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One of the most difficult aspects of pet ownership is considering their mortality.

Yes, this is a heavy way to start an article. But reality tempers the excitement of picking out a new puppy or kitten, or adopting an older dog or cat, with the knowledge that the animal’s expected lifespan will, in all likelihood, be far shorter than your own. A major consideration for pet ownership is what can be done to ensure that a good quality of life is provided during all stages of its existence.

The loss of a pet can be unbearable for owners whose attachment far supersedes what would be considered a “typical” healthy human-animal bond. Those cases require professional help when it comes to the complications surrounding euthanasia and death. Fortunately, there are health care providers specifically trained in dealing with supporting exceptional cases of grief related to pet loss.

What I encounter far more frequently are owners who, despite a rational understanding that their pets are not immortal, become overcome with fear and anxiety once faced with the diagnosis of a terminal disease.

Even though owners may be able to comprehend that their pet has a fatal disease, the tension surrounding the details of the actual “process” off loss can be overwhelming. A more frightening concept for most people is the actual act of euthanasia itself. The word “Euthanasia” literally translates to “The good death.” It is simultaneously the most humbling and powerful aspect of my job.

The perception of what transpires during euthanasia of a pet can be clouded by experiences with the deaths of relatives or friends, or even from sensational images put forth by the media. I cringe each time a television show depicts death as some remarkably dramatic flat lining of an EKG or theatrical intake of a last breath. In reality, the passing is marked with much less spectacle.

As difficult as it is to discuss the subject, I thought it would be helpful to provide factual information for pet owners to think about prior to the difficult choice of euthanasia and allow some opportunity for learning and discussion about an otherwise unmentionable topic.

The first step for most owners is deciding where to have the euthanasia take place. For some, the decision may unfortunately need to be made on a more urgent basis, but for many other situations we are able to somewhat plan the process.

Most euthanasia occurs in a veterinary hospital, however some veterinarians will travel to an owner’s home in order to provide an additional layer of comfort during this difficult time. This can be a very helpful service for very sick or frail animals, or for owners who are incapable of transporting their pets to the vet and would otherwise be limited in their abilities.

Owners must then decide whether they will be present or not during the euthanasia. This is often a difficult choice for many pet owners and I urge owners to think about this particular aspect of “the plan” ahead of time. From personal experience, I know that the answer to this question can be different for each individual pet and is dependent on many different unique emotional aspects. Take this time to consider the right choice not only for yourself, but also for your pet.

Although the specifics of euthanasia can vary with facility and from doctor preference, in most cases a small intravenous catheter is placed into a vein located on the lower part of one of the limbs. The catheter will be taped in place temporarily. This is to facilitate the administration of the euthanasia solution, a drug called sodium pentobarbital.

This drug is a barbiturate medication that at “routine” doses can be used as an anesthetic/sedative, but at the high doses used for euthanasia will be fatal. The drug will cause unconsciousness within the first 5-10 seconds of administration. During this time period, there is also a drop in blood pressure, along with cessation of breathing, and cardiac arrest. This occurs within 10-30 seconds of administration. There is a surprisingly brief amount of time from the initiation of injection to the passing of the patient.

Many times we also administer a sedative prior to injecting the actual euthanasia solution. This is to make sure the pets are calm and quiet and able to relax in their owners' arms or near them on the floor in a comfortable and kind environment.

Once the euthanasia solution is injected, I will take my stethoscope and listen for a heartbeat. Once I’ve confirmed the heartbeat has stopped I will let my owners know their pet has passed.

Some owners will elect to take their pets home for burial. Most owners elect for private cremation of their pet, with their ashes being returned to them.

Veterinary hospitals typically have a contract with a local pet cemetery that provides this service. The cemetery may also offer special options for owners including viewings, witnessing the cremation, and burials with plots similar to those available for humans. Owners are encouraged to contact their veterinarians for further details, or even to search on their own for a cemetery better suited to their personal needs.

In most situations, owners will need to return to the veterinary hospital to pick up their pet’s ashes once they return. This can often be a very difficult thing for owners to face as they are returning to the place they will associate with the loss of their beloved companion. If needed, ask a friend or family member to either accompany you or act in your place at this time.

Educating yourself on what to expect at the end of life might just be the first step in coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis for your pet. Doing so doesn’t make you heartless or uncaring. On the contrary, I find it represents a commitment to one of the major responsibilities of pet ownership.

The process is certainly emotionally taxing and painful, but with a small amount of exploration in advance, can also be demystified, allowing for a calm and peaceful closure for owners dedicated to their pets' care.

It’s the final gift we can give to our companions, who never ask for anything in return.

Dr. Joanne Intile

Image: Marco Saracco / Shutterstock

Related posts you might also be interested in:

The Decision to Euthanize a Pet: A Vet's Perspective

Euthanasia... What To Expect

In-Home Euthanasia

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