Pet Euthanasia: Making the Decision for Your Pet's End-of-Life Care
It’s difficult to think about, but the more you know, the better off you'll be able to make a decision for your pet.
Every pet parent wishes their cat or dog would live forever. But since death is an inevitable part of life for all of us, pets included, then at least let their time come as a peaceful moment in their sleep after a long, happy life. Unfortunately, that's just not a reality for every pet parent. Many of us will face some tough decisions at the end of our pet's life. The hardest one is whether you should choose pet euthanasia (putting your pet to sleep) and how to know when it's the right time.
There aren't any easy answers to these difficult choices. But it can help to understand what's involved, what options you have, and any factors to weigh as you consider what the best thing is for your animal.
What Is Euthanasia?
Pet euthanasia is the medical procedure of ending an animal's life with medication. It's an alternative to natural death, which is often a long, painful process. Pet euthanasia is rapid and painless.
"The benefit of pet euthanasia is to prevent suffering from getting worse," says Dani McVety, DVM, CEO and founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, an organization that provides in-home euthanasia. "It's not something pet parents are required to do. But it's something we use when it's the next best decision that we can make."
What Happens When a Pet Is Put to Sleep?
According to McVety, typically a veterinarian administers two injections. The first is a sedative and the second is the euthanasia solution.
The veterinarian can place the first tranquilizing injection directly into a pet's vein or under the skin. The difference is in how quickly it works. When introduced in the vein, sedation is immediate, says McVety. If your vet delivers it under the skin or in the muscle though, your pet will slowly drift off to sleep over the course of several minutes.
The second injection is an overdose of barbiturates (a seizure medication) that turns off the respiratory center of the brain. The pet stops breathing and then the heart stops beating.
Will My Pet Feel Pain During Euthanasia?
The first injection of a sedative drug during pet euthanasia makes the animal unconscious. If you've ever been under anesthesia, you probably recall the doctor asking you to count back from 100 and by the time you got to 98 you were already knocked out. When you awaken from anesthesia, there's no memory of what happened while you were under its effects. McVety says we can assume the same is true for cats and dogs, and that they don't feel pain during the process.
In rare cases, pets experience euthanasia side effects. These include twitching around the whiskers or a final breath. However, these are merely mechanical functions of the body shutting down, McVety explains.
"During euthanasia, we see the pet's entire body relax and then they pass," McVety shares. "It's a release from pain and a very peaceful thing to witness."
What Does Pet Euthanasia Cost?
The cost of pet euthanasia will vary depending on who performs the service, says McVety. A low-cost facility may charge $20 to $30. A regular veterinary clinic may be around $150 to $200. A service that comes to your home will run about $200 to $300. Plan on additional fees for cremation or burial too.
When Is It Time to Euthanize a Pet?
It's important to know that you don't have to euthanize your pet. Letting your pet die naturally is a perfectly valid option. But if you're struggling with whether, or when, to choose euthanasia, McVety recommends considering these four life budgets to help you make a decision:
- Financial budget: If you can’t afford the treatment that it will take to keep your pet comfortable—and there is no chance of a recovery or cure—then euthanasia under certain circumstances may be the best choice to prevent suffering.
- Physical budget: When you physically can’t care for your pet because of their deteriorating condition, it may be time to think about euthanasia. For example, a large breed dog that can no longer move on his own because of a progressing disease may be impossible to care for.
- Emotional budget: Caring for a terminally ill pet can be emotionally exhausting. Saying goodbye to your pet sooner in the process, rather than letting it go on for days, might be a step that helps you regain emotional stability.
- Time budget: Many people have time constraints like work and parenthood that make it impossible to provide around-the-clock care that a sick pet may need to stay comfortable. In this case, euthanasia might be the most humane option.
Another sign that it may be time to make a decision about euthanasia is if your pet has significant and sudden changes in behavior that suggests they are in a lot of pain and their quality-of- life is deteriorating, Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, pet health and behavior expert for Daily Paws, says. "If you're seeing behaviors that seems out of the ordinary for your pet like retreating away from you, avoiding interaction, or hiding, their pain could be worsening. Your pet may also be more likely to growl or snap in response to your touching as the pain intensifies and confusion sets in which can be a part of the dying process."
It is really important to try and consider your pet's quality-of-life. Can they still do things they enjoy without pain? Is every day a struggle? Can they eat and drink? " When we consider these things and come to terms with the reality of our pet's life it can help us to make such difficult decisions. You know you are doing the right thing for them," says Bergeland.
What End-of-Life Options Should Pet Parents Consider?
It's tough weeding through end-of-life options when you're in the middle of a stressful situation. Giving some thought ahead of time to what you'd like the euthanasia experience to be like and how to commemorate the bond you shared with your four-legged friend can be helpful.
If you'd like to proceed with euthanasia, options include who'll perform the service and at what location. Having your regular veterinarian do the procedure in a clinic is one option. Being with someone who has a relationship with your pet may be comforting to you both.
On the other hand, many pets get anxious going to the vet. If that's the case with your pet, a better alternative may be a veterinary service that'll come to your home or another place of your choosing—the park, the beach, or even your car if that's the place your pet loved most.
Another choice you'll be given is whether you want burial or cremation services. Cremation is most common, says Bergeland. But burial can be an option if you have a nearby pet cemetery or your local governance allows pet burials at home.
Finally, consider how you'd like to honor your pet. Some of the options require something from your pet beforehand (e.g. paw or nose print or a fur clipping), while others can be done at a later time. There are numerous things you can do, from turning your pet's ashes into jewelry to making a plush toy look-alike, or even creating a memorial stone for your garden or mantle.
How to Make Your Pet’s Last Days Extra Special
The best way to make your pet's final days a little sweeter is to think about the experiences your pet loves most and find a way to do those things. It could be special meals (hello, bacon! hello, tuna!), sniffing and peeing around the entire neighborhood, or long snuggle sessions on the couch. Some families book a photographer to capture the moments between them and their pets on film. But what matters most is just being together, in whatever shape that takes. Because every moment, especially at this stage, is precious.
How Do You to Tell a Child About Pet Euthanasia?
It's hard enough dealing with the loss of a pet, let alone explaining it to your children. But as with most things, honesty is the best policy, counsels Bergeland. Kids are often far more emotionally capable than we give them credit for, just be sure to provide an age-appropriate explanation of what will or has occurred.
"I had this conversation with my own daughter," she relates. "Without being too scary or uncomfortable, I tried to give her information about what was going to happen. She knew the euthanasia process was going to be painless, that we were going to be there, and that he wasn't going to be alone."
Dealing With Grief After Losing Your Pet
There's no way around it: Losing a pet is heartbreaking. And it's important to let yourself and your children grieve the loss of a pet, says Bergeland. But what you don't need to do is feel bad for putting your pet to sleep. "I think we put so much weight and guilt on ourselves about pet euthanasia," says McVety. "When in reality, doing the very best thing that we can to mitigate their pain and suffering is a beautiful thing."