By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Our dogs rely on us for almost everything, and at no time is that more true than when their lives are nearing an end. There is no greater gift than for a pet parent to ensure that a beloved dog’s last days and final passing are peaceful. But doing this requires preparation, which is best done before a crisis arises.
To ensure that you cover all your bases, you need to consider the type of end-of-life care that’s needed, who will be with your dog when the time comes, where you will have the procedure performed, and when the time has come to consider euthanasia.
Palliative Care and Deciding on End-of-Life Care
When a dog’s death is inevitable in the not-too-distant future, the first question you and your vet need to answer is, “What kind of end-of-life care are we going to provide?”
Palliative care involves pain relief, nursing care, and basically anything dying pets might need to stay comfortable during their last days. When owners and veterinarians provide palliative care, the goal of treatment has shifted from cure to comfort. A few owners continue with increasingly aggressive palliative care (in other words, hospice) until a dog dies naturally, but most eventually elect to euthanize. Let’s take a look at what is involved with this procedure.
What to Expect During the Euthanasia Procedure
Most veterinarians give dogs sedatives prior to euthanasia. Sedatives are generally given by injection and include one or more drugs that relieve pain and anxiety and help dogs fall into a state where they are resting comfortably and will not feel or be aware of anything that follows. At this point, an intravenous catheter is usually put in place. When everyone who is present is ready, the veterinarian will give an injection of euthanasia solution through the intravenous catheter.
Euthanasia solution is essentially a massive overdose of anesthesia that shuts down brain activity, leading to cardiopulmonary arrest. This type of euthanasia provides a pain-free and serene death for dogs. In some cases, a dog may move or take very deep breaths after the euthanasia injection is given. These are reflexes and the dog is completely unaware of what is happening. Dogs may also lose bladder or bowel control around the time of death. While this can be distressing to witness, it is important to remember that at this point, dogs are no longer able to sense the changes going on in their bodies.
A veterinarian may alter the euthanasia procedure based on their professional experience and/or the dog’s condition, so it is always best to ask the doctor who is going to perform the euthanasia exactly what you should expect.
Another question you need to answer is, “What kind of aftercare do you want for your dog’s body?” Some owners elect to bury their pets on their own property, but check your local regulations. At-home pet burial is illegal in some jurisdictions. Another consideration is the soil conditions you will be dealing with. Dogs should be buried with at least two feet of soil cover, which can be very difficult to achieve in rocky conditions or if the ground is frozen. Also, dogs should not be buried near wells, wetlands, or waterways.
Cremation is an increasingly popular choice for handling pet remains. Pet crematories generally offer two options:
- Private cremation, where pets are cremated by themselves and their ashes are gathered and returned to their owner.
- Communal cremation, where several pets are cremated together and their ashes are scattered on private property. This option is less expensive than private cremation.
In some communities, owners can bury their dogs in a pet cemetery or even with a family member in a human cemetery. Finally, disposing of a pet’s remains at a local landfill is allowed in many areas.
Who Will be Present During the Procedure?
When the decision to euthanize has been made, the next question to be answered is, “Who will be present?” If at all possible, at least one family member should remain with the dog to provide comfort and reassurance through the point where the sedative takes full effect. But frankly, after the dog is sleeping, he or she is no longer aware of what is going on and so the focus should shift to what is best for the people involved. Some owners choose to step aside at this point, not wanting their last memories of their dog to involve death. This is fine. Others choose to stay for the entire procedure so they can be fully involved. This is also fine. Different family members may have opposing feelings on this matter. Everyone should be allowed to do what they feel is right for them.
Families often wonder whether children should be allowed to witness a dog’s euthanasia. The great majority of dog euthanasias proceed in an exceptionally peaceful and serene manner. The fear of the unknown is often worse than experiencing what actually occurs, so if a child expresses a desire to be present, it is generally best to respect those wishes. If, however, a child is adamant about not wanting to attend the euthanasia, those wishes should also be respected. Having infants and toddlers present is more a matter of logistics, since they will not have long term memories of the event.
The question of whether other pets should be present also frequently arises. As long as they are not going to be disruptive, it is generally best to let them make the choice for themselves. They can stay nearby or remove themselves to another part of the house depending on their emotional state. If other pets have been in a separate location during the euthanasia, it is often helpful to let them spend some time with the body. Many animals seem to comprehend death, but an inexplicable disappearance can be harder to come to terms with.
Where to Euthanize Your Dog: Considering Your Options
The next question to be answered regarding euthanasia is, “Where?” Most owners elect to take their dogs to the veterinary clinic. This can be a good choice, particularly if the dog is comfortable travelling and is not anxious about visiting the clinic, but in-home euthanasias provide a compelling alternative. When a dog is euthanized at home, many potential stressors can be avoided. Also, it is a simple matter for as many people or pets to attend as wish to. Finally, having the veterinarian come to you eliminates the drive home from the clinic, which potentially carries some risk if the driver is very upset. Many veterinary clinics will provide in-home euthanasia services to their clients, or if they can’t, they will refer you to a mobile veterinarian who can.
If you choose to euthanize your dog at home, pick a location (inside or outside if the weather permits) where your dog is comfortable and everyone can easily gather. It is possible that your dog might lose bladder or bowel control during the procedure, but the veterinarian should be prepared with absorbent pads or towels to prevent your house from becoming soiled. The veterinarian will also provide or arrange for transportation of your dog’s body to a crematory, cemetery, etc., if you so desire.
In cases where expenses must be held to an absolute minimum, many humane societies will provide free or low-cost euthanasias to community members. Be aware that in most cases, you will not be allowed to be present during the procedure, however.
When to Euthanize Your Dog
Now that you have decided to humanely euthanize and have the ‘who and where’ decisions made, the final question that needs to be answered is, “When?” The goal of euthanasia is both to relieve and prevent suffering; in other words, to maximize the good and minimize the bad. When euthanasia is thought of in this way, it becomes obvious that there is no one right time to proceed. Euthanize early and you can prevent a whole lot of suffering, but you’ll also be eliminating some of the good days. Euthanize late and you can savor those good times, but the cost is putting your dog through avoidable stress and discomfort. Add to this the fact that decisions about when to euthanize must not only take into consideration the needs of the dog but also the welfare of the entire family, and it becomes obvious that determining the “perfect” time to euthanize is an impossibility.
So what is a pet parent to do? Keeping a quality of life diary for terminally ill patients is immensely helpful. Every day, on a scale of one to five (one being very poor and five being excellent), note how your dog is eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, and give an overall rating for his pain control, anxiety level, activity, and interest in family life. When you notice a sustained, downward trend in any of these criteria, or, even more importantly, several criteria at once, the end is quite near no matter what you do, and the benefits of delaying euthanasia are questionable at best. Increasing the level of palliative care or scheduling euthanasia are your only humane options.
Once this point is reached, call your veterinarian and discuss your options. Know that if you make an appointment for euthanasia and your dog rallies, you can always reschedule. But keep in mind the adage that veterinarians who specialize in end of life care believe to be all too true, “Better a week too early than an hour too late.”