Our Pets Are Euthanized Humanely — So Why Aren’t Death Row Inmates?

The botched lethal injection in Oklahoma reveals the unsettling differences between how we execute humans and how we euthanize our animal companions.

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The typical euthanasia of a pet is the furthest thing from a prisoner strapped to a gurney. By: zaimoku_woodpile

A senior veterinary technician came into my office at my animal hospital and asked if I had heard about the “botched” lethal injection case in Oklahoma.

Of course I had heard the story. It had been all over the news.

“If we can put an animal to sleep painlessly and humanely,” she asked, “why can’t we do the same thing for a human being?”

Good question. All my staff members have assisted me with euthanasias and have witnessed pets leave this life calmly, with tranquility and dignity.

The staff was concerned that the general public might have the wrong idea about veterinary euthanasias because of the gruesome details reported after the Oklahoma story broke.

3 Reasons Why a Lethal Injection Can Be Botched

Petful doesn’t normally delve into topics so upsetting and politically charged, but I bring up this subject of botched lethal injections in prisons to assure you that similar problems should not and do not happen in veterinary euthanasias.

When a loving pet parent decides there is no quality of life left for his or her beloved friend, the veterinarian and family together want to make this process as painless and anxiety-free as possible.

Even though lethal injections are legal in many states, administering those injections to prisoners is not free of intense moral and ethical dilemmas. No person in the corrections facility is supposed to feel responsible for killing another human being, complicating the logistics of giving a lethal injection.

To compound matters, drug companies no longer want to supply drugs solely intended to end a person’s life.

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1. Shortage of Drugs

There is no proven, effective, painless and readily attainable drug for lethal injection as there is for veterinary euthanasias.

Drug companies want out of the lethal injection business. The United States used to procure some of these drugs from Europe, but that avenue is shutting down because the European Union does not support capital punishment.

States have now tried to get their “cocktail” of drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are poorly regulated and may be supplying poor quality drugs to the prisons. They are experimenting with different combinations of drugs. Some of those drug cocktails have not been successful.

In veterinary medicine, the provenance of our drugs is without question. They are proven, reputable and reliable. Euthanasia solution induces an almost immediate state of anesthesia, quickly followed by a stopping of the heart. Once the injection has started, the pet becomes immediately anesthetized, and then leaves this life in less than a minute.

While states are scrambling to find second-rate drugs and concoctions of drugs to kill people, veterinarians have complete faith and trust in their euthanasia products.

2. Catheter Placement

Placing the catheter in the prisoner has been a problem with some of these executions.

The states have been secretive about the details of who does it, how it is done and so on. In the case of the Oklahoma prisoner, the execution staff had problems finding veins in the arms and resorted to a problematic catheter placement in the prisoner’s groin.

When a pet is going to be euthanized, the veterinarian is solely responsible for inserting an IV catheter or a needle into the patient’s vein, observing that the catheter is well placed and watching meticulously as the drug is delivered to the animal. If anything is not going smoothly, such as the vein not looking right or the pet reacting in any way, we can stop immediately and regroup.

I always have at least 1 nurse with me and usually the caretaker or entire family comforting and holding the pet. The typical euthanasia of a pet is the furthest thing from a prisoner strapped to a gurney in a separate room without direct supervision.

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3. Administering the Drugs

The drugs in an execution are given from another room administered by multiple people so that no individual knows that his or her injection is the lethal one.

This also means that the executioner is not directly with or monitoring the prisoner. In the Oklahoma case, the IV catheter was not in place properly. The drugs did not get delivered to the prisoner as intended. Things went very badly.

During a euthanasia, on the other hand, the veterinarian is as close to the patient as possible making sure the procedure is going smoothly, the pet is calm and the drug is going into the vein painlessly and appropriately. If a pet exhibits any anxiety, medications can be given to ease that anxiety.

The death penalty for heinous crimes is still supported by a slight majority of people in this country. Regardless of how one may feel about capital punishment, our 8th Amendment states the country has a fundamental charge to carry out that penalty humanely.

I rest knowing that the pets in my care are treated humanely in death as in life. As long as capital punishment is legal, our departments of corrections caretakers should also feel they have carried out their stressful charge with humanity and dignity.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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