Euthanasia is a word derived from the Greek, literally meaning “good death.” It is a matter of ethical and practical necessity and one of the most difficult decisions anyone can ever make for a pet who is a beloved friend. Although the decision is demanded by humanitarian obligation, it is always traumatic for the person who must finally make it. It is perhaps the ultimate heartbreak we must be willing to endure for our dear companion animals.
Euthanasia should be used to put an end to terminal suffering and a negative quality of life. This choice is highly subjective and often difficult to make, but it is part of ultimate responsibility. We are morally obliged to protect and support the lives of our animal friends. A compassionate necessity to end a pet’s life must not be avoided or procrastinated. Unfortunately, some people abuse this sacred trust by putting their own feelings above the needs of their pets—and they almost always sorely regret that later.
This is almost never a foreign concept to pet owners. From our earliest days as stewards, most of us have given it some fleeting thought, perhaps unconsciously preparing for this possible need. That, however, is always an abstraction before the grim reality forces itself on us. It is normal to want to turn one’s back on this when there is no compelling need for it. We are accomplished at not thinking about death until forced by circumstances to face it.
A COMPLEX DECISION
Although it is the right thing to do for the animal, euthanasia can be a psychological nightmare of confusion, guilt, and final responsibility for the owner. To opt for it, you must truly believe that it is the only recourse to ease a pet’s pain and suffering. Once you accept that, be steadfast in your belief that it is appropriate. As part of the bereavement process, most people will invent some guilt and second thoughts about this later, although it is not merited.
The fear of death can be immobilizing to some. Anticipation of the death of the pet can be so overwhelming that one may be sorely tempted to delay making the necessary decision. But the pet suffers much more than the owner. Fatal accidents and death while undergoing surgery sometimes take the responsibility of the decision away from us. Otherwise, we are honor-bound to exercise this ultimate trust and duty in a timely way. That will be one of the most painful moments in your life.
And it will always be one of the most loving. To some people, the decision to employ euthanasia is a convenience and is as easy and simple as throwing away an unwanted toy. To others, it is a desperate, necessary resolution they want but cannot easily confront. Fortunately, most of the
rest of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. Choosing euthanasia is probably one of the most upsetting decisions one will ever have to make. But to own and care for a pet, we must accept the dreaded responsibility of possibly being forced to make this upsetting choice some day.
Palliation is a term for positive medical intervention in terminal cases. It will usually prolong life but always at additional financial and emotional expense to the owner. But the first considerations should be for the animal. Most of us certainly don’t want our beloved pet to have to endure extended pain, dysfunction, and additional stresses—even for a little while—for our own sake. That’s why we speak of giving our beloved animals the chance for death with dignity before it is too late.
Ultimately, the disease is killing your pet, not the mercy afforded by the euthanasia
ASPECTS OF EUTHANASIA
As difficult as it is, we must try to separate emotion from the decision-making process when contemplating this necessary alternative. It may help to keep in mind that there are three basic aspects of the distressing subject of euthanasia: practical, ethical, and psychological. In most cases, they are all vitally interrelated, and each can be overwhelming. From the practical point of view, euthanasia may be the only answer to how one should humanely deal with the degenerating quality of the pet’s life.
For example, it is practical to euthanize a dog who turns vicious. Here there is no margin for an alternative choice. Another practical consideration can be that an owner may not be able to bear the overwhelming emotional stress caused by a slowly dying pet. One of the most practical considerations is financial. The vet may offer the hope of temporary recovery if very expensive procedures are implemented. That can cost thousands of dollars, far beyond the ability of most pet owners. Under this circumstance, it is understandable when they must opt to euthanize, although it is especially heartbreaking for them. Also extensive surgery and
procedures such as chemotherapy can be very painful as well as upsetting for an animal. That must be taken into consideration as well.
The ethical aspects are theoretical and more easily accepted. They make perfectly good sense, but the loving owner of a euthanized companion animal may suffer deep psychological distress from this. Tragically, the beloved pet must have its life terminated by the one person who loves it most. This is both an irony of fate and an extreme act of love, and this emotional strain is like nothing else.
