Pet Euthanasia: Everything You Need to Know
From the moment you welcome a new pet into your family, a strong bond starts to take root. And as they get to be senior age, all pet parents wonder, "Will I be able to put my pet down when the time comes?”
We fear losing our pets because they mean so much to us. Nevertheless, that time eventually arrives. When it does, many pet parents have questions about the process for pet euthanasia and how to deal with the grief after such a loss.
This guide is for pet parents who have already made the decision with their vets that euthanasia is the humane answer to their pet’s illness. It will answer the most common questions about the process and lead you through setting up the appointment and what to expect on that day.
Coping With the Reality of Pet Euthanasia
As veterinary practitioners, we encounter many different responses from pet parents who are faced with euthanizing their pet. Many seemingly strong pet parents deeply grieve during and after the time of their pet's passing. Pet loss is a very individual experience, and there is no wrong response.
It’s not uncommon for bereaved pet parents to tell the veterinary team, "I am sorry, but I don't know how to act right now." The best advice we as veterinary professionals can share is, "Act like you. Your pet has been a huge part of your life for a long time, and this is not an easy thing for you to do."
For those of you who have had no experience with the euthanasia of a pet, these guidelines may help put your mind at ease by answering the questions you have about the euthanasia process and aftercare decisions.
Setting Up the Appointment for the Euthanasia Procedure
You can either take your pet to your veterinarian for the procedure, or you can opt for in-home pet euthanasia services. If you schedule an appointment at the veterinary clinic, be sure to tell the staff the intention of your appointment so they can help you find a time when your veterinarian is not busy with other appointments or surgery.
You might even request that your appointment be the last one of the day or the first one in the morning. Your veterinary team understands what a difficult decision this is, so they should be willing to work with you to find the time that will work best for you and your pet.
If it is your first time losing a pet, explain that you have never had to go through this experience before and would like to know what to expect. Most veterinarians will discuss the process of euthanasia in detail with you prior to the final appointment.
It may be helpful to even schedule an appointment without your pet prior to the procedure to talk to the vet, or you can ask to speak to the vet over the phone.
Make Burial or Cremation Decisions Ahead of Time
While arranging for the procedure, keep in mind that you also have options for your pet’s remains. You may choose to leave your pet with the veterinarian for burial or cremation, or you may be able to bury your pet at home depending on the ordinances in your area.
If you choose cremation, you have the option of communal cremation, which is less expensive, but you won’t get your pet’s ashes back. Private cremation is a bit more expensive, but the ashes will be returned to you.
Try to finalize these details, along with payment arrangements, ahead of time instead of having to make decisions in the emotional moments after your pet has passed away.
If you decide to have your veterinarian handle the cremation or burial arrangements, under no circumstances will your pet’s remains be handled disrespectfully or inappropriately after death. Do not be apologetic about asking what will happen after the euthanasia procedure.
There may be specific circumstances in which your veterinarian will offer you the option of having a necropsy performed on your pet after the euthanasia procedure. The value of a necropsy comes if there is concern about a potential toxic ingestion of a substance, or to identify cancer or evidence of other metabolic disorders in the body that led to your pet’s decline in health.
Necropsy findings can provide valuable information if you’re concerned about potential toxic dangers to other pets in your home or neighborhood, or to identify potential health issues in litters from the same genetic line.
Staying With Your Pet During the Euthanasia Appointment
It is your choice whether to stay in the examination room when your veterinarian administers the euthanasia solution. While the thought of watching your pet pass away may be difficult to imagine, many pet parents have later admitted that they regretted not being there when their pet was euthanized, feeling that they had abandoned their pet at a crucial time.
Consider very carefully how you will feel after your pet has been euthanized. Will you have regrets if you do not stay with your pet?
Many people think they cannot bear to see the moment of their friend’s passing. The truth is that no one is comfortable with death, including veterinary team members who regularly face the death of their animal clients.
This discomfort should not factor into your decision of whether to stay with your pet when they pass. It’s perfectly normal and acceptable to cry. This can be an incredibly sad experience, and even though the veterinary staff might have to go through this all too often, there really is no getting used to euthanizing someone’s beloved companion.
