For animal lovers, our pets are very much part of the family and so, when the time comes to say goodbye, it is very difficult.
Animals who come to the Animal Health Trust are sometimes very ill - they come to us because the local vet is unable to diagnose or treat the problem - and sometimes the most important thing we do is to offer some help and advice when it comes either coping with the loss of a pet or making a tough decision about their future.
The word 'euthanasia' is translated to mean 'dying well', a peaceful, gentle death, more commonly referred to in the animal world as being 'put down' or 'put to sleep'. Accepting that the time has come for this option is one of the most difficult decisions a pet owner will have to make but, unfortunately, thousands face it every year.
At the Animal Health Trust, we do all that is within our power to treat the pets referred to us. We aim to extend their lives and to ensure a good quality of life. However, not all conditions are treatable, and not all pets respond to the treatment offered. If your pet is having difficulty eating or breathing, or is in a lot of pain it may be time to consider euthanasia.
Diseases like cancer are, sadly, rife within companion animals, with one in four dogs and one in six cats contracting it within their lifetime. Despite our superb cancer unit here at the Trust, where we can offer animals radiotherapy and chemotherapy, this may not always be the best way forward. Our vets will advise you and talk through the options with you, and you may also wish to discuss your decision with friends and family members. Few ill pets die peacefully in their sleep at home, and so the most important thing to think about is the quality of life your pet will have.
What Happens If I Decide To Have My Pet Put To Sleep?
If you decide that euthanasia is the best option for your pet, there are two options. It can be performed here at the Animal Health Trust with experienced vets and nurses; or you can take your pet home, or to your local clinic, where the vet that both you and your pet know can carry out the procedure. At such a time, it is a good idea to have a close friend or family member with you.
Before the vet does anything, you'll be asked to sign a consent form, giving your permission for the vet to perform the euthanasia. After signing this, you can either stay with your pet or say your goodbyes and leave the room. This is an entirely personal choice. Some people find it too difficult to remain with their pet, whereas others prefer to hold them whilst they go. You should not feel guilty about a decision made in the best interests of your pet.
The actual process is very simple and quick, and the animal feels no pain. It is carried out by injecting an overdose of anaesthetic, usually into the vein of a foreleg, although it can be done in other areas of the body too. The nurse will hold your pet whilst the vet injects the anaesthetic. If your pet has a catheter in place already, the injection can be given through there. Otherwise, a small area of fur will be shaved off so it is easier to inject.
If your pet does not have a catheter in place, they will feel is a little prick as the needle goes in. After this, they lose consciousness rapidly so feel no pain. You have to be prepared for your pet to make a small sigh or to see muscle movement. These are reflexes, not signs of life. It is also normal for the eyes to stay open.
After the injection, death will occur within two or three minutes, as the overdose of the drug causes the heart to stop beating. It is quick, painless and your pet will know none of it.
What Do I Do After The Death Of My Pet?
On a practical level, the main thing to think about after a pet has died, whether naturally or through euthanasia, is what to do with the body. If your animal dies at the Trust, you will be offered either individual or joint cremation at a local crematorium. Individual cremations are more costly, but this does mean you can have your pet's ashes returned to you, either via your local vet or the Trust. Crematoriums often allow you to attend your pet's cremation, and hold a small service, which may help in coping with their death. You can be assured that if your pet is put to sleep at the Trust, and sent to a crematorium from us, that their body will be treated respectfully, and your personal contact details will not be given to the crematorium.
Alternatively, you can take him/her home with you to make other arrangements. There are pet cemeteries, for which the Trust or your local vet can give you details, or you may wish to bury your pet at home. Whatever you choose to do, our staff at the Trust will make suggestions and give you advice. We also have nurses specially trained in pet bereavement who will be happy to talk to you and help you start to cope with your loss. Don't be embarrassed if you become upset in front of veterinary staff. They understand how you're feeling - don't forget most of them will have lost beloved pets too.
How Do I Cope With The Death Of My Pet?
Often, the loss of a pet can hit you harder than you expect. It's normal to be upset, and experience different emotions - sadness, anger, possibly guilt. It may help to talk to friends and family about how you are feeling.
It will be difficult coming home and not having them there, or experiencing things you used to do together. With time, these feelings will get easier but it takes time to recover from loss, so don't expect it to happen overnight. Some people may not have ever loved a pet, so won't understand how you're feeling. Try talking to those close to you, or others you know have gone through it. Share your memories of your pet. It may be a good idea to create a photograph album to remember them by, or to create a pet memorial.
Other pets in the house are also likely to be affected by a death. They may pine, be unable to relax or lose their appetite. Like you, they will need time to adjust to the change and will benefit from extra love and attention from you.
In time, you may want to get another pet. Remember that no two animals are ever the same, so don't try to get one as a direct replacement. They may have similar traits or mannerisms, however, which will be a nice reminder of the pet you lost. Everyone is different, so only you will know when the time is right, if the time is right.
Whatever you choose to do, and whatever the circumstances, the death of a beloved pet is always difficult to cope with. However, it may help to talk to your local vet, or AHT specialist or nurse. It is important that you never forget all the happy times you and your pet spent together.