JUST KEEPING A PET ALIVE IS NOT ENOUGH
The list of practical considerations can become a long one. There are many instances of pets suffering from extreme “separation anxiety”— to the point where they are destructive to themselves, the household, and the owner’s nerves and lifestyle as well. In cases when this behavioral problem cannot be successfully treated by an animal behaviorist or medication, euthanasia is a valid option for the heartbroken pet owner. When surrounded by their human family, these otherwise pathological pets can be very loving and dear. But when left alone, they suffer enormous stress and can run amok, even to the point of damaging themselves. It is very rare that the owner of such a disturbed pet can find another home that could provide constant attention and love. And even with that option, the sudden sense of abandonment by its loved family would surely cause new emotional trauma and behavioral problems. Just keeping it alive is not enough. Middle-aged pets who develop unusual or problem behavior should be examined by a vet for possible growths or lesions on the brain or even a shift in neurochemical balance.
In older pets, we sometimes see radical behavior changes that can be very upsetting or even dangerous. This includes biting, aggression, and loud vocalizations. In almost all cases, that is caused by the aging and deterioration of brain cells. Just as we see various forms of Alzheimer’s disease affecting people in different ways, the effects in animals can be even more noticeable and troublesome. Medication usually is no help, as it dulls all the pet’s senses, effectively turning it into a mere shadow of its former self. And in time, the condition worsens. There is no cure. In the long run, once it is decided that euthanasia is the only option, these considerations clearly demand that the owner should no longer be concerned with if it should be done but with when. The psychology involved in making such a lifedeath decision is always distressing. Sometimes that determination can be more easily made with the support of people who are close to you. It is wise to get professional guidance or counseling if this proves to be unduly disturbing. But the final decision always has to come from the owner—nobody else.
We must be on top of the situation. As already mentioned, it may be advisable to have someone you trust with you when you are faced with the decision. Later, it is too late to change your mind. The suffering, terminally ill pet may be ready for it, but too often the owner is not.
THE EUTHANASIA PROCESS
The expression “putting an animal to sleep” is quite literal, in addition to being the most frequently used euphemism. The euthanasia process itself is designed to be as quick and peaceful for you and your pet as possible. Ideally, euthanasia solution is injected intravenously, usually in the animal’s front or back leg and is a fastacting sedative, which stops the heart within a very short period of time. When the veterinarian is ready to begin the procedure, an assistant will usually be asked to help hold your pet. After shaving the area, the veterinarian inserts a needle or catheter into the vein.
He or she will test it first, to make sure it is in the vein and that the solution is administered as desired.
Your veterinarian may choose to sedate your pet or place an intravenous catheter beforehand to help ensure a smooth procedure. If sedation is used, it will be administered first, allowing the animal to relax and fall into a comfortable deep sleep. A veterinarian may also choose to administer the euthanasia solution into the vein by itself. Discuss this in advance with him or her. Once the euthanasia solution is given, the animal’s muscles will relax, and the heart will stop beating.
Most owners are surprised at how quickly death comes: in seconds. In some instances, the muscles may contract or relax briefly after the heart has stopped. At that time, the pet may void urine and/or stool. Other involuntary contractions may occur, such as appearing to gasp or moving the extremities. But it is important to realize that this is strictly a muscle reflex, and the life is already gone. Also, the eyes may not close. Try to remember that your pet is not aware of any of these things, as they happen after death has occurred. At this time, most veterinarians will ask if you would like to spend a few moments alone with your pet. Some pet owners initially think they will be more comfortable if they do not observe their pet’s final moments and would rather be in the waiting room (or else- where) during the procedure. But bear in mind that those who opt for not being present often later feel a terrible sense of guilt about this. If possible, discuss this with your veterinarian or the office staff before the appointment is made. Learn exactly how euthanasia is performed at that particular office. Your pet’s health and temperament and your preferences should all be considered.