Your veterinarian’s office staff form strong connections with many of the pets in their care, and it’s not uncommon for them to also cry or feel grief at the loss. It is in these moments that you may find the extra comfort and support you need from staff members who genuinely share in the grief and heartache of your loss.
The Day of Your Appointment
Call before your appointment time to see if the vet is running behind. Veterinary practitioners certainly do not want to keep you waiting, but emergencies do come up. It is perfectly reasonable to ask the staff to let you know when the veterinarian will be ready to see your pet so you can go directly into the exam room when you arrive. You can also let them know if you would like to have some extra time in the room with your pet before the veterinarian comes in.
Why Your Pet May Need to Be Sedated
Your veterinarian will need access to a vein to administer the euthanasia solution to your pet. The euthanasia solution acts quickly and painlessly, but it must be administered intravenously. This requires that your pet be calm and relaxed, so your veterinarian will likely want to sedate your pet.
This ensures that the procedure is as humane and peaceful as possible. If your pet is uncooperative, defensive, or afraid, or becomes aggressive, your veterinarian will not be able to carry out the euthanasia procedure.
Veterinary standards of care do not require sedation to be given prior to euthanasia, so if your vet does not mention sedation when explaining the procedure, do not be afraid to request it before they proceed with the euthanasia injection.
The sedation injection may be given under the skin or in the muscle. Depending on the combination of medications used for sedation, the injection may sting or burn very briefly, but this sensation goes away quickly.
Once it’s given, it may take several minutes for your pet to relax completely. Some pets may take a few wobbly steps as they begin to feel the effects of the sedation, so it is important that they are protected from falling off the examination table (cats and small dogs) or have a soft blanket or bedding placed on the floor where they can lie down (larger dogs).
As they relax more, you may notice your pet breathing more slowly. Their pupils may become dilated, and some pets may even vocalize. These are all completely normal effects of the sedative.
Once the sedative has taken full effect, your pet may reach a state of unconsciousness, and you may choose to leave your pet at this time if you do not want to be present for the final injection.
Administering the Euthanasia Solution
Most euthanasia solutions are a combination of a barbiturate anesthetic (pentobarbital) and an anticonvulsant (phenytoin). This causes complete muscle relaxation and a quick and painless termination of all nerve transmission to the brain, which leads to cardiac arrest (the moment at which the heart stops beating).
The pentobarbital allows pets to quickly become unconscious, which is critical so your pet will have no awareness during the moment of cardiac arrest brought on by the phenytoin. Once the nerve impulses are no longer conducted, there is no thought, sensation, or movement.
Before the euthanasia solution is given, many veterinarians will put an intravenous catheter in place to ensure easy access to the bloodstream. That means that they can administer all injections through one port instead of having your pet endure multiple needle sticks.
The procedure is specifically designed to be as painless and stress-free as possible for your pet. Once the catheter is in place, you may request some time alone with your pet. This will be the final few minutes you get to share with your companion before saying goodbye, so do not be afraid to take the time you need.
You can help hold your pet or cradle them in your arms at the time of euthanasia. Your veterinarian will try to accommodate your wishes, but it is important that the solutions be injected within the vein for the procedure to be completed quickly and painlessly.
The Last Moments
Usually, within 6-12 seconds after the solution is injected, the pet will take a slightly deeper breath, then grow weak and finally lapse into what looks like a deep sleep. The pet, although completely unconscious, may continue to take a few more breaths and give a full body stretch before all movement stops.
For pets who are dehydrated or have poor circulation, the transition may take a few minutes longer due to a slower distribution of the euthanasia solution through the body. Some pets may also lose bladder or bowel control in the immediate moments after death, but this a natural effect of the body’s relaxation process, not a conscious or fearful response. You may ask for a towel to put on your lap if you are holding your pet.
Once the euthanasia solution has been administered, your veterinarian will listen to your pet’s chest to confirm that both breathing and the heartbeat have stopped. The vet may also gently pinch between your pet’s toes or touch the corner of the eye to be sure there is no movement or blink response.
Your veterinarian will be able to confirm that your pet has passed and may gently close their eyelids if you wish. This does not happen naturally after death due to the relaxation of the muscles that control eyelid movement.
Immediately After the Euthanasia Procedure
After the euthanasia procedure is complete, you can ask to spend a few more moments alone with your pet. If you would like this additional time to say goodbye, take all the time you need. You should never feel rushed to leave the clinic afterward.
