Euthanasia : Greek translation “eu” =goodly or well “thanatos”=death
THE GOOD DEATH
By. Dr. Leslie Ross, D.V.M. B.Sc.
While I was in the process of planning the format and content of this article I soon realized that I would need to change my plan of a detached academic approach to a more personal discussion because the process of euthanasia is a personal and unique experience for all parties involved including the grieving family members, the participating veterinarian and in many cases associated animal care assistants. Therefore, I wish to acknowledge that I will be expressing my own views regarding this very emotional experience and presenting my own opinions, which I am comfortable to admit, may not match with some other pet owner’s views.
The procedure of pet euthanasia applies specifically to a veterinarian inducing the death of a pet with a lethal injection to a patient who is suffering unrelievably. The personal experience of pet euthanasia is almost invariably a difficult issue for people to confront and often involves a flood of emotions including fear, guilt, and grief yet, it is a necessary experience we must all be ready to face whenever we make a lifetime commitment to a companion animal.
Although it can never be an uncomplicated experience to undergo, if one is as informed and prepared as possible it can make it a little easier to deal with the experience when the time finally arrives. This can be accomplished by talking to all involved family members and your veterinarian about the process long before the time actually is upon you. These discussions should involve the making of key decisions ahead of time regarding final proceedings such as when, where, and how they will proceed. Even if these decisions are changed at the time of action, it allows for a calmer, often more rational choice while your pet is still with you rather than having to make them in the middle of a crisis where snap decisions may be regretted later.
Of all the decisions that need to be taken into consideration regarding euthanasia, most frequently the hardest one to make is when to accept that it is time. Of course, there is no one correct answer to this very difficult question since it is so much an individual and personal decision to make. However common signs of prolonged, severe unrelenting suffering and pain can alert caregivers wrestling with this problem to consider euthanasia as the final act of kindness. Some questions caregivers can ask themselves are: has he or she stopped eating, drinking or is he panting almost continuously, pacing endlessly, whining anxiously or crying especially at night? How about his overall daily existence? Is he or she enjoying any part of his day-to-day experience or are his good days rare or even absent?
Of course for any signs of serious health concerns such as the above and also such as falling, seizures, urinary or fecal incontinence, obsessive foreleg licking or licking of open non-healing sores, it is best to consult with your veterinarian to benefit from his or her professional guidance. Your veterinarian is an informed source of medical knowledge about disease and organ failure and is best able to assess and assist you from a wider perspective. In a considerable number of cases, the signs of illness mentioned above may be treatable and if treatments are implemented may significantly improve a suffering pet’s quality of life. The assumption that these signs are common and expected as signs of “getting old” can in fact miss the opportunity to alleviate some health problems resulting in a sustained improvement of a pet’s quality of life. A good example of a common problem in older dogs is anxiety. It is important to note that prolonged anxiety is a form of emotional pain that can be worse than any physical pain in animals. A common cause in older animals is arthritic pain. Currently there are many safe and effective medications available to treat pets suffering from degenerative joint disease allowing for a much more comfortable and active lifestyle for them in their twilight years.
For many people, some additional preparatory steps prior to decision day and to make the day a little less stressful include:
- Understanding how the procedure of euthanasia is actually performed. Your veterinarian can explain this to you in simple or more complex terms depending on your needs.
- Deciding ahead of time whether your family members wish to be present in the room with your pet as your veterinarian performs this procedure, in the waiting room to view your pet later, or perhaps not present at all.
- Another consideration may be directed towards the thought of arranging for a housecall visit so that your pet can pass away in his familiar surroundings that he has come to know so well.
Still, other questions to ask yourself and other involved parties include the discussion of aftercare of your pet’s remains. Options include burial, cremation, home burial (of course municipal restrictions must be adhered to with this option) and even orchestrated elaborate funerals, which may include a eulogy, ceremony and hymns. Additionally, many people may wish to acquire treasured keepsakes from their pet such as paw prints, nose prints or snippets of a beloved pet’s hair.
In general, unfortunately, a pet does not “let you know” when you need to let him or her go because an animal’s nature is to accept pain and suffering as it comes. Of course, if Mother Nature has her way, suffering animals detach themselves from their world by retreating to a “safe “resting place and suspend themselves from the daily activities necessary to maintain their life but unfortunately, this process of dying is generally protracted and at times, dreadfully painful. Animals very rarely die peacefully in their sleep during their shutdown of body systems. Of course, for wild creatures, Mother Nature often mercifully provides the release of suffering much faster for these animals, generally by predators or the elements.
On occasion, for religious, cultural or personal reasons some people prefer to not end their pet’s life but rather to allow for a peaceful passing at home. It is very important that these animals be provided with pain management and veterinary supervision as well as intensive nursing and hygiene care until the final active stage of death occurs.
When a pet’s life declines to a very low point, a gift of rest by euthanasia may be the last act of compassion that can be offered by a loving caregiver, as difficult as it will be to say goodbye. In my experience I have found it useful to suggest as a visual aid, a diary of sorts, using colored marbles in a jar. A certain color can represent a good day and an opposing color a poor-quality day (or night). When the number of bad-day marbles outnumbers the good-day marbles, it is time.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the process of euthanasia is one that is a personal and unique experience for all involved parties, which includes as a group the grieving family members, all involved animal care assistants, and the participating veterinarian. Every situation is different, involving in many cases intense emotions.
Veterinarians, as a group, along with the intensity of the euthanasia experience itself, must form and be guided by personal decisions regarding certain aspects of euthanasia. These personal decisions are based on past experiences, upbringing and personality factors as well as individual circumstances. Convenience euthanasia’s and euthanasia of aggressive animals are two examples of difficult circumstances requiring individual decisions. Further, even opinions such as, for example, whether young children should observe euthanasia’s are open to debate even within the veterinary profession. Although there can be a few exceptions to my own customary views, I am in general opposed to convenience euthanasia’s but in support of euthanasia of aggressive animals that for no apparent health or other reason cause physical harm to humans or other animals. I also, for the most part do not encourage the attendance of young children in the euthanasia room or, of them seeing the deceased pet afterwards. The main reason I have for this is that if the euthanasia is not extremely smooth the child might be more upset the next time when another pet is declining in health and experience additional emotional stress due to this previously negative experience.
I am in favor of being very honest with children of all ages. I have found that kids are often capable of accepting death quite well, especially when they are led to understand that they don’t want their friend to be forever sick and in unrelenting pain. I also believe it is important to not describe euthanasia to children as “putting him to sleep” since this can invoke in sensitive young children a parallel fear of their own sleeping behavior.
From a strictly emotional standpoint, and one that is essentially universal amongst veterinarians, some euthanasia experiences are much more stressful than others, especially over festive holiday times. In my own experience, I find that euthanizing old pets owned by very old, single caregivers to be quite difficult. (I tend to watch them driving away with tear-streaked faces and imagine them heading back to a very quiet home with no tail-wagging welcome to be experienced.) Also stressful for veterinarians and involved staff members is euthanasia of long-time patients or pets that they may have formed a strong bond with over the years, to the extent that they themselves need to grieve, talk out their feelings, and on some occasions, get additional professional support.
The euthanasia process for all involved parties is one of intense emotions for all. I find without exception my own sub-conscious coping mechanism is to take a big breath entering a euthanasia room and to release a big sigh after the act is completed. I sincerely hope it will never get any easier for me as more years pass by.
Note: an excellent website that I would like to reference for interested readers wishing to know more about this subject is: