When it's time to put your Pet Down
Euthanasia...what to Expect
As a veterinarian, I have noted with interest that during a single
human lifetime a number of pet lifetimes may pass, and as we recall each pet
that shared our time, it seems that they never stayed with us quite long
Euthanasia... what to Expect
by Dr. T. J. Dunn, Jr.
You pick up that new kitten or puppy for the very first time. Involuntarily
and with no unconscious effort, the bond takes root. Despite the thrill of
acquiring a new pet, though, your imagination races years ahead and
uncomfortable, fleeting thoughts pass through your mind. "I hope this
little rascal lives a long time" is a typical thought.
Or you can't help hearing that inner voice whisper "I can't imagine
this cute little puppy as an old dog" or "Someday this little furry
kitten will be old and unhealthy". We always fear losing these pets that
mean so much to us.
Nevertheless, that time inevitably does come. And we pet owners simply have
to face our pet's mortality. I have often thought how wonderful it would have
been if my Golden Retrievers and wonderful feline friends would have had life
spans of sixty or seventy years!
Every individual pet owner faces that final day with a beloved pet slightly
differently from every other pet owner. I have seen totally objective (and
even outright callous) pet owners simply drop off their pet for euthanasia
with no more respect or empathy than a robot. I have never been able to
understand this type of pet owner who seems to be saying "When you're
dead, you're dead".
They can still comfort or simply be with their pet at the time of
euthanasia; but for their own reasons they choose to separate themselves from
the final moments of their pet's life. Maybe we humans are so close to our
pets that we somehow project our own humanity and mortality into them and we
actually see ourselves at our own last moments. Do some pet owners act out how
they think they would view their own passing?
On the other hand I have witnessed seemingly strong, objective individuals
that seem to be somewhat cold and distant who completely fall apart at the
time of their pet's passing.
The theme to keep in mind, then, as you contemplate how YOU will act at
your pet's final moments is to remember that it is a completely personal
experience. You have to decide what is best for you and your pet.
I have had people actually say to me "I am sorry, Doctor, but I don't
know how to act right now". My usual response is "Act like you. Your
pet has been a huge part of your life for a long time and this is not an easy
thing for you to do."
Most people really have had no guidelines to follow, had no firm ground on
which to stand while partaking in their pet's final
time. For those of you who have had no experience with
euthanasia of a pet, I
would like to offer a few guidelines so that you will have some firmer ground
to stand on when "that time" does come.
Making the appointment:
Be sure to tell the receptionist that you would like to schedule the
appointment at a time when the veterinarian is not in a hurry with other
appointments or surgery. You might even request that your appointment be the
last one of the day or the first one in the morning.
Explain that you have never had to go through this experience before and
would like to know what to expect regarding the euthanasia procedure. You have
a right to take your deceased pet home for personal burial. You may also
choose to leave your deceased pet with the veterinarian for burial or
Always ask what will be done with your deceased pet after it is "put
to sleep"! If you don't, you will always wonder, and your imagination
will not be kind to you.
Let me dispel an ugly myth. I can't tell you how many concerned pet owners
have innocently asked me "You aren't going to experiment on her, are
you?" or "You aren't going to sell him to some lab are you?"
I have never known of any veterinarian anywhere who sells deceased pets.
There are no labs that would even consider taking a deceased animal. And as
for experimentation, what kind of an "experiment " can a
veterinarian do in his practice on a deceased pet that would have any impact
whatsoever on veterinary science?
It is a totally different matter for your veterinarian to ask you
respectfully if you would want an autopsy performed for a specific reason.
Veterinarians do not sell deceased pets and veterinarians do not do
experiments on deceased pets. So you can rest assured on these matters. But
you certainly have a right to know what will be done with your dog or cat if
you choose to leave it with the veterinarian. Do not be apologetic about
The Appointment... to be there or not to be there
It is your personal choice whether or not to be present in the exam or
surgery room when the veterinarian administers the euthanasia solution. Many
people simply cannot bear to see the moment of their special friend's passing.
Others wouldn't let a tidal wave interfere with their being present!
It really is up to your personal preference. Some people choose to stay in
the waiting room during the procedure and then briefly view their pet after it
has passed away, maybe then spending a few moments in private with their pet.