For very small, young, or exotic animals, there may be some exceptions to the procedure just described. Be sure that you are comfortable with the methodology that you and your veterinarian choose. You may need to find another veterinarian to do the procedure the way you prefer.
As terrible and difficult as it is for each pet owner, most will want to be present for this simple procedure. They prefer to hold the pet in their arms, calming the animal and expressing their own final loving farewells and tears. The moment is so intensely personal and emotional that it often becomes overwhelming. It is an experience that is never forgotten. Your veterinarian may prefer that you do not hold the pet at this time, as sometimes an overwrought owner will interfere with the procedure—and even possibly hurt the pet. Ask about this beforehand. If you are capable and the vet still will not allow this, you still have the option to find another vet who will permit you to hold your dear pet in its final moments of life.
Some shelters as a rule do not permit an owner to even be in the same room at the time of the procedure. Always check on this well in advance.
Veterinarians and their staffs find euthanasia very upsetting, despite their frequent need to perform it. A few, however, have developed an office rule that the pet owner may not even be present during the actual procedure.
Experience has taught them that owners can suffer from a variety of unexpected, strong emotional responses. And that can make an already terrible but necessary procedure absolutely horrible for them. After a while, euthanizing so many dear pets can cause professional burnout. This is often professionally referred to as “compassion fatigue,” and additional stress to the veterinary staff needs to be avoided at the time
of the procedure.
Also, these veterinarians have a concern for financial liability. They may be sued. Some owners may faint, hurting themselves in the fall. Others might get hysterical, grow irrational or destructive, or even suffer a heart attack from the exceptional stress. It is best to discuss this first with your veterinarian and ask for advice. Again, if it is necessary, you may have to choose another veterinarian for the procedure. But only you should make the decision. You will have to live with yourself and the memory.
In dealing with the euthanasia of our beloved pets, our emotional composure is sacrificed. This is the last testimonial to our lives together. Intense personal grief is the price of that necessary, humane action. However, it is not uncommon to hear that this special moment together is sometimes experienced as a very spiritual, loving, transcendent episode. Many report that this unexpectedly gave them a pro-
found and quieting sense of completion. So for some, it may not be so dreadful after all.
If you opt for this act of mercy, it is good to close this chapter well. Say your personal, tearful goodbyes. Understand that there is a unity in all things. When you die, your oneness with your beloved pet will be even more complete. But for now, it must be over—except in your heart.
Yet there are people who cannot bear to experience this, and there should be no shame. Witnessing the moment of death is far too upsetting for them. This can make their bereavement worse because it adds to the confusion of guilt and irrational reasoning later. Opting to be present or not is a very painful and important decision. What is best for you should be taken into consideration as well. But once it is done, honor the action. Then move on with your own life and honor the beloved pet’s memory as part of your evolving self.
In being the provider of all things to your pet, you have assumed a godlike role. From your pet’s point of view, you are the source of everything and the cause of all that it understands. In addition to the love the pet knows, this includes everything from obedience, tricks, and toys to food, medical care, shelter, company, and every experience it has had.
But, as stated earlier, with this role, you also took on the awesome responsibility of possibly having to make that final decision of life and death someday. As much as you don’t want to have such an obligation, you do. There is no one else who has this moral and legal responsibility to decide or act accordingly. You must make that informed choice and be able to live with it. And you have to be absolutely right in your conclusions out of love for your pet. Later on, this must not become distorted into some neurotic challenge to your own decision-making. This is always painful and fraught with emotional pitfalls. When done for the pet’s benefit, it is always the right decision.
It is regrettable, but most organized religions use generalities and euphemisms regarding this relatively new problem of the death of pets. They find many reasons for sidestepping the issue and avoiding real answers. We are too often forced to make religious interpretations that fit the times but have no biblical precedent. What can be wrong with “playing God” during an emergency if God doesn’t act? Perhaps the deity sees it as your responsibility. There are many who now believe that the moral requirement demands humane action from the divinity within each