Difficult decisions towards the end of life.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a close friend to put her dog to sleep at home. Timmy was a farm dog really, who slept in a stable, but just as much of a family member as any house-dog and much loved. I trusted Timmy’s owners’ judgement completely as to when the “right time” came to part with Timmy, and I was already familiar with his medical history.

I was glad to be able to carry out the euthanasia in the way in which his owners wanted. Timmy was in familiar surroundings, greeted me like an old friend and showed no distress at all. With his owners beside him, I clipped some hair from his front leg and injected a strong solution of anaesthetic into his vein. He went so peacefully that there were only a few tears, mixed with feelings of relief. Timmy was buried on the farm.

Amber curled upOne of the questions people commonly ask when they first know that you are a vet is “How can you bear to put animals to sleep?” The answer is that it is still one of the most difficult parts of veterinary practice, even after many years. You become used to the technicalities of carrying out the procedure in various different circumstances, because you have to. You never become immune to the feelings of owners at this time, and never should. If you are satisfied that what you are doing is in the animals best interests and you carry it out with as little distress as possible, then you feel that you have done a necessary service.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to plan exactly when, where and how their pet’s life might end, but sometimes considering some of the options in advance can be a good idea.

We would all prefer it if our dog or cat would live a happy life and then die at home in bed at an old age. Unfortunately this does not always happen, and many owners are faced with the difficult decision whether to have their pet put to sleep (euthanased) in order to prevent suffering.

Deciding when the right time has come can be difficult. No-one wants to cause unnecessary suffering by leaving it too late, but equally it would be regretted later if a hasty decision was made. Vets can advise what the likely outcome of any illness is going to be and what treatments, if any, could help. If everything has been done that should be done, then it may come down to the small things in life: does your dog still enjoy a walk, recognise members of the family, enjoy their food; does your cat show an interest in surroundings and people?

Home visits for euthanasia are often requested, and if this is your wish it would be worth talking to your veterinary practice in advance. Sometimes, however, it is easier and safer to do this at the surgery because of the availability of experienced helpers, and the availability of other drugs, if for example sedation was needed in a scared animal. The other big factor could be the time of day. In a night-time emergency, it may not be possible for the vet and nurse on duty to travel far from the surgery because of other patients.

Labrador cropEuthanasia in most cases is quick and painless. An injection is usually given into the vein because this will work more quickly than if given by other routes. Sometimes a sedative may be needed first, if an animal is nervous or aggressive. The decision whether to be present or not is an entirely personal one for the owner. Some people will feel they want to be present and others will prefer to leave after signing the consent form. If you are not present, your pet will be handled by gentle, caring, experienced staff on your behalf. If present, it may be better for both the owner and the animal if the holding is done by the veterinary nurse, who can raise the vein for the injection at the same time. This leaves the owner free to be where the dog or cat can see and hear them.

Most practices will use the services of a pet crematorium who will offer various different types of cremation or burial, depending on individual wishes. For example, you may wish to have your pets ashes returned so that you can keep them or scatter them in a favourite place. If you have a suitable place you may choose to bury your pet at home.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The bonds that exist between people and their pets are strong and the loss of a pet can cause a similar sense of loss to any other bereavement. Many people like to remember their pet with photos, by planting a tree or placing a plaque in a special place. Some practices keep a book of remembrance or a wall of photos of past and present pets. Vets and nurses also like to remember their patients.

Some practices have staff who have been specially trained in supporting clients who are going through bereavement and if you would like this help, do ask at your surgery. If not directly available within the surgery, counselling services are available including support from the national charity the Blue Cross. It can be especially important to help children talk about their loss as it may be their first experience of death. Other pets may also grieve. Some people think it helps to allow other pets to see the body of the pet who has died, and I have certainly no reason to think this is harmful or distressing to them.

Euthanasia and death are subjects that all of us would prefer not to have to consider, but sometimes things can be made a little easier for everyone by thinking ahead, so that if the worst happens, we are as prepared as possible, and left with happy memories.

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