If you are not sure just what to do I will offer an observation I have made
from feedback from my clients. There are a multitude of pet owners who have
regretted NOT being there with their pet when the pet was being euthanized,
and their feelings that they may have abandoned their pet at a crucial time
has created a certain sense of guilt that simply will not go away. So... think
over very carefully how you will feel long after your pet has been "put
to sleep". Will you have regrets if you do not stay with your pet?
No one is comfortable with death, especially your veterinarian and animal
hospital staff who face death every day. Your discomfort with the event should
not govern your decision whether or not to be present with your pet at the
time of its passing. Many apprehensive clients, with a slightly surprised
look, have queried after the event "Is that it? That was very quick and
peaceful. Thank you, Doctor".
Let me be very clear about something... it is perfectly normal and
acceptable to cry. I have often wondered why some people don't cry. This can
be a very sad time and even though the animal hospital staff might have to go
through this all too often, there really is no getting used to euthanizing
a dog or cat. The animal hospital staff has often formed a strong connection
with many of the pets in their care and often join in the crying; so you
really have no need to pretend that you can handle it when inside you feel
You might choose to leave your pet in the car and go in first to see if
there will be any delays prior to your scheduled time. As a veterinarian I
have never been comfortable seeing a client sitting patiently in the waiting
room with their pet for that final appointment. It is perfectly reasonable to
ask the receptionist to let you know when the doctor is ready to see your
pet... then bring your pet directly into the exam room. You should not have to
be isolated in the exam room for a long period of time, either.
If you think your pet would be more comfortable and less apprehensive (not
all pets relish coming to the animal hospital!) you may ask the veterinarian
to provide your pet with some sedation prior to your visit. This can be
administered at home at a directed time interval prior to the appointment or
often sedation is given in the animal hospital via a painless injection under
the pet's skin. After a short time the pet is relaxed and calm.
In order to administer the euthanasia solution* your veterinarian must gain
entry into a vein. The solution is specially made to act quickly and
painlessly but it must be administered intravenously. This requires that your
pet be calm and confident. If the veterinarian requests your permission to
sedate your pet, please understand that the request is made in order to
humanely and peacefully accomplish the task at hand. If your pet is
uncooperative, defensive, afraid or even fractious, your veterinarian and you
will not be able to properly carry out the procedure.
* Most euthanasia solutions are a combination of chemicals whose intent is
to effect a quick and painless termination of nerve transmission and to effect
complete muscle relaxation. When nerve impulses are not conducted there is no
thought, no sensation, no movement. The solution is available only to licensed
veterinarians and your veterinarian must possess a special certificate in
order to purchase the solution.
The Last Moments
When the veterinarian is ready to administer the euthanasia solution the
assistant will help hold your pet and put a slight amount of pressure on a
vein, usually in the foreleg. This allows the veterinarian to see the vein
better and aids in passing a fine needle into the vein. When it is certain
that the needle is within the vein the veterinarian slowly injects the
Many pet owners choose to help hold their pet and if possible even have the
pet in their arms at the time of euthanasia. Your veterinarian will try to
accommodate your wishes, but remember that it is imperative that the solution
be injected within the vein for the procedure to unfold properly.
Usually within six to twelve seconds after the solution is injected the pet
will take a slightly deeper breath, then grow weak and finally lapse into what
looks like a deep sleep. (This state gives rise to the questionable euphemism
"to put to sleep".) The pet, although completely unconscious, may
continue to take a few more breaths before all movement ceases. I have found
that the older and sicker the pet the longer this unconscious breathing state
Some pet owners will be more comfortable if they do not observe the pet's
final moments and would rather be in the waiting room during the injection.
Then when their pet has passed away, the owner may wish to be with their pet
privately for a few moments. If you do chose to visit with your pet after it
has been euthanized, ask your veterinarian to be sure your pet's eyelids are
closed; some pet owners have been saddened even further by looking into their
deceased pet's eyes.
It is at this point when the veterinarian has completed the procedure where
great empathy and support for the pet owner is very important. I generally ask
the owner if they would like to spend a few moments alone with the pet. Some
people do and some people do not. If the client chooses to take the pet home,
by pre-arrangement a container is at the ready to receive the pet.
The veterinarian usually will place the pet into the container and carry
the deceased pet out to the car for the owner. If the pet owner chooses to
have the pet cremated the veterinarian generally will make the arrangements
through a cremation service and notify you when you can expect to have the
ashes returned. Generally, pet owners are surprised at the small quantity of
ashes that are returned. Remember, most living creatures are about 95% water.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask "How do I know that the ashes that I
receive will actually be those of my pet?" Everyone wonders about that.
