Reviewed and updated for accuracy on August 6, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
From the moment you welcome a new pet into your family, a strong bond starts to take root.
As the years pass by, your mind races ahead. "I hope this little rascal lives a long time." Maybe you even wonder, "Will I ever be able to 'put down' my pet? Is euthanasia inevitable?”
We always fear losing our pets because they mean so much to us. Nevertheless, that time inevitably does come, and you should be prepared both emotionally and in a practical way.
So, what’s the process for pet euthanasia, and how can you deal with the grief afterwards?
Coping With the Reality of Pet Euthanasia
I’ve often thought how wonderful it would have been if my Golden Retrievers and wonderful feline friends would have lived 60 or 70 years!
However, that’s not the case with our devoted feline and canine companions. And when that final day with a beloved pet comes, every pet owner reacts in a slightly different way.
Euthanasia is sort of weird that way. I have seen totally objective (and even outright callous) pet owners simply drop off their pet for euthanasia with no more respect or empathy than a robot.
I have never been able to understand this type of pet owner who seems to be saying, "When you're dead, you're dead." Sort of like euthanasia is no big deal.
In reality, they could at least comfort or simply be with their pet at the time of euthanasia, and yet, for their own reasons, they choose to separate themselves from the final moments of their pet's life.
Maybe we are so close to our pets that we somehow project our own humanity and mortality onto them, and we actually see ourselves in our own last moments.
On the other hand, I have witnessed seemingly strong, objective individuals that seem to be somewhat cold and distant who completely fall apart at the time of their pet's passing. The theme to keep in mind is that pet euthanasia is a completely personal experience.
You have to decide what is best for you and your pet.
I have had people actually say to me, "I am sorry, Doctor, but I don't know how to act right now." My usual response 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, I would like to offer a few guidelines so that you will have some firmer ground to stand on when "that time" does come.
Setting Up the Appointment for the Euthanasia Procedure
You can either take your pet to your vet for the procedure, or you can opt for in-home pet euthanasia services.
If you go the traditional route, be sure to tell the receptionist that you would like to schedule the appointment at a time when the veterinarian is not in a hurry 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 veterinarian and their staff know what a difficult decision this is, so they will be willing to work with you to find a 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 regarding the euthanasia procedure.
Most veterinarians will discuss the process of euthanasia in detail with you prior to performing it. If you are uncomfortable about discussing this in front of your pet or on the day of the euthanasia, then call your veterinarian to discuss it over the phone, or schedule an appointment without your pet prior to the procedure so you know what to expect.
Make Burial or Cremation Decisions Ahead of Time
While arranging for the procedure, keep in mind that you have a right to take your deceased pet home for burial. You may also choose to leave your deceased pet with the veterinarian for burial or cremation.
Always sort out these details ahead of time instead of having to deal with this after you have just lost your pet.
If you decide to let your veterinarian handle the cremation or burial, let me dispel an ugly myth about euthanasia. I can't tell you how many concerned pet owners have innocently asked me, "You aren't going to experiment on her, are you?" or "You aren't going to sell him to some lab, are you?"
I have never known of any veterinarian anywhere who sells deceased pets. There are no labs that would even consider taking a deceased animal.
And as for experimentation after a euthanasia procedure, there is no "experiment " that a veterinarian can do in their practice on a deceased pet that would have any impact whatsoever on veterinary science.
It is a totally different matter for your veterinarian to ask you, respectfully, if you would want an autopsy performed for a specific reason. Veterinarians do not sell deceased pets or do experiments on them, so you can rest assured on these matters.
But you certainly have a right to know what will be done with your dog if you choose to leave her body with the veterinarian. Do not be apologetic about asking what will happen after the euthanasia procedure.
Staying With Your Pet During the Euthanasia Appointment
It is your personal choice whether or not to be present in the exam or surgery room when the veterinarian administers the euthanasia solution.
However, I will offer an observation I have made from feedback from my clients. A multitude of pet owners have regretted NOT being there when their pet was euthanized, and they later feel that they may have abandoned their pet at a crucial time. This has created a certain sense of guilt for these pet parents that simply will not go away.
So, think over very carefully how you will feel long after your pet has been put to sleep. 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, even your veterinarian and animal hospital staff who face death every day.
Your discomfort should not govern your decision of whether or not to be present with your pet at the time of their passing. Many apprehensive clients end up asking afterward, with a slightly surprised look, "Is that it? That was very quick and peaceful. Thank you, Doctor."
Let me be very clear about something: It is perfectly normal and acceptable to cry. This can be a very sad experience, and even though the animal hospital staff might have to go through this all too often, there really is no getting used to euthanizing a dog.
Your vet’s office staff has often formed a strong connection with many of the pets in their care, and they often cry as well. So you really have no need to pretend that you can handle it when you feel terrible inside. Of course, you may request time to grieve in private afterward in the room with your pet.
The Day of Your Appointment
You might choose to call ahead of your appointment to see if there will be any delays prior to your scheduled time. As a veterinarian, I have never been comfortable seeing a client sitting patiently in the waiting room with their pet for that final appointment.
