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Canine Euthanasia 101: Managing Myths & Misconceptions

Understanding Canine EuthanasiaEvery so often I come across these odd news stories detailing strange tales of dogs and cats who somehow managed to cheat euthanasia. Like the Rottweiler who “awoke” and came wandering into the living room after being euthanized by his veterinarian in the garage. Then there’s the account of the homeless cat who survived not one but two trips to the carbon monoxide gas chamber before shelter workers decided that killing her wasn’t such a good idea.Inevitably, these reports whip pet owners everywhere into a froth of well-justified righteous indignation coupled with understandable bewilderment: “How, exactly, can a veterinarian allow that to happen? How could they not know whether she’s dead or not? Could this happen to my pet?”Such strong reactions help explain how these seemingly annual news events trigger not just the ire of the public, but discussions on the merits and pitfalls of various euthanasia methods too. Which, as you might expect, also raises the unavoidable misconceptions concerning the mechanics of euthanasia and how the drugs employed to bring it on actually work.That’s why it behooves us veterinarians to always make plain the euthanasia methodology we intend to employ. Because when it comes to something as emotionally fraught as euthanasia, there’s no such thing as too much communication.So at the risk of overloading you with information, here’s an explanation of the most common method of euthanasia private veterinarians employ in their practices with explanations about the drugs that are typically involved:But before we go there, let me first explain the goal, as described by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines For the Euthanasia of Animals (2013):“When euthanasia is the preferred option, the technique employed should result in rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiac or respiratory arrest and, ultimately, a loss of brain function. In addition, animal handling and the euthanasia technique should minimize distress experienced by the animal prior to loss of consciousness.”## The Two-Injection Method for Euthanasia in DogsWith that in mind, the currently favored method of achieving this goal in veterinary private practice settings is the so-called “two-injection method.” In this approach, an initial injection goes either in the vein (intravenous) or in the muscle (intramuscular), to elicit extreme sedation. Once sedation is accomplished (typically rendering a pet both completely unresponsive and thoroughly insensate) a second drug is then administered (typically as an intravenous injection) to overdose the animal and achieve cardiopulmonary arrest.Both injections are technically considered “overdoses” of drugs we either currently use or historically have used in veterinary practice for sedation, tranquilization, analgesia and/or anesthesia. But it’s important to note that not every veterinarian uses the same drugs in the same way at the same doses.Indeed, while the two-injection method may be the modern gold standard approach to euthanasia, there’s a surprising degree of variability when it comes to the drugs employed in the process and it’s impossible to detail them all here.Here is a brief run-down of the most common drugs we use, categorized by their use as first or second injection drugs.## First Injection for EuthanasiaThe goal: profound sedation or complete anesthesia with a minimum of pain or stress related to medical techniques or handling).Common drugs used include:- Tiletamine/zolezepam (Telazol®) is a pre-mixed cocktail of two drugs (tiletamine and zolazepam), which is employed commonly as a tranquilizer for both cats and dogs. Tiletamine is technically considered a dissociative anesthetic and zolazepam is a valium-like anti-anxiety drug. Neither drug is very pain-relieving by itself and yet, when combined, they lead to an extremely effective sedation that approximates complete anesthesia. When administered as an overdose as part of euthanasia, a state of complete anesthesia results.