How do you decide the right time and place to put a pet to sleep?
A lot of my time is spent helping owners make this all-important final decision. In the months and years leading up, some people over-think it, some people refuse to think about it at all. We all have different ways of responding to death, and unfortunately our culture hasn’t really equipped us well to deal with the euthanasia of our much-loved pets.
There is no small amount of irony that our pets are afforded a far more graceful and painless exit from this world than we are ourselves. The right to die with dignity is a massive debate raging in Australia and elsewhere in the world currently, and despite my own strong views on the matter, I won’t touch on that discussion in this post. But I will go through some of the issues we all need to think about in deciding when, where and what else.
The big one – when is the right time?
The actual answer is easy. Finding that answer in your pet’s case is trickier. It all comes back to happiness. It was no frivolous decision that saw me name my veterinary service Animal Happiness. The right time for any of us to die is when we are no longer happy and there is no prospect of being able to improve that. It really is as simple as that. It’s not about you – you need to be clear on that. For many of us our pets are an important element of our own well-being – both physical and mental. However, it is still our solemn responsibility to ensure our animals have the best welfare. To keep a pet alive because we don’t have the strength to let go is just not fair. Be honest with yourself.
But is your pet happy? Like, today? Determining confidently when your ageing and/or ill pet is no longer happy and there is no prospect of that improving at any stage is actually a lot more challenging. But so longer as you look at your animal through a lens of happiness assessment you will find it easier to make sense of.
- Do you see grumpiness that never used to appear?
- How often do you see that expression of enjoyment from interaction with you or other family members?
- Is diet and appetite becoming more and more of a problem? Are there frequent days when you can’t tempt them with anything?
- Does your pet spend the entire day sleeping and have none of the old behaviours remaining?
If you can answer yes to 2 or more of the points above it may be time for a reassessment. Of course you can’t make this sort of decision just on a simple check-list, but these are 4 valuable indicators of happiness, and if the picture you see of your pet suggests he or she is more unhappy than happy, it is time to see your vet and make sure you have a clear picture about the animal’s health and underlying quality of life.
Where is the right place?
Again, happiness is key. However, this time the happiness of everyone matters. For many people there is confidence and reassurance in the local clinic you have been taking the pet all these years. You know the staff and trust their professionalism – the clinic absolutely is the right place in that situation. For many others their grief is best handled in the privacy of their own home. And of course for many pets things are far less stressful in the house that is their whole world. If that is your situation, ask if your vet will provide a house call. Many vets who are not fully set up to do house calls regularly will still do so for valued clients for the final step of euthanasia.
Who should be there?
Many people prefer not to be present for the final moment, and there is no doubt – it can be extremely emotionally taxing and some people are not able to cope with it – and that is ok.
But if you are able to shoulder the burden I believe it is valuable to be there. Anyone who has ever had much involvement with the pet may wish to be present if it is possible. It is certainly valuable for the animal’s happiness for at least one close family member to be there and be close.
At this point I would like to offer a solemn mark of respect to the hundreds of mothers I have met over the years. It is certainly not always the case, but many many times I have seen big tough teenagers and even bigger tougher dads crumble and leave the room, but the mothers never leave – especially if the others have left. The strength a mother has to take care of those she raises always leaves me in awe. Thank you.
Children are another decision. Below 3-4 years most children do not understand much of what death means. By about 5-7 years most children understand the different aspects of death – and because they have more recently accepted that this will happen to them as well one day – they can be very emotional about it. However, I feel this is not entirely a reason to shield them from it. The fairest and most respectful thing to do is to simply ask your children if they wish to be present if you feel they are old enough to understand what it means. You, or more likely your vet, can explain the process if that helps them decide. And whatever they wish – that is the right answer and should be supported. Whether they are present or not they will learn and grow through the experience.
What actually happens?
Assuming you have a compassionate and communicative veterinarian the specifics of the process should be explained in understandable terms. The entire process only needs to take a few minutes and the final needle works in literally a few seconds but the process should proceed at a pace that you dictate. You can expect a quiet and usually gentle slide into sleep then subsequent death. Pets that are grumpy and/or in pain from their condition benefit from sedation to help ensure the process is graceful and stress-free. I always use a sedative injection to ensure the patient slides into a gentle sleep before the final needle.
Are there other things we should think about?
As we all tend to experience an outpouring of grief after the process is complete it is a good idea to have talked about and dealt with some practicalities before the event. You may want to ensure the veterinary bill for the procedure is paid before-hand and it is a very good idea to have decided how you want the body handled afterward. Some people are still in a position to be able to bury a pet on their property but for many this isn’t an option and aftercare through a pet cremation company needs to be considered. Cremation still provides the option of having the ashes returned for ceremony or keepsake. When I provide euthanasia for pets in Perth homes I am able to take the pet with me for burial or cremation.
Discuss these things well before the event with your family or at least think them through clearly yourself if it is just your decision to make. Death is a part of life and whatever you believe about what happens afterwards. Dealing with the process with grace and acceptance is something we owe our furry family members.
They don’t know to fear death but they certainly know to appreciate our love to the very end.
- Hughes. National Geographic – When do kids understand death? 2013 (Retrieved 2015)
- Cooney et al. Veterinary Euthanasia Techniques. 2012