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Euthanasia of a Family Pet   

Adapted from the American Veterinary Medical Association by Dr. P.A. Burke​ 


Much of what follows is presented in a condensed form on the web site Areas underlined,  expand on, or address new topics including behavioral euthanasia, hospice care, burial, communal cremation. 

Because their lifespans are much shorter than the average humans’, eventually, most owners face making end-of-life decisions for their pets. Quality of life is at least as important, in some ways more, for pets as people. Your pet’s quality of life can be impaired by the infirmities of age, disease, or injury which is difficult or impossible to treat, or requires more care than you & your family can afford to provide – financially, or physically, (Chronic diseases like diabetes, are treatable, sometimes for years, but a person’s lifestyle may not allow a ridged treatment schedule; it can be quite expensive, & while most pets are easy to ‘treat’, some are very difficult!)  Sometimes a healthy or ill pet’s behavior is not compatible with safe, happy family relationships. ​​​​

Dogs & cats are predators, but also prey, & as such most hide signs of chronic pain, & ‘try' to act as normal as possible.  Eating and drinking don’t prove a pet is not suffering; certainly, when they are not, a decision should be made.  When you can tell your pet can no longer enjoy what he/she once enjoyed, cannot respond to you in its usual ways, or appears to be experiencing more pain than pleasure, you should consider euthanasia. Likewise, if your pet is terminally ill or critically injured, & the financial burden of treatment is beyond your means, euthanasia is a valid option.  It’s never an easy decision to make, but in many cases, it is best for you, your family, & the pet, with declining or poor quality of life,  to consider humane euthanasia.​

How will I know when? Your veterinarian can examine & evaluate your pet’s condition, discuss medical & surgical options, estimate the chances for full or partial recovery, & discuss any potential disabilities, special needs & long-term problems.  But your veterinarian does not know your limitations, & cannot make the euthanasia decision for you, so it is important that you fully understand your pet’s condition. If there is any part of a diagnosis, suggested treatments, or the possible effects on your pet’s future that you don’t understand, ask questions that will help you understand -or seek a second opinion. ​

​Most of us – rarely if ever, witness, a truly “natural” death of anyone -person or pet. Some deaths are easy & peaceful,

but some are not.  Many dying people in the US are heavily medicated, to the point of semi-consciousness.  The idea of ‘hospice' care, or in-home care until a pet dies, has gained recognition in veterinary medicine, at the same time as hospice care for humans has become less about in-home support for the last 6 months of life vs moving a patient in their last few days of life, from a primary care site to another facility.   Medical  advances have increased the number of treatments that can be offered, &  what is described as ‘palliative’ care in humans, often utilizes the heavy use of narcotics, based on the patient’s expressed needs.  We have some methods of determining pain levels in pets but for end-of-life care, this is rarely reasonable - for the pet.   We may want to have them longer, but not at the expense of their suffering. When our pets are experiencing significant pain, severe illness, or infirmity, to be - by definition - humane, ‘hospice” & major ‘palliative’ care should be provided by, monitored, & overseen, a veterinary professional, specializing in this kind of care.  Anti-arthritic medications (NSAIDs like Rimadyl), CBD oil, & minor nerve modulators like gabapentin are helpful in many pets for a variety of conditions, but, at least in my opinion, are not appropriate for marked, persistent, discomfort. ​

Often, simply, asking yourself the question: “Does my pet have more bad days than good days?” can help you make the decision. Although there are times when a decision needs to be made immediately, you usually will have time to review the facts & discuss with your family & friends before making the decision. Ultimately, NO ONE ever looks back & says,

 ‘I did it too soon”, far more worry, or belatedly realize, they waited too long.​

Once a decision for euthanasia has been made, you need to decide what you want to be done with your pet’s remains. It may seem strange to consider these arrangements prior to euthanasia, but it can bring some degree of comfort to know what will happen next, & you will not have to focus on these decisions while you are grieving the loss of your beloved pet. Your veterinarian, (& I   can provide information about burial, cremation, & other alternatives. ​​

What if the animal is healthy?  When a pet is vicious, dangerous, unmanageable & they constitute a threat to the safety of your family, other humans & animals, euthanasia is indicated. In some situations, the animal is not dangerous but is an unacceptable ‘pet’.  To a large extent being a domesticated pet, means the animal does NOT ‘act naturally” (there are some which never can be housebroken).  Some undesirable behaviors can be changed, so it is important to investigate & try reasonable behavioral modifications & medications as directed by a veterinary professional.  However,  my personal philosophy is – living with a pet that is disrupting and/or destroying your home, is not a penance which will  get you brownie points for heaven.  ​