If you have arranged to take your pet home, the veterinary staff will carefully wrap your pet in blankets or place them in their crate and will have staff members help carry your pet out to your car for you.
You may also want a friend or family member to come with you to the euthanasia appointment in case you are too upset to safely drive yourself home. It may be difficult to concentrate on driving after experiencing such an emotional event.
Aftercare Arrangements for Your Pet
There are several options for body care after your pet has passed away, including home burial, burial in a cemetery, private cremation, communal cremation, or aquamation.
If you do not have the option of home burial or simply do not wish to keep your pet’s remains after death, pet burial services in most communities will humanely take care of the final disposition for your beloved companion.
Home or Cemetery Burial
Before deciding to bury your pet at home, look into local ordinances to be sure that this is allowed. If you have local government or HOA restrictions that forbid home burial, you may want to contact cemeteries nearby to see if they are whole-family cemeteries, meaning that your pets can be buried in your family plot, or if they have a separate space dedicated for pet burials.
Green or eco-friendly pet burial options have become more popular and more widely available in recent years. Green pet cemeteries require biodegradable pet burial boxes or shrouds, which are often composed of cotton, cornstarch, bamboo, rice powder, or other non-toxic materials designed to break down quickly—usually within 5 years of burial.
If home burial or cemeteries are not your preference, there are several pet cremation services available. Traditional cremation involves heat incineration of the remains, which leaves a small amount of ash residue behind.
Most pet cremation services offer communal or private cremation. A communal cremation means that the ashes of several pets will be mixed, so you will usually not get your pet’s ashes back with this option.
If you choose to have your pet privately cremated, your veterinarian can help make these arrangements for you, and the veterinary staff will notify you when your pet’s ashes are ready for you to pick up.
The veterinary clinic staff can give you the name and phone number of the cremation service they use if you wish to speak directly to them to ask about the cremation process. You should get courteous and respectful answers, but if not, let your veterinarian know. It may even be helpful to call the cremation service long before that final day so the last moments with your pet are as stress-free as possible.
The process of aquamation requires much less energy than traditional cremation and leaves a significantly smaller carbon footprint behind.
Aquamation works by immersing the remains in a heated alkaline solution, which allows the body to break down in a way that’s similar to how the tissues would naturally decompose underground.
Aquamation also leaves an ash residue that can be saved and returned to you in either a permanent urn or a scattering urn.
Making Special Requests for Burial or Cremation
It is not unusual, nor unreasonable, for pet parents to save a bit of their pet's hair to keep in a locket or special container. There are also many specialty retailers that can create personal keepsakes such as bracelets, rings, and pendants containing a small amount of fur or ashes from your pet’s cremains.
Your veterinary staff can also make a paw print or nose print as a keepsake while you are still in the office. Some pet parents may want to include a few photos, or a rose, or even a personal letter or poem addressed to their pet in their burial shroud or cremains.
Do not be afraid to make special requests during this time as a final loving tribute to your companion.
Grieving the Loss of a Pet After Euthanasia
Grief is a personal experience, and it can be difficult to find the support you need from friends or family if they do not understand how it feels to lose a beloved pet.
Even a close friend might suggest that you can get over your loss by adopting a new pet. If someone has not personally experienced a loss of this magnitude, they simply will not be able to relate to a pet parent who is grief-stricken.
Some pet parents may tend to be critical of their own grief, saying things like, "Oh, this is ridiculous to feel like this over an animal.” But pets can be a special and important part of your life, and you should not have to apologize for grieving when you lose them.
Support Groups for Pet Loss
It is completely normal for you to feel the need to talk to someone who understands your sadness after the death of your pet. This loss may often bring up memories of other losses, potentially causing a vicious cycle of sadness, helplessness, and even clinical depression.
Fortunately, there are many pet loss support groups and counselors across the country who specialize in grief counseling to help you process your loss. You can find many in-person or online support groups that share their personal stories related to the loss of a pet.
Never feel ashamed or belittle yourself for having strong feelings of loss and sadness over a deceased pet. You are not alone in your sadness. It often takes longer than you would expect to move completely through the grieving process and make peace with the loss of your pet.
Featured Image: iStock/Rattankun Thongbun
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