It is perfectly reasonable for you to ask the receptionist to let you know when the doctor is ready to see your pet so that you can bring them directly into the exam room. You should not have to be isolated in the exam room for a long period of time, either.
Why Your Pet May Need to Be Sedated
In order to administer the euthanasia solution, your veterinarian must gain entry into a vein. The euthanasia solution is specially made to act quickly and painlessly, but it must be administered intravenously. This requires that your pet be calm and confident.
If the veterinarian requests your permission to sedate your pet, please understand that the request is made in order to humanely and peacefully accomplish the task at hand. If your pet is uncooperative, defensive, afraid or even fractious, your veterinarian will not be able to properly carry out the euthanasia procedure.
Administering the Euthanasia Solution
Most euthanasia solutions are made of a combination of chemicals that cause complete muscle relaxation and a quick and painless termination of nerve transmission. When nerve impulses are not conducted, there is no thought, no sensation and no movement.
The solution is available only to licensed veterinarians, and your veterinarian must possess a special certificate in order to purchase the solution.
When the euthanasia solution is ready to be administered, many veterinarians will put an intravenous catheter in place to ensure an open port to the vein. That means that they can administer both injections through one port instead of having to poke your pet multiple times.
The procedure is specifically designed to be as painless and stress-free as possible for your pet.
I have seen many pet owners choose to help hold their pet, and some have even held their pet in their arms at the time of euthanasia. Your veterinarian will try to accommodate your wishes, but remember that it is imperative that the solutions be injected within the vein for the procedure to unfold properly.
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. (This state gives rise to the questionable euphemism, "to put to sleep.")
The pet, although completely unconscious, may continue to take a few more breaths before all movement ceases. I have found that the older and sicker the pet, the longer this unconscious breathing state goes on.
Immediately After the Euthanasia Procedure
If you do choose to visit with your pet after they have been euthanized, ask your veterinarian to be sure that your pet's eyelids are closed. Some pet owners have been saddened even further by looking into their deceased pet's eyes.
I generally ask if my clients would like to spend a few moments alone with their pets. Some people do, and some people do not.
If you have arranged to take your pet home, a container will be ready to receive the pet. The veterinarian will usually place the pet into the container and will have someone help carry your pet out to your car for you.
Here's another suggestion: You may want someone to be with you after the euthanasia appointment to drive you home. You may be surprised how difficult it can be to concentrate on driving after undergoing such an emotional event.
Cremation Arrangements for Your Pet
If you choose to have your pet cremated, your veterinarian generally will make the arrangements through a cremation service and will notify you when you can expect to have the ashes returned.
I have found that pet owners are surprised at the small quantity of ashes that are returned. Remember, most living creatures are about 95 percent water.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask, "How do I know that the ashes that I receive will actually be those of my pet?" Everyone wonders about that.
Your veterinarian should be able to provide you with the name and phone number of the cremation service. Don't be afraid to call them and ask them about your concerns.
You should get courteous and respectful answers to all your questions, and if you don't, let your veterinarian know. In fact, it would be a good idea to call the cremation service long before that final day so that the last moments with your pet are as stress-free as possible.
Making Special Requests for Burial or Cremation
It is not unusual, nor unreasonable, for pet owners to save a bit of their pet's hair as a physical remembrance of their special friend. Some people want their pet to be buried or cremated with a few photos, or a rose, or even a personal letter or poem addressed to their pet.
Just remember that it is YOUR friend and YOUR pet that is passing away, and you can do anything you wish to ease your transition into the time of separation from that friend.
Grieving the Loss of a Pet After Euthanasia
Many, many pet owners experience a very strong and lasting sense of pain and grief after the passing of a pet. Grief is such a personal experience. It can be difficult to find the support you need from friends or family if they don’t understand what it’s like to lose a beloved pet.
Even a close friend might say, "Oh, just go get another one.” If someone hasn't personally experienced the loss of a pet, they simply aren’t able to connect with a pet parent who is grief-stricken.
Some pet parents tend to be critical of their own grief, saying things like, "Oh, this is ridiculous to feel like this over a Cocker Spaniel.”
Our pets are important to us, and we don't have to apologize for feeling so devastated when we lose them.
Support Groups for Pet Loss
It is okay for you to feel the need to talk to someone who understands your sadness! The loss of a pet also often brings up memories of other losses—potentially causing a vicious cycle of sadness, helplessness and even clinical depression.
There are a number of grief support groups and counselors who specialize in pet loss counseling. You can find support groups online who meet online or in person to discuss feelings 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. There are numerous websites that can be helpful and informative while you progress along the road of accepting the loss of your pet.
It always takes longer than you would expect to start functioning "normally" again.
By: T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
Featured Image: iStock.com/Uberphotos
Do pets grieve when they lose a human companion? If Pets Could Talk: A Heartwarming Letter from Dog to Friend.
If you are having serious self-doubt about having a pet euthanized, my personal advice is to read A Letter From Annie. It will make a difference.