Many people don’t think about euthanasia – the word comes from the Greek for “good death” – until an animal’s last days are imminent. We all hope pets will die gently in their sleep; often, though, we have to release them from pain.

Whenever the subject comes up, an owner who hasn’t been through the process is likely to have three questions.

  1. How do I know when to make this decision?
  2. What happens when a veterinarian euthanizes an animal?
  3. What do I do after the animal has been put to sleep?

The first question comes with the largest number of variables, and can be difficult to answer, but when your pet has a significant change in behavior and is not enjoying things he or she normally would (eating, playing, going for walks) it is important to talk to your veterinarian about the signs you are seeing. You veterinarian will usually recommend tests to try to understand what is causing your pet to feel poorly. Often there are treatment options. However, sometimes we decide not to pursue further treatment.

Many factors affect your decision whether to treat an aged or gravely ill animal: concerns about quality of life, concerns about the time or physical burden of caring for the pet or financial restrictions. Remedies that worked for one pet may fail with another, or vice versa. A vet can advise you about the likely course of disease and the prognosis.

If euthanasia seems like the right option, the procedure is made as fast and painless as possible for both you and your pet. It usually takes place in a vet’s office but can happen in your home. You’ll sign a consent form in advance and may pay for the procedure then, to avoid dealing with paperwork afterward. Some clinics, like CARE, provide quiet rooms for you to commune with your pet beforehand or exits that let you leave without walking through the main lobby.

The vet will place the dog or cat on a blanket and inject a pentobarbital solution into a vein, possibly after administering a sedative. You can be present, so your pet can see and hear you, but you don’t have to be. If you elect not to, the veterinarian and technician will stay with the pet and make sure that they are comfortable.

As the injection is given your pet’s breathing will slow down, and the heart will stop. Though he or she feels no pain, you may see brief aftereffects: muscle twitching, vocalization, discharges from the bladder or bowels. The whole procedure takes perhaps a minute.

You can remain with your pet to grieve in privacy; some owners like to take a lock of hair or a paw print as a memento. If you have other pets at home, remember that they’ll grieve, too. They may exhibit atypical behavior when they realize their old friend is gone, though that will pass.

Once the procedure is over, you have the same options you would for any family member: cremation or burial, with or without a monument.

Some pet owners choose to scatter the ashes in a pet’s favorite spot, holding a service with photos or poetry. Some plant flowers, bushes or even trees in memoriam. There are many ways to lovingly commemorate the friend who loved you.

For more information on euthanasia options, contact your veterinarian. Or you can reach CARE 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 704-457-2300.

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