffer so obviously that our decision is made for us, sparing us the agonies of doubt and guilt.
Although many times the correct path is quite clear, it is often very difficult to decide when a life should be ended. In such a case the answers to the following questions may help to clarify the issue.
• What is the prognosis? How much improvement, if any can be expected? How much pain and discomfort will accompany treatment? This must be balanced against the prognosis.
• How rapidly can the condition be expected to progress? Can the patient return home for a time, during which leisurely goodbyes can be said?
• Is the nursing care required at home within the household’s capabilities? Many people find it very gratifying to nurse their pets through their final days, but this can also be difficult and stressful, causing frustration and guilt.
• How much is the patient suffering? This can be extremely difficult to judge. To expect a pain-free existence is often not realistic- after all, few people over the age of thirty, experience life with no pain whatsoever. The question is whether the pain and distress exceed or eliminate the enjoyment of life. But pets are often very stoic and give little external evidence of suffering.
Here are some guidelines we have found useful:
• Is s/he eating and drinking?
• Is s/he having difficulties breathing?
• Does s/he seem to enjoy contact with people or other pets in the household?
• Is s/he able to move about, or does s/he lie in one place?
• Is s/he able to get away from his/her own urine and/or stool?
• Does s/he cry, whine or moan?
The relative importance of these factors varies with each situation and each person’s outlook, but asking these questions may help make your decision more clear.
EUTHANASIA – WHAT TO EXPECT
Your vet will advise you on what the options are and make sensible recommendations, but he or she will not make the decision for you.
A decision does not have to made on the spur of the moment, so it is much better to make your choice after talking with the vet and then with other members of your family.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Your vet may shave the fur from a patch of skin on one your pet’s front legs and insert a needle into a vein. Your pet will then be given an overdose of a drug, which makes it lose all consciousness and ability to feel pain or fear. It will be asleep in a matter of seconds and its breathing and heart will stop a few seconds later. If the animal is fearful or aggressive it will often be dosed with a sedative before given the fatal injection.
SHOULD I BE THERE AT THE END?
Although we do no insist upon it, we do recommend that you stay with your pet until the end if you possibly can. It may be less stressful for your pet to be held in your arms and able to hear a familiar voice. It may also be helpful for you to know that your friend suffered no pain and met a peaceful end. However, if you are frightened or anxious your pet may sense this and it may also become upset.
WILL MY PET SUFFER?
The process is completely painless but if you do stay with your pet in its last moments you may hear a gasp or cry. The sound is caused by a muscular spasm, which is perfectly normal. Other muscles in its body may also twitch, this does not indicate pain or distress, your pet is asleep and it is merely the body’s final electrical and chemical activities. As its body relaxes, it is not uncommon for bowel or bladder to empty.
SHOULD IT BE DONE AT HOME OR AT THE VET’S SURGERY?
Vets usually prefer to see their patients in their own clinic because all the equipment they need will be close at hand. We will endeavour to make an appointment for you that suit your situation. But as euthanasia is a special situation for both the vet and yourself, we can, make arrangements to come to your home, however, this has to be done when we have enough staff available.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY?
You may wish to take your pets body home to bury. We can arrange a routine cremation for you or there is also the option to have the ashes returned to you, either in a box, a casket or an urn. Our nurses will be able to advise you of the costs.
SHOULD I GET ANOTHER PET?
After the experience of having a pet “put to sleep” some people say they never wan to own another animal. However, many others find that getting another pet helps them deal with their grief. The relationship you build with another pet will never be the same or replace the one you had, but it may be equally rewarding.
Finally, please accept our condolences. We understand the difficulty of the decision you have had to make. Allow yourself time to grieve, there is no shame in feeling strong emotions. It is only natural to do so. However, people experience grief in different ways and there are no hard and fast rules about what you will feel. It may help to have someone to take you home after your pet has been “put to sleep” so that you do not have to return to an empty house. Talking to friends and family is important, especially children. Losing a pet is often the first time that a child becomes aware of death. It is usually best to be honest with a child and explain the truth as clearly as you can. We get so much love and pleasure for our pets, but we do have to pay a price, at the end. Children frequently get over the loss of a pet much more quickly than adults do. Your grief will soften and you will be left with only the sweet memories of the love and companionship you and your friend had the great fortune to share, and you will be left the thought that you were able to help your friend to pass on with dignity.
© Forrest Hill Vets (2000) Ltd