Thursday, March 31, 2011

Saying Goodbye

By Beth Guerra, DVM

I wanted to take some time to address euthanasia and its place in the veterinary setting. Although veterinarians take an oath to preserve animal health, we also take an oath to end animal suffering. The choice to euthanize a pet can be made for many reasons; terminal illness, chronic pain, severe behavior problems, and occasionally financial limitations. As veterinarians, it is our duty to help animals pass in a dignified manner, but also to provide guidance to grieving pet owners to help them make a decision.
As an emergency doctor, euthanasia is performed more than any of us would like. Sometimes it is planned, and the entire family is present. In other cases, the decision to euthanize is made because the pet has a life threatening illness or has sustained massive trauma. I do my best to provide a prognosis and plan so the owner is able to make an informed decision. Unfortunately, despite medical credit options and our willingness to discuss options A, B and C, cost sometimes drives the decision.
I always ask owners whether they wish to be present for the euthanasia. This requires a delicate approach, as some owners feel strongly that they wish to be with their pet, but others don’t think they can witness the event. I reassure my clients that there is no right or wrong decision in these cases, that whatever makes them comfortable is what they should choose. We place an IV catheter so that we have access to a vein as this facilitates the process. Some owners ask for sedation prior to the euthanasia. Some say goodbye at the door, others hold their pet during the euthanasia. Some leave the room immediately, some stay for hours in the exam room, grieving for their lost friend.
While the injection is essentially an overdose of an anesthetic and can be very quick and peaceful, the body can react during and after the injection in ways that can be unexpected. I warn owners that pets usually don’t close their eyes, as many people are upset when they see the eyes are still open. Cats often stick out their tongues. Rarely, pets vocalize, usually from dysphoria, during the beginning of the injection. After they have passed, they may take some gasping, or agonal, breaths, which is purely a reflex. Sometimes they lose control of their bladder or bowels. Slight muscle twitching may be observed as well. These reactions can be alarming to owners, and often I have had people ask if their pet had really passed away because these reflexes are lifelike. They are just reflexes, and occur often after the heart and breathing have stopped.
We have a very respectable company that provides cremation services for our clinic. Clients can choose to have their pet cremated privately and the ashes returned to them in an urn. We make paw prints in circles of clay for the owner to keep. Some clients take their pet home for burial.
Euthanasia is a difficult decision. The process is never easy but can be easier to face with more information.  Never hesitate to ask your veterinarian about your options and about the process itself.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. Choosing to euthanize my cat Tinker was the hardest decision I've ever had to make; I really appreciate your explanation of the procedure. It's quite comforting.