Depending on what type of companion animal you have will determine the best procedure of euthanasia. For example the process used in equine euthanasia or reptile euthanasia will be different from canine or feline euthanasia, but at all times the veterinary staff will ensure that your pet is as comfortable as possible and the procedure will be pain free. If you have any concerns or wish to know about the procedure for your companion animal, please contact your vet.
The majority of pet carers have dogs, with that in mind we have given canine euthanasia as an example of the process and procedure.
If the pet is to be euthanised at home, it is always best to prepare in advance if possible. Pet carers may wish to put a protective waterproof covering under their dogs’ blanket or bed. If possible ensure the dogs blanket or bed area is accessible for the vet to have full access to the dog. This also allows the pet carer to be near their pet during the process. The pet carer should have a really special treat ready for the dog, something the dog will really love like chicken, cake or a piece of chocolate, although not too much as they don’t want the dog to be sick. Under normal circumstances chocolate should never be given to dogs, but minutes before euthanasia is acceptable.
The vet will usually be accompanied by a veterinary nurse who will assist the vet in preparing the dog for the final injection. The vet will ask the pet carer to sign a consent form; consenting to the euthanasia process. The pet carer may be asked to pay in advance, either at the time or when they book the appointment.
It is helpful for the pet carer to discuss with the vet if the dog will be sedated before euthanasia and if so how will that sedative be administered. Will the sedative be given by injection just prior to euthanasia, or under certain circumstances, the vet may allow the pet owner to administer an oral sedative approximately half an hour before they arrive at the home to carry out the procedure.
Firstly, if this has been agreed, the vet will sedate the dog by injection. The time taken for the sedative to take effective will vary but it can take up to twenty minutes for the dog to become drowsy or fall asleep.
The Veterinary nurse will clean and shave an area from the dog’s front leg to gain access to a suitable vein in order to insert a cannula. Sometimes when a dog is really poorly they may have trouble finding a suitable vein and have to repeat this process on the other front leg or perhaps try to access the vein on the hind leg.
The cannula will then be inserted and will be checked to ensure that it allows fluid to pass through easily.
Sometimes the vet will decide that a sedative is not required and after shaving and cleaning the injection site, they will proceed to the final stages.
The solution used for euthanasia is Pentobarbital. Pentobarbital is a barbiturate and used in large doses renders the dog unconscious and slows down the brain and nervous system until the heart stops beating. The dog will feel no pain. The liquid in the syringe containing the barbiturate will be brightly coloured – blue, pink, or green.
The vet will then ask if the pet carer is ready for them to administer the final injection and if so, will proceed to inject the solution in a slow but steady flow. The pet carer should be able to hold their pet during this process. The solution acts quickly and the dog will die within a minute or two. The vet will check that the dog’s heart has stopped beating and will tell the pet carer that their pet has passed. When a pet dies the muscles relax and they may pass urine or defecate. Their eyes will remain open and they may expel air by way of gasps. This is a natural reaction after death although can be very distressing to witness, many believing their pet has not died. Pet carers will then be given time to say their final goodbyes.
If the pet carer has decided to let the vet make the arrangements for the aftercare of their pet, the vet will take the pet away with them for cremation. The vet may have to remove the pet in a body bag made of plastic. Many pet carers are shocked at this, however they have to remember that there is a risk of spreading disease or germs from any deceased body and therefore the vet has little or no choice in order to comply with health and safety procedures. The pet carer may wish to leave the room while their pet is removed to save further upset.
If the pet carer has decided to make the aftercare arrangements themselves, the vet will leave at that point.
If the pet carer has made their own arrangements directly with the crematorium or cemetery, they should take the following into consideration when arranging a collection time and allow time for –
Once the pet has died, the pet carer may wish to tuck the pet’s legs in (similar to the foetal position), the vet or vet nurse may do this. This will prevent the legs being damaged when the pet is moved for cremation or burial. They may wish to take a paw print or hair clipping from the pet if so desired at this time.
Many pet carers are under the impression that rigor mortis sets in immediately, or that their pet will decompose in front of them. No two pets are the same but much will depend on the size of the pet and the environmental factors. Rigor Mortis can set in between three and six hours after death; the smaller the pet, the sooner rigor mortis is evident. Rigor Mortis can last for approximately twelve hours. Physical and chemical changes in the pets’ body are unavoidable and progressive, although the circumstances and environmental factors play a role as to how quickly the process will take place.
The warmer the area where the pet is, the quicker rigor mortis will set in, or an odour be noticed. It can take several hours before you notice an odour coming from a deceased pet or you may notice it immediately, and this odour can permeate throughout a home very quickly if the pet is not removed. If this has happened the odour will dissipate through time.
Of course sometimes even with the best plan in place, things do go wrong. It may be that the veterinary surgery can arrange a home visit during practice hours, however if the pet should deteriorate rapidly during the night or the weekend the pet carer will have to have an alternative plan in place for emergency treatment.
If a pet is already critically ill in a veterinary practice or hospital, it may not be practical or advisable to request that the pet is returned home to be euthanised.
Having a pet euthanised at home is not the right choice for every pet carer. Some may not wish their lasting memory to be their pet deceased in their home or some may underestimate the weight and practicalities of moving the body of their deceased pet to be buried in the garden or taken for private cremation.
There will be an additional cost to having a pet euthanised at home – the call out charge of the veterinary surgeon and this charge will vary depending on the veterinary practice or independent company used.
If the pet carer takes their dog to the veterinary surgery for euthanasia, the receptionist making the booking should advise that they attend the surgery during a quiet time, if they do not, the pet carer should ask for an appointment time when the surgery will be quiet if at all possible.
Regardless of whether a pet died at the veterinary surgery or was euthanised at home, the same process will be carried out by the vet or their staff. Some pet carers have raised concerns that their pet was taken away into another room to have the cannula inserted. This is not unusual if the vet needs additional assistance to handle the pet while the procedure is carried out.
Some pets do get a rush of adrenaline whilst being handled by the vet and react in a way that makes the pet carer believe they are not ready to be euthanised. It can be extremely upsetting for the pet carer to witness their pet reacting to the vet or trying to wriggle free, the pet carers perception being that their pet is afraid to die or not ready to be euthanised. This is a fight or flight reaction to being handled by the vet when the pet may not feel like anyone touching them.
Pets live for the moment and have no fear of the future and therefore they have no concept of what is about to happen. Some pets who may have been fairly immobile prior to the vet arriving at the home, will react either positively or negatively to someone (vet) entering their home. This is not an indication that somehow the pet has made a remarkable recovery but the pet carer may question their decision to euthanise.
Our pets recognise death in their companions and therefore we can accept that they know that death is permanent, but this does not mean they fear death. To fear death is a human condition, perhaps because humans find their own demise too horrible to contemplate and that in turn makes them fear death. We should not assume that our pets experience the same fears as humans and remember that they live in the moment.
There are also companies run by vets who offer a home euthanasia service. This may be the solution for those who wish to have their pet euthanised at home if their vet doesn’t provide a home euthanasia service. Pet carers should always confirm the total cost of the service before employing an independent company as it is likely to be more than their own vet would charge.