Euthanasia, A Final Act of Kindness

Written by: Maryann Szalka

With the current sophisticated level of veterinary medicine, many of our Beardies are living longer than ever before. In their extended lifetimes, there is greater opportunity for them to develop seriously debilitating and painful conditions and diseases. While we would all prefer that our dogs die a “natural” death, in many cases their lives have been extended beyond what nature might have intended in the first place. (I realize this is not a pleasant subject, but death is a part of life and something we all must contend with eventually). Are you aware many dogs are stoics? They hide their pain and suffering because it is a life-preserving instinct. This means that, when a dog actually shows pain and discomfort, it is likely to be quite severe… possibly more severe than we could ever imagine. It is hard to determine how much pain a dog is experiencing, but, if it is impossible to relieve pain when a dog shows signs of it, we question whether it is kind, humane, or loving to prolong the dog’s life.

Most of us will do as much as we possibly can to ensure quality of life for our dogs until the very end. We will use all the resources at our command and bid our veterinarians to do their utmost. However, if there comes a time when nothing more can be done, the situation may be akin to deciding whether to sustain a human on life-support equipment when there is no hope of recovery. The decision to end a life is difficult and can feel like a betrayal of trust. It is hard enough to end the life of an old and frail dog; yet if the dog appears healthy but has an untreatable medical condition, the decision can be more difficult. Your vet will help you weigh the pros and cons, but ultimately it is your decision. Talking about the likely outcomes of illness, including death and dying, is an important part of health care.

The following are common scenarios when an owner may consider euthanasia:

  • A dog is in incurable pain that cannot be relieved by medication
  • A dog has severe injuries from which it will never recover or which severely compromise its quality of life
  • A puppy is born with serious birth defects which cannot be surgically corrected and will give the puppy poor quality of life before it dies
  • A dog has irresolvable behavior problems which mean that you cannot keep it and which prevent it from being re-homed (Note: some behaviors are the result of neurological conditions/brain damage and are incurable)
  • A dog is terminally ill and will deteriorate

If your Beardie is ill, it is your job to find out all you can with regard to the illness or condition. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my dog’s quality of life?
  • Is my dog in pain, distress or mild discomfort? Can I do anything to alleviate the pain and give the dog a reasonable quality of life for a period of time?
  • Are there new treatments available for this condition?
  • Will the treatments or side effects cause distress for either of us?
  • Are there surgical options for resolving this condition?
  • Can I afford the treatment or surgery?
  • What is my dog’s life expectancy (with or without treatment)?
  • Would it be beneficial to get a second opinion?
  • Can I treat the dog at home?
  • How will this condition affect the lives of my other pets and my family?

A decision concerning euthanasia may be one of the most difficult decisions you will ever make for your pet. The quality of the dog’s life is what is most important. Remember, dogs live in the present moment. We have Beardies, and Beardies have a special joie de vivre! If your Beardie can no longer experience the things it once enjoyed, cannot respond to you in its usual ways or is experiencing more pain than pleasure, you may want to consider euthanasia. Likewise, if your pet is terminally ill or critically injured, or if the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, euthanasia may be a valid option. Remember, many old and infirm Beardies can be made quite comfortable with a little extra TLC, and continue to live a relatively normal life. However, one useful tool is to jot down the things which make your Beardie happy. Do this when he is young and well, obviously being able to eat and drink, pee and poop without assistance would be up near the top of the list. A young dog as he ages may stop being quite so active, but do consider what matters to him, and amend your list (remember some of the things which we write off as normal aging may actually be the result of an underlying physiological problem, and resolving it can give your Beardie a new lease on life). Many dogs become distressed if they can no longer go out to potty, if they soil themselves. If they can’t eat, or pick listlessly at food, it is indicative of poor quality of life and a lingering spiral of slow starvation. Our dogs want to please us, but keeping them alive for ourselves is a poor return for the love and joy they have given us. Letting them go with dignity when they are ready is a small but significant repayment for their devotion.

Maybe you have gone through this process before and maybe not. Sometimes a fear of the unknown prevents people from talking about a subject. Euthanasia is one such subject. Many people even prefer a gentler term like “putting a dog to sleep”. The literal translation of euthanasia is “good death”. Death is inevitable, but having this knowledge may make the experience a bit more bearable. Once you have made your decision call your vet’s office to schedule an appointment. You may even request the first or last appointment of the day, so the vet and staff are not in a hurry. If you are inexperienced, ask the veterinarian or staff member to explain the euthanasia appointment procedure.

On the day of your appointment you may want to leave your dog in the car, and ask the receptionist if there will be any delays prior to your appointment time. You should not have to sit in the waiting room, or be isolated in the exam room for a long period of time.

