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How do we know whether euthanasia is right for our pet, and what does it entail?

White Jack Russell dog's front paws in owner's hands advice

Is euthanasia the right choice?

© Shutterstock

What is pet euthanasia, and how do we know when it is time to take that trip to the vet? We look at the method of euthanasia and the moral dilemma faced by owners whose beloved pet is at death’s door.

By Nick Whittle

Published on the 16/03/2020, 15:00

It is, after all, hard to know when the end is nigh, and support and guidance from a vet is often one-sided, especially if the pet is in pain and suffering. But what are the alternatives? And what happens to a pet after it has been put to sleep? Are there any choices of memorial? Read on to find out a little more about pet euthanasia.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your vet about euthanasia. Understandably, a vet’s primary concern is for the animal’s welfare; that is part of why they chose to be a vet in the first place. The ultimate decision is however yours alone to make. We think knowing a little more about the process may just help.

What is pet euthanasia?

If your vet is concerned that your dog (or cat, or tortoise) is in a great deal of pain or is otherwise suffering with a terminal illness they will tell you that euthanasia is the kindest course of action.

If you decide to have your pet put to sleep the vet will explain to you the medical process in layman’s terms, but they will also ask you several times whether you are sure it is what you want. They will not swerve you from a choice, but they will be honest and straightforward.

The RCVS states in their guidance on euthanasia, “The veterinary surgeon's primary obligation is to relieve the suffering of an animal, but account must be taken not only of the animal's condition, but also the owner's wishes and circumstances.

“To refuse an owner's request for euthanasia may add to the owner's distress and could be deleterious to the welfare of the animal.”

What to expect of the process of pet euthanasia

It is unclear when vets began to offer the euthanasia of domestic pets, although for centuries types of euthanasia have been carried out on farm animals and horses.

Of dog euthanasia the process usually involves the administration of a drug called pentobarbital, which in most cases sends the animal into a deep sleep before slowing its heart rate and breathing down sufficiently to cause death.

Some vets administer a mild sedative beforehand in order to lessen the pet’s distress and agitation. Before they inject the final drug they will ask you whether you are certain that the decision made feels right.

The drug gets to work quite fast and life is usually extinct within a minute of administration. The vet will then check your pet’s pulse to confirm death.

Euthanasia of cats

Cat euthanasia is often carried out in a slightly different way. After giving a sedative injection some vets inject the pentobarbital into the cat’s kidney. This is done for several reasons:

  1. The cat does not need an injection or cannula in its leg
  2. The owner may hold the cat during the process
  3. The drug’s effect is almost instantaneous.

Aftershocks

It is not uncommon for a pet that has been given a fatal dose of pentobarbital to utter gasps and repeated breaths, and to twitch. This does not mean that the animal is in pain or distressed. Other post-death reflexes include bladder and bowel movements, which can be unpleasant to see.

It is important to know that your pet’s eyes will not close once they have passed away.

How much does it cost to euthanize a dog?

The cost of canine euthanasia varies from practice to practice across the UK. It is also determined by the size and weight of the dog and its breed. A smaller breed of dog such as a Bichon Frise will be put down for less than a larger breed such as a Greyhound.

In the UK, euthanasia costs between £80 and £200, according to Peaceful Pet Goodbyes.

What happens to a dog after it is put down?

Many pet owners choose to have their pets cremated or buried after the pet is euthanized. There are funeral homes and crematoria that offer services (at a cost) for families who wish to give their pets a proper goodbye.

Immediately after your dog has been put to sleep, you will be offered the chance to spend some time with it. However, the length of time you can spend together and the quality of the time is determined by the business of the vet’s practice and the facilities therein. Some vets even have bereavement rooms specifically designed for grieving owners.

What should I do with my pet’s remains?

If you wish to take your pet’s body you should inform the vet as soon as possible of your intentions. You are permitted to bury a dog or cat or other small animal in your garden but preparations of the body must be made in order that you can take it with you.

If you do not have any wish to take part in the disposal of your pet the vet will ensure that it is stored safely before being taken for incineration. In the UK, domestic animals are usually taken to the nearest municipal incinerator where they are carefully disposed of. Some are taken to pet crematoria which charge extra for the use of their services.

Despite is written on the net, dead domestic animals are not taken to meat rendering plants or used for scientific experimentation.

What is the best thing to do with a beloved pet’s body?

These days there are lots of alternatives to a simple disposal carried out by a vet. Some of the most common follow below:

Communal cremation

Your pet will be cremated with other pets at a local pet crematorium. The ashes will be scattered by the crematorium staff in due course. There is usually an additional charge for this cremation service.

Individual cremation

Your pet is cremated on its own. Ashes will usually be available to collect from the vet’s practice in due course. You will be charged for the provision of the cremation.

Private cremation

You can travel with your pet to a crematorium where a small service will be held in memoriam. Again, you will be charged for the provision of the cremation and the use of the chapel.

Garden burial

Often the choice of a family with children is the burial of a pet in the garden. If garden burial is something you may consider then you should inform the vet in order that they can make the necessary arrangements for you to take the body.

What can I do to honour my pet?

To memorialise someone is to remember them. It can be argued that to memorialise a dog or cat is just as important as memorialising a person. A browse of the internet reveals dozens of methods of pet memorialisation. Here is a brief list of just some of those ways:

  • A tree planted in the garden or in a special place
  • A memorial plaque at a pet crematorium
  • A glass keepsake made from your pet’s ashes
  • An obituary for your pet
  • A firework display
  • A donation to charity in memory of your pet
  • A portrait of your pet
  • An urn for your pet’s ashes (cremated remains)
  • A photo album created as a tribute

My dog is dying. Who can I call?

Most vets have an on-call service which caters for owners when the physical practice is closed.

A vet that is called to the house of an owner whose pet is dying may advice home euthanasia there and then. Some vets however will suggest the animal is brought to the surgery the next morning in order to be put down.

If your pet dies in the middle of the night you should call your vet for advice. There are usually two options available:

  1. The vet will suggest a mobile collection service to take your pet away (which may cost a considerable amount of money), or
  2. The vet will urge you to look after your pet until the next morning.

Of the fees associated with out-of-hours appointments the RCVS writes, “Fees may vary between practices and may be a factor in choosing a practice, as well as the practice's facilities and services, for example, what sort of arrangements are in place for 'out-of-hours' emergency calls.”

Whether you store your pet in the house or in a garage, you will be advised to wrap it in a blanket and plastic bags in order to preserve the dignity of the animal.

To say goodbye to a beloved pet is extremely distressing. However, it must be remembered that although it is hard for us to part with an animal we love dearly euthanasia is offered as a remedy for the pain and suffering of your dog or cat.

It is often in our pet’s best interests therefore that we accept that life is not eternal. We also must be fair to an animal that no longer has a decent quality of life. Choosing a memorial for your pet is sometimes then next best way to keep them near, albeit in a spiritual sense rather than a physical one.