As an emergency critical care specialist, I end up euthanizing a lot of dogs and cats in the ER and ICU. If I had to guess, approximately 30 percent of my patients end up being humanely "put to sleep" within a 24-hour window of seeing me. Why? Because animals often present for end-stage disease or cancer, and by the time they show symptoms, it’s often too late.
With that, I’ve developed my "euthanasia spiel," so I can explain the whole process in a compassionate, empathetic way to grieving, stressed pet owners. Check out "Euthanasias gone bad," and you’ll better understand why I think it’s so important that the last memories of a pet’s life be preserved in the most beautiful, compassionate, dignified manner.
With JP, I was "lucky." I was able to determine and control many aspects of his euthanasia process: where, when, and why I was doing it. On July 4th, I finally put JP to sleep — after 370 days of being cancer free.
As heart-breaking as it was to euthanize JP, I was so glad I did it in the comfort of my own home. No stressful car ride, no stressful visit to the vet clinic, no strange, metallic table … just a familiar place, while resting on the same beat-up old sleeping bag that he was used to snuggling on. One of my colleagues came over and humanely euthanized JP while my ex-partner and I fed him sausages and hot dogs, and surrounded him with love (and tears).
The impact afterwards was profound, as it is to any pet owner who has lost a beloved four-legged friend. The hardest thing for me was thinking about the veterinary medical aspect — having to deal with the mental image that my dog was in a heavy duty, black plastic bag, lying in the cooler somewhere, instead of lying in bed with me.
My only comfort? Knowing that it was just JP’s physical body that had departed. As traumatic a memory this morgue-image was, I tried to push it out of my head, knowing that "all dogs go to heaven" and that it was just a physical remnant left behind. As a pastor’s kid, I had confirmation from a legit source that all dogs do indeed go to heaven (If there are snakes, lions, and lambs up there, you can bet there are dogs too…).
While I’ve "done" a lot of euthanasia procedures, JP was my very first pet that I had to euthanize on my own. I fully admit that I was a mess … and I know it’ll take time to heal. But what I personally learned a lot from it was this:
- If you have the opportunity to, euthanize your pet at home. It’s comforting to your four-legged friend to not have to undergo a stressful car-ride or be subjected to a strange environment. While this isn’t always feasible or possible, if you can make it happen, do so.
- Take the time to mourn. I took the whole weekend to spend every waking moment with JP before I euthanized him, spoiling him rotten in the process. I was fortunate enough to take time away from work afterwards too – I needed the mental health time to mourn my best friend.
- Ask your veterinarian for a high-fiber canned dog food for the last few weeks of your pet’s life. I was feeding JP so much filet mignon and table food, he ended up with severe diarrhea, which made him (and his butt) miserable for a few days. By mixing in the high-fiber canned food (or probiotic) for the last few weeks, JP was able to eat to his heart’s (and butt’s) content while dining on delicious snacks.
- Never question what you want. Hours later, I frantically called the hospital where I dropped off JP’s body for cremation, asking them to save me some fur. In my grief, I had forgotten to ask for it earlier. Someone then asked me if I really wanted his fur, and would it mean that much to me after he’s gone (after all, it’s still all around the house!). When mourning, any step helps… and yes, I did want his fur and all those clay paws!
- Don’t move anything for a few days. Coming home is the hardest part of mourning – the house is empty, his dog bed is still there, and there’s no one to walk. Take the time to remove reminders at your own pace. I miss the smell and sight of him, and seeing his toys, bed, and blanket are my only tangible sensory way of remembering him.
- Pay a tribute. JP touched so many people’s lives, that just creating an online photo album helps me remember the wonderful life I shared with my friend.
- Let your dog sniff. I only have a few regrets with JP, and one of them is not letting him sniff more on walks. We humans get so caught up in the "busy-ness" of our lives, and are often tugging on dog leashes to hurry our more mellow companions along. Next dog, sniff all you want, bud.
In case you're not sure what to do when it comes to the topic of euthanasia — like when is it really time, or what signs of "quality of life" to look for in your pet, or what exactly happens when we euthanize, or what you can do with your pet's body or ashes afterwards — know that I explain this all in the last chapter in both of my books, It's a Dog's Life … but It's Your Carpet, and It's a Cat's World … You Just Live In It. The chapter is titled, "The vet and the pet."
More importantly, find a vet who cares and can help to guide you through the toughest decision of your life.
Dr. Justine Lee