Although the question of euthanizing a pet is emotional, preparing for this end-of-life procedure can alleviate some stress and grief associated with it. Euthanasia, a painless experience for the pet when conducted by a veterinarian, may be the last act of compassion you can show toward your ill or suffering pet.
Veterinarians, who know how personal this decision is, can help guide you through the process. Common questions that arise when pet owners face this decision include:
- Is my pet suffering?
- What are the effective treatment options?
- How do I know if the illness/condition is affecting my pet’s quality of life?
Veterinarians began offering formalized pet euthanasia services tailored to support client emotions in the early 1980s. One of the first grief support programs was Changes: Support for People and Pets. It is now known as the Argus Institute at Colorado State University. The Argus Institute offers direct clinical support to pet owners and training to veterinarians and veterinary students.
To help clients with this difficult decision, some veterinarians dedicate tranquil spaces within clinics where private discussions about pet euthanasia can take place. At AAHA-accredited Vista Veterinary Hospital in Texas, the grief/consultation suite is windowed and contains plants and a comfortable couch. “It’s a warm, home-like environment,” said Michelle Iund, DVM, owner.
Saying goodbye to a cherished pet is never easy but veterinary professionals can help you identify when it is in the pet’s best interest to do so. Iund recently euthanized her own pet Jesse, a beloved 16-year-old cocker spaniel, so she knows firsthand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“I’d had her since she was six weeks old,” Iund said. “She was my close companion and inspiration. From this very personal, heart-wrenching experience, I can unequivocally tell you that nothing prepares you for that time.”
Euthanasia: ...a painless and easy death to a patient suffering from an incurable or painful disease. [Webster’s II New College Dictionary]
Joy Dias, PhD, director of the Companions Program at the University of Florida Veterinary Medical Center, agreed. “If you’re waiting for the day when all the events are right to make the decision [to euthanize a pet], it’ll never happen.”
Arming yourself with pertinent details can, however, soften the emotional blow. Knowing how illness affects pets helps pet owners feel more confident about the difficult decision to euthanize, professionals said.
Dias, who offers bereavement counseling, advises pet owners to ask whether pets will get better, if the good days outweigh the bad, and when that balance will shift. “Would you rather [have] your pet’s last day be a good or bad one?” she asks clients.
Veterinarians urge pet owners to consider that the average life span is 10 to 12 years for dogs and 12 to 15 years for indoor cats. A pet’s age and stamina are factors to consider when weighing euthanasia against a possible extended medical recovery effort that may last a few weeks or months.
Barb Gaddess, a registered veterinary technician and owner of Valley Veterinary Hospital, an AAHA-accredited hospital in Canada, said that the ideal scenario is for veterinarians and clients to make euthanasia decisions together.
For example, the hospital recently admitted a cat that was struggling to breathe. Despite many attempts with medication, surgery, and therapy, the cat did not recover, she explained. “The client and veterinarian decided that they had done everything possible to help the cat but due to the increasing breathing trouble it would be best to euthanize him.”
A client recently sent the following note to the team at Valley Veterinary Hospital for their help during the euthanasia of her pet Rocko:
"I will never be able to express to you how deeply I appreciated your support, kindness and gentleness… especially for showing me how much you cared for Rocko that day and always. I really needed that. It helped me in my sorrow."
Euthanasia Resources for Pet Owners:
Questions to Consider Before Euthanasia Procedures:
- Should the procedure be handled at the veterinary clinic or at home?
- Which family members should be present?
- How will you explain the decision to other family members?
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 4, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.