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For the Love of the Dog

When the Time Comes to Say Goodbye

Far too often I am asked this question and without a doubt, this is one of the hardest things any pet owner will ever have to face. We know that our pets will not live as long as we will but thinking about their ’time’ is never an easy thing. It is something that no pet owner likes to dwell on, but sadly it is a decision that many pet owners eventually have to face. Taking responsibility for a pain-free, peaceful death is the kindest act an owner can do for a much-loved pet.

One thing I need to say, if you are considering the euthanasia of a healthy pet, please, think twice. Re-homing may be a better option. If it is behavior problems that are bringing you to this consideration, ask your vet or a trainer’s advice – often they can help with solving behavioral problems.

Pain or Age?
Do not be afraid to visit the vet and discuss this. Many of the signs of old age, such as arthritis, can be relieved. Your pet’s problems may be treatable – and early treatment reduces suffering.

Animals do not necessarily show pain by crying or howling. Assessment of long-term pain can be difficult even for vets, as animals (and people) tend to adapt their behavior to cope. Sometimes the only way to know is to try a pain abatement regime to see if your pet brightens up.

Your pet could be in pain if there has been a change in behavior, a loss of appetite and a reluctance to play or move around. It may also be a sign of pain if your dog is restless or cannot seem to get comfortable, and is sitting or lying in an abnormal position, or if they seem tense or withdrawn, or have lost enthusiasm for life. Always discuss your pet’s symptoms with your vet. All of these signs can be caused by problems other than pain.

Decision Time
When you are thinking about the possibility that it is time to let your beloved pet go, take the time to talk it over with your veterinarian, your family and your friends. Questions to think about include:

  • Can your pet still eat, drink, sleep and move around reasonably comfortably?
  • Do they respond to your presence and greet you?
  • Does feeding time attract interest?
  • Do they show interest in life and their surroundings?

Persistent and incurable inability to eat, vomiting and diarrhea, signs of pain, distress or discomfort or difficulty breathing may be indications that it is time. You and your family know your pet better than anyone else, so try to make a reasoned judgment on his or her quality of life. If you are hoping for an improvement in your pet’s condition, setting a time limit may be a sensible option. Sadly, few pets die peacefully in their sleep at home. Most reach a point when their quality of life is unsatisfactory or non-existent, and a decision for euthanasia has to be made.

Living with a chronically ill dog or cat can be emotionally, not to mention financially, draining. Often there is a substantial time commitment involved in care. Not every owner is able to cope and, if there is no chance of a recovery and you are unable to give your pet the degree of care needed for a comfortable life, it may be better to opt for euthanasia.

What Actually Happens?
If you’ve come to a decision that it is time to let your pet go for their sake, sometimes it is easier to know exactly what the process is.

Speak with your vet to set up a good time as you can often choose a quiet time for your visit. It may be a good idea for a friend or family member to come with you for support. If your pet is already hospitalized, then you can ask to visit and say goodbye if you wish. However, if your pet is under an anesthetic, it may be kinder to agree to euthanasia without waking him, and perhaps to see him afterwards.

The following is a general description of the process. Some of the events described may be distressing, but remember that your pet rapidly loses consciousness and cannot feel pain from that point onwards.

You will normally need to sign a consent form.

Euthanasia is usually carried out by injecting an overdose of anesthetic into the vein of the front leg, although the injection can be given to other areas of the body as well.

The animal is usually held by an assistant or even you if your vet allows, and a small patch of fur is shaved off. All your pet feels is a tiny prick of the needle – then the injection is painless. Occasionally, there may give a small cry as the injection is given – as with all anesthetics, there is a brief feeling of dizziness as the drug takes effect. Unconsciousness follows within seconds, often before the injection is finished. Death occurs within a couple of minutes when the heart stops beating. It may take a little longer if the animal is extremely ill or has poor circulation.

If a pet is agitated or restless, then the vet may give a sedative first. In the few minutes after death you may see reflex muscle movement, or involuntary gasps. These are not signs of life; in fact, they are reflexes denoting that death has occurred.

Most of the time things will proceed smoothly and quickly with little distress to the animal. It is a quick and relatively painless procedure that can save your beloved companion many days or weeks of suffering and a painful end.

To Stay With Your Pet or Not?
This is entirely your choice. It may be a comfort to you to see that euthanasia is usually a quick and gentle process, but try not to feel guilty if you feel unable to watch – if you are very upset then this may upset your dog. Most vets and techs choose their profession because they want to help animals. They will treat your pet sympathetically even in your absence. If you wish, ask to see your pet afterwards. At the end you will probably be offered the opportunity to be alone with them for a few minutes. My own personal opinion is that your pet may be more peaceful with you at their side, if you can handle it. They have been your loyal companion, now is the time to be theirs.

What Happens Afterwards?
Most people opt for cremation arranged by the vet. There are also pet cemeteries, or you can take the body home for burial. If you are undecided, then vets can usually store the body while you consider. Do not be embarrassed to ask if you wish to keep a lock of hair, or perform a ceremony such as saying a prayer – vets are quite used to such requests and will be sympathetic.

It is entirely natural to feel upset when your companion dies. After all, your pet is a beloved family member. Do not be embarrassed about showing your emotions. It takes time to get over the loss of a loved one and, although reactions differ, very often a mixture of feelings – sadness, loneliness and anger – can follow.

Do not feel guilty or blame yourself – the decision was made with your pet’s interests at heart to avoid suffering. Some people find themselves questioning whether they did the right thing. It is normal to feel some doubt, though this will ease in time.

Be prepared for the house to feel empty on your return. Try to treasure your memories and talk to family and friends. Sometimes people who themselves have not experienced a special relationship with an animal, may be unsympathetic so try to talk to people who understand your feelings.

For children it can be especially upsetting, as it may be their first experience of death. Children need support even if they are not outwardly upset. Talk to them honestly about what is happening and, as far as possible, involve them in decision-making. Rituals such as funerals, making a memorial or assembling a scrapbook with memories of the pet may help.

Be prepared for questions about death and its finality. For adolescents the loss of a pet can be particularly difficult, as your dog or cat may be the family member to whom they feel closest. For young people who have other difficulties in their lives, the loss of a pet can be devastating, and it may be sensible to seek professional advice.

Other pets may notice the loss and respond to it. They may be unsettled and lose their appetite for one or two days. Giving them extra attention may provide some comfort.

When is it Time for Another Pet?
Sooner or later you may start to think about getting another dog or cat. Don’t think of a new pet in terms of a ‘replacement.’ No two pets are the same and, although another may have characteristics in common with your previous pet, he or she will have a different personality.

Everyone is different, and only you will know when you are ready. The knowledge you have gained from caring for your pet could be put to good use caring for one of the many dogs or cats in desperate need of a home in a shelter or rescue.

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