Which of us has not hoped that, in the end, our pet would pass away peacefully and painlessly in its sleep? Unfortunately, that rarely happens.
Instead we have to make that final decision to save our companions from the pain, anxiety and suffering that can come with a dreadful disease or debilitating old age.
A source to help make the decision: The HHHHHMM Scale
A quality of life scale, such as the one below adapted by Dr. Alice Villalobos, can help pet owners weigh one of the hardest decisions they'll ever have to make as a pet owner: the decision to euthanize.
Villalobos offers "The HHHHHMM Scale." It allows pet caretakers to examine difficult issues and determine whether they'll be able to help their ailing pet in a humane way, or if they should consider the option of hospice care and eventually euthanasia.
The scale is broken down into seven factors that would get a score of 1 to 10 (1 is poor, 10 is best). The scale can be found here: www.veterinarypracticenews.com/images/pdfs/Quality_of_Life.pdf
Yes, it's difficult. Often, what makes it so hard is wondering if you are scheduling it too soon, not giving your friend every chance. You may be reluctant because you are not sure about what the euthanasia process involves and worry that it might be painful.
Or, because animals are good at hiding pain, you may think that it is not suffering and a "natural" death will bring its end and take the burden off you.
But a "natural" death does not necessarily mean that it's a peaceful death, says Mary Gardner, DVM, co-founder of Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice network in Lutz, Fla. Many "end-stage" diseases and conditions can be extremely painful or full of anxiety for the pet.
- Congestive heart failure. As the heart condition worsens, fluid builds up in the lungs. In end-stage heart failure, a pet actually suffocates in its own lung fluid. Unfortunately for the animal, this results in an enormous amount of pain and anxiety.
- Kidney or liver failure. These organs filter out toxins. As toxins build to poisonous levels in the blood stream, a pet becomes very sick, loses its appetite and slowly dies from starvation, dehydration and complications.
- Secondary complications from arthritis or mobility. As their joints increasingly hurt and muscles atrophy, pets move less and eventually lose mobility completely. This will not end the pet's life but complications such as bed sores and infection will.
Discussions with a veterinarian are critical
Pets experience and react to life changes and disease processes differently. That's why in-depth discussions with your veterinarian are important.
There are many ways to alleviate animal suffering with treatments for specific diseases, pain relievers, laser therapy, acupuncture and hospice care, says Ronald Biese, DVM, Kaukauna Veterinary Clinic, in Kaukauna, Wis. Unfortunately, too often owners don't want to spend much money on their older pets, and, without euthanization, these animals can suffer greatly.
Because animals—cats especially— have the instinct to show little weakness for fear of losing pack status and becoming prey, they hide as much pain as they can. "This is why, at the very end of their life, they will often hide to be alone to die," says Biese.
But going off to die doesn't mean death happens quickly. "I have had many frantic phone calls from people who wanted a ‘natural' passing for their pet but the process was taking too long or was not very peaceful," says Gardner. "The pet might start having a seizure, choke or have difficulty breathing. This is not easy to watch or let your pet go through and people need to be prepared for this."
If an owner doesn't want to, or can't afford to, do much for their ailing pet, they should consider humane euthanasia to end its suffering, says Biese. "I always give owners options to give their pet some relief while they decide. However, I do strongly believe that terminally ill or very sick animals are better off having their suffering relieved than to sit in agony until they finally do pass away."
Biese recalls when an adult cat was finally brought in for humane euthanasia—the pet weighed 1.8 pounds. "She was still alive, but not able to move. There was no muscle left on her at all."
Inquire about euthanasia
Ask your veterinarian about euthanasia and what it entails at their hospital. It's important to understand the ways it can be administered and veterinarians will vary with their techniques. If possible it is best to have this conversation before the need arises when emotions are calm.
Many prefer to first sedate the pet. "A small sedative helps the pet relax and get comfortable while the family says their goodbyes," says Gardner. "If you have ever had surgery, it's similar to the sedative before the anesthesia."
The euthanasia medication is a potent drug that quickly provides humane, painless and rapid unconsciousness and death.
This liquid drug may be injected directly into a vein or it also may be given through an intravenous catheter. If your pet is hospitalized with a catheter in place, the veterinarian may use that catheter. If a catheter is not in place, the staff may place one. However, if the pet is dehydrated or has low blood pressure, it may be impossible to place a catheter. The veterinarian may then have no choice but to inject the drug into the abdomen. If this is the case, the staff will probably administer the injection in a treatment area and return the pet to the owner while the drug is absorbed.
As long as the pet is properly sedated beforehand, they do not feel any of these methods. "Occasionally, a pet may vocalize (yelp or howl) but this is a natural reflex and does not mean they are in pain," says Gardner. "Some pets also may be startled by the feeling of the liquid going through their veins. It's similar to the odd sensation we may feel when receiving IV fluids not the same temperature as our blood."
Humane euthanasia can be your final gesture of love—allowing your ailing pet's final minutes to be ones where he or she can pass on without pain or anxiety, surrounded by the people they love and trust to do the best for them.
Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Barbara Helgason, ©iStockphoto.com/AScarlettRaymond