“It must be so hard when you have to put a pet to sleep. How do you do it?”
My students, relatives, friends and clients ask me this all the time. My answer? With compassion, medical ethics and understanding that every situation is unique. This is no easy task for anyone.
There are intensely sad situations when a critical event occurs and a pet must be euthanized immediately. But often a pet suffers from a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, in which case people have a chance to think, plan and prepare.
1. Prepare for a Very Hard Day
End-of-life care is usually the hardest decision families make as the long lifecycle of loving and caring for their pet winds down. You, along with your veterinarian, must decide what’s best together. Compassionate euthanasia can be heartbreaking, but I can also see it as a blessing when patients are suffering.
Ask any and all questions you have about the procedure and its possibilities (e.g., a home euthanasia). I often do euthanasias out on the grass or in my field if people wish that, weather permitting.
2. Think It Through
If you call your veterinarian about an end-of-life issue and you are not happy with the response or feel upset, scared or unsure in any way, call back when you feel calmer.
I want my clients to make a “quality of life” discussion appointment if I haven’t seen the pet in some time. Multiple appointments may be of value. People may question if it’s “the right time.” A veterinarian you trust can help you.
Sometimes I get a receptionist’s note on my desk saying, “They want to put Bilbo to sleep,” a dog whom I saw once 5 years ago to check a wart. Ethically, I can’t render an opinion on Bilbo’s quality of life without an assessment of how he is doing today and a heartfelt, face-to-face conversation with Bilbo’s folks.
Some don’t like this response, but if people want a euthanasia without my opinion and no medical assessment, they can go elsewhere.
3. Discuss the Price
This part of the conversation absolutely stinks, but it is a fact of life. Your veterinary charge is usually minimal (or should be) when you have to end your pet’s life. But you have decisions to make about home burial, cremation and private cremation.
Some vets charge extra if you wish to be with your pet during the euthanasia. I think this is disgusting. I wouldn’t even make an appointment at a hospital that has this policy.
I never want people to feel like euthanasia is a money-making venture for vets. If you have a vet you trust, you can make arrangements that feel right for everyone and every circumstance.
4. Ask About Reputable Post-Euthanasia Services
Many people don’t seem to trust the cremation business. I understand, with all the news stories about illegitimate services and crappy business proprietors. Your veterinarian usually contracts a reputable pet cemetery/crematorium — those prices should be readily available to you.
I have been using the same reputable pet cemetery and cremation service for 30 years, even for many of my own pets. Why do I trust them? Well, the size of the ashes matters. Wally the Cocker Spaniel’s ashes came back as his size and those of Elvis, my hound dog, a bit bigger. There’s also a bronze tag inside the cremains matching all other numbers on the cedar box or box of your choice and the verification letter.
If you have true doubts, a reputable crematorium will also allow you to witness the cremation, the best — but possibly saddest — proof of all.
Here are some more helpful tips on making end-of-life decisions for your pet:
5. Celebrate Your Pet’s Life in the Moment
I adopted my crazy hound dog Elvis out of a laboratory at vet school when nobody wanted him. After a long and happy life, he died at the ripe old age of 16.
On a beautiful, windy day on the Great Sacandage Lake in upstate New York — his favorite place in the world — we spread his ashes. Then came our Big Lebowski moment — the ashes just kept blowing back at us. You could always depend on Elvis to give my family lots of laughs.
There is great peace that comes from closing the circle of life in this way. Discussing with your vet how to plan end-of-life care and post-euthanasia arrangements early allows you to be present when celebrating your pet’s life.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed March 30, 2016.