Knowing what to expect when the time comes, may make it easier. Most euthanasia solutions are a combination of chemicals that cause a quick and painless termination of nerve transmission and complete muscle relaxation. When nerve transmission ceases, there is no thought, no sensation and no movement. Most solutions contain pentobarbital, which at high doses stops breathing and then stops the heart. (It’s nothing more than an anesthetic agent in an amount sufficient to cause immediate loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest) This solution is made to act quickly and painlessly, but it must be administered intravenously (though a vein). Because veins are often thready in elderly and incapacitated dogs, a catheter may be placed to ensure the drugs get into the vein without leaking out. In cases where a dog is distressed, or aggressive, your vet may administer a tranquilizer intramuscularly prior to the procedure. Usually within six to twelve seconds after the euthanasia injection, the dog will take a slighter deeper breath and lapse into what looks like a deep sleep. The process is so smooth, only the absence of chest movement and a heart beat indicate that life is over. Although completely unconscious, some dogs may continue to take a few more breaths before all movement ceases. It may appear that some dogs seem to “fight” euthanasia, but they have already lost consciousness and the muscle twitches are reflexes of which they are unaware. In most dogs the eyes remain open after euthanasia, which may disconcert some owners. As death takes over the complete muscular relaxation may result in urination and defecation. The release of neurotransmitters may cause additional twitching, and gas may sometimes be released.

It is your personal decision whether or not to be present in the exam room when the veterinarian administers the injection. Some people cannot bear to watch their Beardie’s final moments, and others cannot imagine not being there! Some people prefer to stay in the waiting room during the procedure and briefly view their pet afterward and spend a few quiet moments alone in the exam room. Do not feel awkward if you cry or express your grief in other ways. Often the vet and staff will be grieving with you, especially if this is a Beardie they have known and treated since it was a puppy. Everyone has their own comfort level and experience with death, and must do what they feel is right for them.

Whether you choose to have your pet cremated (either mass cremation or with the ashes returned to you), or take the remains home with you, be sure to discuss these plans prior to your appointment. Please note that in some states it is illegal to bury pets in your yard. Your vet and the staff will inform you of your options. On a final note, you may want someone to be with you afterward to drive you home. You may be surprised how difficult it can be to concentrate on driving after such an emotional experience.

Some owners may prefer that this process be done in their home to keep their dogs more comfortable. If this is your choice, you need to be mindful of several things. What will you do with your pet afterwards? In the clinic, staff is experienced in gently restraining a pet if necessary. As a dog is euthanatized, the bowels and bladder naturally empty, you will need to be prepared. Most pets accept they are not on their own turf when they are visiting the vet’s office and are less defensive than they would be in their own home. Your vet may charge extra for a house call, or an after hours visit. For any number of good reasons, your vet may prefer to perform this service in the office and you may have to make a few phone calls to find a vet to accommodate your wishes.

Many pet owners experience a very strong and lasting sense of pain, grief, and loss after the passing of a special pet. Sometimes well meaning family and friends may not realize how important your pet was, or the intensity of your feelings of grief and sorrow. Comments they make can seem cruel and uncaring. Be sure to talk to someone who cares and understands your emotions. You may even consider a professional grief counselor if you’re especially despondent or depressed.

There are several books covering the topic of coping with the sorrow and loss of your pet. My personal favorite is Dog Heaven, written and illustrated by Cynthia Rylant. It’s actually a book for children, but I was taken with the illustrations and the simplicity of the message. Below is a particularly touching passage from her book, that I would like to imagine is true.

“Dogs in Dog Heaven have almost always belonged to somebody on Earth and, of course, the dogs remember this. Heaven is full of memories. So sometimes an angel will walk a dog back to Earth for a little visit and quietly, invisibly, the dog will sniff about his old backyard, will investigate the cat next door, will follow the child to school, will sit on the front porch and wait for the mail. When he is satisfied that all is well, the dog will return to heaven with the angel.”

Last but not least, talk to your Beardie. Hold him or her in your arms and look into those soulful eyes. Euthanasia really is a life or death decision, but if you listen to your heart the answer will become clear.

Other Resources

Hotlines

ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline, 800-946-4646, Enter # 1407211, then add your own phone number

Cornell University Pet Loss Support Hotline, 607-253-3932, T/Th 6-9 pm EST; Messages will be returned

Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support Hotline, 508-839-7966 M-F 6-9 pm EST (summer hours vary; messages left during off-hours will be returned during normal shifts at no cost to the caller) additional material will be mailed if requested

University of California-Davis — Staffed by University of California-Davis veterinary students, 916-752-4200, weekdays, 6:30-9:30 pm, PST

University of Florida, Staffed by University of Florida veterinary students, 904-392-4700 then dial 1 and 4080, weekdays, 7-9 pm, EST

Internet Support Groups

Association for Pet Loss and Bereavementhttp://www.aplb.org Pet bereavement counselors, virtual condolence cards, counselors at law for pet-related matters, In Memoriam list, bereavement for service dogs, local meetings, and more

Pet Loss Grief Support Websitehttp://www.petloss.com The Rainbow Bridge story; Monday Pet Loss Candle Ceremony; message board, chat room; add pet’s name to list for tributes; poetry and music in memory of pets, chat room

Rainbows Bridge Home Pagehttp://rainbowbridge.com One-on-one online grief counseling, memorials, Monday Night Candle Ceremony

Personal Counseling

Linda Aronson, DVM, MA Dr. Aronson’s medical qualifications extend to the health science of humans and animals . She is a Beardie breeder and maintains a private veterinary practice specializing in animal behavior. Over the years, Linda has generously donated her time and expertise to help Beardie owners who contact her via the Internet. You can email Linda at dvm@Petshrink.com .

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