Your veterinarian should be willing to provide you with the name and phone
number of the cremation service. Don't be afraid to call up the cremation
service and tell them your concerns about your pet. You should get courteous
and respectful answers to all your questions and if you don't, let your
veterinarian know. In fact it would be a good idea to call the cremation
service long before that final day so that the last moments with your pet are
as unstressful as possible.
It is not unusual nor unreasonable for pet owners to save a bit of their
pet's fur as a physical remembrance of their special friend. Some people want
their pet to be buried or cremated with a few photos, or a rose or even a
personal letter or poem from the pet owner to their pet.
Just remember it is YOUR friend, YOUR pet, that is passing away and you can
do anything you wish to ease your transition into the time of separation from
You may want someone to be with you after the appointment to drive you
home. You may be surprised how difficult it can be to concentrate on
driving after such an emotional event as what you just experienced.
Many, many pet owners experience a very strong and lasting sense of pain and
grief after the passing of a special pet. Part of their trouble stems from
having so few human friends who actually understand the deep sense of grief
they are experiencing. Even a close friend might say "Oh, just go get
another one" or "Gosh, it was only a cat".
This can be a very lonely and private grief since the pet owner often is
reluctant to disclose the source of their saddened state for fear of ridicule.
Plus it is very common for the pet owner to think they see or hear their
deceased pet in the home or out in the yard long after it is gone.
If someone hasn't personally experienced the loss of a loved pet they
simply will be unable to connect with the pet owner who is grief stricken.
The bereaved pet owner often is self-critical, too. Reading their thoughts
we would recognize self chastisement such as "Oh, this is ridiculous
feeling like this over a Spaniel" or "I can't believe loosing
a cat would wreck my entire life!" And the loss of a pet often brings up
memories of other losses in a person's life and a vicious cycle of sadness,
helplessness and even clinical depression can result. Our pets are THAT
important to us and we don't have to apologize for feeling that way!
Those pet owners who feel they need to talk to someone who understands their
sadness have hope! There are a number of grief support groups and counselors
who specialize in pet loss counseling.
Never feel ashamed or belittle yourself for having strong feelings of loss
and sadness over a deceased pet. You are NOT alone in your sadness. There are
numerous web sites that may prove helpful and informative while you progress
along the road to accepting the loss of your pet.
Never feel ashamed for being lost and lonely after losing your little
friend. And remember, it always takes longer than you would expect to start
functioning "normally" again. As well, your state's Veterinary
Medical Association (ask your veterinarian for the phone number) will direct
you to a nearby pet loss specialist.
T. J. Dunn, Jr. DVM
Tippy & Alfred Say:
It's without a doubt one of the toughest decisions a pet companion can
ever make....whether to put your precious loved one to sleep or not.
Unfortunately, pets just don't live forever.
Luckily, we do believe that pets live eternally and will someday, at some
place other than this physical environment, be re-united with their
If you are facing a tough decision, we can only say, look into your heart.
There is no joy for you or for your friend to go through constant suffering.
That is more agonizing that anything to watch your pet suffer needlessly.
Do know that if you make the choice...you must absolutely believe you made it
for the best.
Please, please don't feel guilty.
Sometimes it's is really the right and best choice to make. Only you can
determine that. No one else can.
We would also suggest that before you make that final decision, you explore
all options available to you.
Just because one person says there's no hope, does not necessarily mean
that's the final answer.
There are a lot of alternatives.
You owe it to yourself and your pet to explore these alternatives first.
Perhaps nothing can be done, but you've got to try. You've got to give it
everything you can because if you don't.... you know that you'll always
wonder, and you'll always feel guilty. That's just human nature.
If your pet has a serious problem and you are contemplating putting your pet
to sleep, first ask your veterinarian about any alternatives or possibilities
he/she may know of.
Do a search on our site for possible help information.
Contact us if need be.
We do know this, the body, human and animal, has an amazing ability to heal
itself given the right material to work with.
If the last resort is to put your friend to sleep, then you have our
sympathies and our encouragements.
You did the right thing at the time.
You're not God.
Sometimes things happen beyond our control. Sometimes God wants our loved
ones to be home with Him. We don't understand, we grieve, we hurt, but we have
to believe that it is for the best for everyone.
Dealing with Pet Loss
More Pet Care Pages