Man and his dog watch the sunset.

A Peaceful Passing for Pets: Humane Euthanasia

As veterinarians, one topic we are all too familiar with is death and dying. Many pets come to our clinic suffering, some in ways that are obvious, others with subtler symptoms. Going through a difficult diagnosis with an owner, be it heart disease, cancer, or even crippling arthritis, can lead to a discussion regarding quality of life. When we are faced with situations in which there is no cure, we have exhausted our treatment and surgical options, or palliative care is not providing acceptable levels of comfort and relief for a pet, we are forced to bring up the delicate topic of humane euthanasia. Faced with the burden of making this decision, many pet parents ask “Can’t they just pass away at home?”

Is Dying at Home Best for Your Pet?

There is a myth that dying at home is nicer, sweeter, and even more humane for pets. Waking up to discover that your animal companion had died in their sleep sounds like the most compassionate option to some people, and there’s the assumption that a pet will simply drift away to their final resting place without pain. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee a peaceful passing for your pet at home, and having experienced death on a regular basis as a veterinarian, I can guarantee that events rarely transpire in this fashion. Many medical conditions can lead to a drawn out and uncomfortable passing. Congestive heart failure creates fluid overload, which can slowly make it more difficult for an animal to breathe. Chronic kidney disease in late stages causes inappetence, starvation, and nausea. If given the chance to ease your pet’s pain in a safe and controlled manner, wouldn’t you rather do that than take the risk at home? What if it came to your own health and well being?

Deciding to Euthanize Your Pet

Choosing to euthanize an animal is one of the hardest decisions you can make as a pet owner. I use the word “make” because, as a pet owner, it is your responsibility to take care of your pet until the end of their life, which includes a safe and dignified passing. This is not an easy decision to make.

Prior to putting my own dog to sleep, I would comfort owners by telling them that they would “know” when it was the right time for humane euthanasia. I believed that there would be a pivotal moment that would click and make this impossible decision a simpler one, but it is more a decision based in fact than feeling. Shouldering the burden with your veterinarian can help you through the process, since they have an intimate relationship with your pet and can consult you on making the right decision based on your animal’s condition.

What to Expect When Putting Down a Pet

When the time comes to put your pet to sleep, an intravenous catheter is placed into their leg, followed by a sedative to calm their nerves and an injection of pentobarbital, which gradually ceases heart and brain function. As pets pass away, they may let out a deep breath, pass urine or stool, or twitch in the muscles around the face and body.

These involuntary actions can be distressing if observed at home with your pet. When coordinated by your veterinarian, you will be walked through the process step-by-step, so that you are prepared for any uncomfortable moments during your pet’s passing. To provide additional comfort for the pet and present family members, blankets are placed beneath the animal and wrapped around their body to cover the hind quarters. Some veterinarians will even visit your home to perform this procedure in a familiar environment, surrounded by family. Euthanasia with your veterinarian present is quiet, calm, and pain free, and you are able to be with your pet from start to finish, holding and consoling them as they pass.

Pets are amazing, and part of what makes them wonderful creatures is that they hide their suffering from us. They want to be the best companion they can be for as long as they can, wagging their tails and playing through minor aches and pains because they love us. Animals are effortless optimists, which makes it our responsibility to navigate mortality on their behalf. It should be our goal as pet parents to provide them with a peaceful passing no matter what. They would do the same for us.