At 14 years old, Barky, our family dog, had survived cancer and blood disease thanks to a combination of heroic veterinary efforts and just plain good luck. Then, she developed congestive heart failure.Congestive heart failure is a terrible condition. The dog’s heart can’t pump blood through the body very well. It leads to coughing, exhaustion, a swollen belly — and eventually, the dog’s lungs will fill with fluid, and she will essentially feel as if she is drowning in her own body.
We didn’t want Barky to experience a terrifying, painful death. We thought it was kinder for the veterinarian to end her life before that happened — peacefully, at home, surrounded by the people who love her.
My family and I were devastated to lose Barky, devastated to think of her dying, and unsure about whether we were making the right choice. Should we wait? Had we already waited too long?
This is the price we pay for loving animals, and for living with animals: being responsible sometimes for deciding when and how to end their lives.
But how do we know how and when to do it, so that we have done right by our pets, and honored their places in our family? TODAY reached out to veterinarians for guidance to help answer some of our deepest — and, frankly, sobbiest — questions about pet euthanasia.
What actually happens during euthanasia, and does it hurt?
Generally, the veterinarian will give your pet two shots. The first is a sedative.
“This provides for a gentle transition from consciousness to unconsciousness, and the only sensation a pet will experience following this injection is falling into a deeper and deeper sleep,” explained Dr. Shea Cox, a hospice and palliative care specialist with Bridge Veterinary Services in Northern California.
This period will likely last between five and 10 minutes, with the pet falling into a deeper and deeper sleep, “at which time they become no longer aware,” said Cox.
When the family is ready, the veterinarian will then administer the second injection. The most common drug used during that stage is pentobarbital, another anesthetic that will cause the pet’s heart to slow and then stop.
The injection is given either intravenously, which will bring on death in seconds, or directly into the abdomen, which may take up to 15 minutes and “is more gentle and slow,” said Cox — but in either case, the pet, having been sedated, will not be aware of this part of the process.
The only discomfort the pet should experience throughout is a possible pinch when the first injection is given. This is in keeping, Cox said, with the true meaning of the word “euthanasia,” coming “from the Greek word euthanatos, which means ‘good death.'”
How do you know when it’s time?
People often ask Dr. Dani McVety, founder of the home-based veterinary hospice and euthanasia service Lap of Love, when is the “right” time for euthanasia. She prefers the term “best,” instead.
McVety feels this word better encompasses the truth, that there is usually no 100 percent, objectively correct time for euthanasia. Rather, “we, together, are making the best decision that we could make,” she said.
Deciding when to end a pet’s life involves the owner and their veterinarian weighing a number of factors: the animal’s current quality of life, what type of disease he or she may be suffering from and how it is likely to progress. Another consideration is what the family is able to endure; if they want every possible second with their pet and will undergo expensive or uncertain treatments, or if they want to forestall their pet’s suffering.
If the pet has a condition like congestive heart failure, or untreatable brain cancer — a disease that will, unchecked, lead to a painful death — the recommendation may be for euthanasia sooner instead of later.
Even then, by and large, your pet won’t tell you for sure that it’s time; don’t expect a clear-as-day sign to let you know. “There’s a subjective period of time in which euthanasia is a good decision,” said McVety.
It’s important that you and your vet can have open, honest conversations about euthanasia, to help guide this hard part of the process.
“In general, I also tell people to trust their instincts. They know their pets better than anyone,” said Dr. Lisa Lippman, a house-call veterinarian in New York City. “Are they eating? Do they get up to greet you like normal? No matter what any veterinarian says, they know their pet best.”
It’s normal for your pet to have good and bad days toward the end. Texas veterinarian Dr. Fiona McCord, founder of Compassionate Care Pet Services, stresses that owners shouldn’t feel as if they have done something wrong if the euthanasia takes place on a day their pet is feeling well.
“I would much rather somebody plan — we had a good day, went to the park, came home, had the ice cream sandwiches and we let that pet go — than to say, ‘OK, let’s play it day by day,’ and suddenly I get a call, ‘My dog is in distress, can you come today?'” she said. “It’s OK to be a good day. There is no perfect time. Nobody will ever know the perfect time.”