Arriving at the decision to euthanize a pet is a difficult and complicated process. If you have come to that decision or are contemplating the possibility, there are some things you should know. As veterinarians, we take an oath to ease animal suffering and part of this is humane euthanasia when it is in an animal’s best interest. We take this very seriously, and as hard as it can be, view it as a gift that we can give to our patients who are old, diseased, and in pain. It is a way that we can help to ensure a peaceful passing from this world. There are many ways to die, and all animals deserve to have a peaceful and loving good-bye. Throughout their entire lives, our pets rely on us to make decisions on their behalf; when it comes to end-of-life choices LOVE and COMPASSION should be our guides.
The process of euthanasia is a simple one. The animal is sedated with a combination of injectable pain-killing and tranquilizing drugs given into a back leg muscle. The sedation allows the animal to slowly relax so that their passing can be as gentle as possible, and gives you some time to ease gently into the moment. The sedation takes about 5-10 minutes to take full effect. There may be some mild discomfort with the injection since it is a shot, but most animals don’t notice much—especially if they are being distracted with a special meal, their favorite treats, or just loads of attention. If they do feel it, the discomfort is very short-lived and soon the medications will take effect and they will be comfortably sedate.
The drug used for euthanasia is called sodium pentobarbital—it is a barbiturate and is given at an extremely high dose into a vein through a temporary (butterfly) catheter. It typically stops the heart within about 30-60 seconds. With the animal already completely sedated and comfortably unaware, it is a gentle and easy transition. I think of it as falling asleep and just not waking up, and always hope that it is a peaceful experience. Sometimes you can literally feel the relief of an animal… like a big sigh.
After an animal has passed away there may be some reflexive muscle movement/twitching, a couple of last big breaths, and urination/defecation as the body completely relaxes. These are all very normal, natural processes. The eyes will not usually close after the pet is gone. There is a medication explanation for that, but I like to think that they are just making sure we’re okay.
Humane euthanasia is a dignified way to pass on… it is probably how we all wish we will go—falling asleep surrounded by loved ones. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier to reach. It is important to feel like you are making the right decision about euthanizing your beloved friend. You should always have a thorough discussion with a veterinarian to make sure that all of the alternative options have been considered and that the time is right. Euthanasia, after all, is irreversible.
If you are respecting your pet’s life and thinking only of them, you won’t be wrong. They (whoever “they” may be) always say that “you’ll know” when its the right time. That can definitely be true but often it is a “gray” area and, as such, requires thoughtful consideration. The decision may be made for you if your pet is obviously suffering or clearly not enjoying life anymore, and you will have no doubts that the time is right. But sometimes it is not that easy—if you are doubting, wavering, or just not sure, please refer to the Quality of Life Scale and always feel free to give us a call.