A more difficult decision is when someone cannot keep an otherwise healthy, or relatively healthy, older animal, or any animal with a treatable condition which entails expending a significant commitment of time & money…like diabetes, or hyperthyroidism. Turning a pet over to a shelter, which has behavioral or medical conditions which make successful adoption unlikely, &  especially when the pet is potentially dangerous, is unfair to the pet, the shelter & an adopter. It is the responsible, loving owner who worries the next person will simply abandon an animal or abuse it. And in some cases, if a pet has a history of aggression, even if that is made known, an original owner can be legally liable. The greyest area is when economic limitations, changes in housing or lifestyle result in someone no longer being able to keep a pet which they feel is not adoptable due to advanced age, extreme shyness, or a fractious nature which they lived with, & they don’t want to give the pet up or over, to a situation they will have no control over. And although the pet may be adopted, it also may sit for months at a shelter. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to find veterinarians to euthanize animals with 'treatable conditions' (there's something to try’ for just about every complaint, but many are not practical for the average owner), & healthy,  but aggressive pets. In the last case, I would consider offering the pet to the veterinarian who declines to euthanize a dangerous animal or one who needs treatments an owner, simply, cannot afford.​ That said, euthanasia of healthy, young, or middle-aged, (or still spry older) adoptable pets should be considered only when no alternatives are available. In these cases, opportunities to rehome the pet or place them within a shelter should be pursued prior to opting for euthanasia.​

How do I tell my extended family?  While you may not have openly discussed the issue of euthanasia with your family, they likely are already aware of a pet’s problems. You should review with them the information you have received from your veterinarian. Long-term medical care can be a burden that you & your family may be unable to bear emotionally or financially, & this should be discussed openly & honestly. Encourage family members to express their thoughts & feelings. Even if you have reached a decision, it is important that family members, especially children, have their thoughts & feelings considered.​   ​Children have special relationships with their pets & should be informed &  involved, at a level appropriate for their age.  Preventing children from participating in the discussion may only complicate & prolong their grief process, although their desires should not result in a pet suffering more, or longer. That may well turn into an emotional burden as they age & gain insight. Children respect straightforward, truthful, & simple answers. If they are prepared adequately, most children accept a pet’s death.  A very recent article (2020) discussing the effects of pet loss on children acknowledged the emotional impact from pet loss on some children, but showed ultimately, the benefits of pet ownership outweighed any negatives of pet loss.   ​


​Will it be painless?  Euthanasia is most often accomplished in pets by injection of an overdose of a barbiturate.  Your veterinarian MAY administer a tranquilizer under the skin first, to relax your pet - that may sting for a few seconds; less than 10% will vomit & occasionally (esp. dogs with a history of seizures), may have a (not painful) seizure as they become unconscious. Sedation is not always needed, or desirable.  The euthanasia drug is usually given intravenously, it doesn’t sting -it’s no different from many other drugs given IV – or from having blood drawn – like for a heartworm test. Like some  major humane groups, I question the insertion of IV catheters for that injection.  IV catheters – hurt- much more than a regular needle unless the pet is first heavily sedated –  in which case: WHY?  Once a pet is sedated, even if it takes several attempts to find a vein, they are not discomforted.  Rarely when a pet is very dehydrated, has  low blood pressure & it is impossible to find a vein, & with ‘pocket pets’, the injection can be given in other ways.  Following the IV injection of the euthanasia drug, your pet will immediately become deeply & irreversibly unconscious as the drug stops brain function.  Your pet may move his/her legs or head or breathe deeply & sometimes the heart can continue to ‘beat’ for some time, but these are reflexes - your pet is not in pain or suffering. ​

​​How can I say goodbye?   The act of saying goodbye is an important step in managing the natural & healthy feelings of grief & sorrow following the loss of a beloved friend & companion. Once the decision for elective euthanasia has been made, you & other family members may want to spend a last evening with your pet at home or a visit to the pet at the hospital.(after Covid).  Some pet owners choose to be present during their pet’s euthanasia, but others choose to say goodbye beforehand & not be present during euthanasia. This is a very personal decision & you should do what feels

right for you. Do not let others pressure you into making a choice that makes you uncomfortable.

How can I face the loss?  Although everyone who shares a bond with their pet is going to experience grief, grieving is always a very personal process & everyone experiences it differently. Some may feel guilty or blame another for not recognizing & addressing an illness earlier, for not being able to afford treatment, or when a careless act allows a pet to be injured. It is common for owners to feel doubt over whether they have made the best decision for their pet regardless of whether their pet was euthanized or died from its disease or injury. Although people worry about making the decision too early – that would be impossible to prove.  More common is looking back worrying they should have the decision sooner.  For many, knowing they elected humane euthanasia blunts the grief with the comfort of having provided the pet with an easy death.

For some, the loss of a pet can be an incredibly stressful life event, & grief for a pet, or pets of different species, may not be fully respected by otherwise well-meaning family & friends; comments may seem cruel & uncaring, although often not

meant that way. Some people experience the same range of emotions felt with the loss of a human: denial, sadness, anger, anxiety, numbness, & guilt.  Sorrow & grief may seem overwhelming at times, can be delayed & may be brought on more intensely by a later loss.​ Depression is also a common experience after the death of a special pet. Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible to perform & you may feel isolated & alone. Many depressed people will avoid the company of friends & family. It might be hard to get out of bed in the morning, especially if your morning routine involved caring for your pet’s needs. Sometimes you may even wonder if you can go on without your pet. The answer is yes, but there are times when special assistance may be helpful in dealing with your loss.  Be honest with yourself & others about how you feel. If you feel despair, talk to someone who is receptive & nonjudgmental when listening to your feelings about the loss of your pet. If immediate family & friends are not able to provide this support, your veterinarian, who understands the relationships between pets & people are complicated, may be able to suggest pet support groups & hotlines where you can find an emotionally safe & accepting environment to talk about your sorrow, but also about the fun times you & your pet spent together, the activities you enjoyed, & the memories that are meaningful to you.   Getting thru the grieving process includes accepting the reality of your loss, the accompanying painful feelings & adjusting to your new life that no longer includes your pet. ​Some people need longer than others & express their grief in different ways; just as each relationship with a pet is unique, each experience of loss is different. When you understand what reactions to grief are normal, you will be better prepared to cope with your feelings, & to help others face theirs.  But, again, if you or a family member are suffering from profound or prolonged depression, have great difficulty in accepting your pet's death & cannot resolve feelings of grief & sorrow, seek professional assistance - from grief-trained clergy, social workers, psychologists & psychiatrists.

Eventually, hopefully, you will be able to remember your pet & your time with them without feeling the intense grief & emotional pain you previously felt.  Acceptance & resolution do not mean that you no longer feel a sense of loss, just that you have come to terms with the fact that your pet has died & appreciate the time you had together.  Even when you have reached resolution & acceptance, however, negative feelings & depression may reappear. If this does happen, these feelings will usually be less intense, & with time they will be replaced with fond memories.​

Remembering your pet: Just as the grieving process varies from person to person, so does the method of remembering the pet that shared your life. For some people, spending some time with their pet after euthanasia is helpful.  Taking steps to memorialize your pet can be therapeutic, for example scattering ashes or placing them in a garden or a decorative urn. You may wish to hold a funeral, to make a memorial contribution to a charity in their memory or take other steps to appropriately honor your pet & share your memories with others who knew him or her. You may choose to display reminders of your beloved pet, such as photos or mementos or anything that helps you recall & treasure the good times you spent with your beloved pet. Just as the grieving process varies from person to person, so does the method of remembering the pet that shared your life.  


Should I get another pet? The death of a beloved pet can upset you emotionally, especially when euthanasia is involved. Some people may feel they would never want another pet.  For some, the thought of having – & eventually losing – another pet may seem unbearable. These feelings usually pass with time, and many accept that we can’t deny ourselves good things because they may at some point be lost.   Some authorities suggest getting a second pet when the older one reaches the age where their end of life can be expected within a few years. This can be an extremely helpful way to ease into a new, but different, pet- if you know you will want, and can provide for another. Some feel a younger animal perks up an older one. Sometimes--but not always. It depends on the personality & condition of the older pet - sometimes it is  best to wait.  Just as grief is a personal experience, the decision of when, if ever, to bring a new pet into your life is a personal one. Any new pets should be introduced into the family in a deliberate manner that is considerate of existing family members & pets.  If a family member is having difficulty accepting the pet’s death, getting a new pet too soon can exacerbate their grief, or suggest others think the life of the deceased pet was unworthy of the grief that is still being felt. Family members should agree on the appropriate time to bring a new pet into their lives. Although you can never replace the pet you lost,  you can seek another to share your life.​

*HOME BURIAL ​​When contemplating burial at home, consider how long you will live there. Confirm it is legal to do so based on local ordinances & the water supply – the drugs used to euthanize can be toxic to humans, other domestic animals, and protected species.  Burial should be at least 4 feet deep, & the pet wrapped in cloth, not plastic.

**COMMUNAL VS SEPARATE CREMATION    Depending on the size of the pet, a private cremation with ashes returned can be a significant cost.  Some people seem to feel social pressure to choose a private cremation - that any loving pet owner would want their pet’s ashes back-– that is not true. In fact, after a lifetime of pets, some of us worry how many can be snuck into our urns!  Others may worry a pet communally cremated is not cared for as respectfully. I was shocked to read on one pet loss site, a statement that ‘some crematoriums scatter communal ashes, or if there isn’t room, discard in a landfill’ (I guess one could give points for honesty), Final-Gift, which I work with, is transparent, professional, & caring; they have a special area at Angell View Memorial Pet Cemetery, where ashes from communal cremations, are communally interred.​


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