How are Pets Euthanized?

James Glover
by James Glover
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QuestionOur 12 year old Jack Russell Terrier's health has been declining over the past few months, what are our options for euthanization? (Maria Teckline - Florida)

Answer

How are Pets Euthanized?

Deciding to have your pet put to sleep due to illness, disease or old age is, of course, an intensely personal and usually very painful decision. And only you can make it. Not even your veterinarian can make it for you. But when it feels as though the good days seem to be outnumbering the bad ones, it’s probably time to consider euthanasia seriously.
If, on assessing pain levels and quality of life, you decide it is the kindest option, typically it should be done within 24 hours. You may want a second opinion to be sure you have considered all your options, or to think over the final decision overnight, but you can’t delay indefinitely. After all, however long you leave it, there will never be enough time to say goodbye.
Once the decision has been made, you will be given the legal consent forms to sign.
While most procedures are done at the veterinarian’s surgery, it should also be an option to euthanize your animal at home, in a familiar environment. Or you may be able to choose somewhere else, like your backyard, as long as the veterinarian has enough light and space.
Pets are first made comfortable on a suitable surface. They are euthanized by being given an overdose injection of Pentobarbital, a barbiturate solution which is regularly used to induce unconsciousness for an operation. Essentially, your pet will drift off into a deep sleep within 10 seconds, which will ultimately stop its breathing and lead to a cardiac arrest. (This is why the process is called “being put to sleep.”)
The euthanasia solution depresses the central nervous system, stopping the breathing muscles and the heart. In all probability, the only pain your dog will feel is the needle prick once the solution is injected into the vein. It can be done with a needle and syringe or through an IV catheter. Usually, the animal dies within 30 and 60 seconds of an injection.
In cats and dogs the injection is usually into a vein in the leg, sometimes using a tourniquet. A nurse may apply gentle pressure around the limb first.
Your veterinarian may want to issue a sedative tranquilizer before administering the euthanasia. This is given as a tablet, orally, or injected painlessly under the skin. It relaxes the animal, and the owner can then choose to spend some peaceful quality time saying farewell.
If the animal already has an IV catheter, or sedation is not a good idea for other medical reasons, your veterinarian may choose not to sedate. If that is the case, there is a chance the animal might struggle while the procedure is taking place, and need to be restrained. Or it could take a few attempts to get the needle into the vein.
Once the injection has taken effect, the animal is gently supported into a recumbent position, the tourniquet and needle removed, and any small traces of blood cleaned away. The owner may then want to be alone with their pet to say a final farewell.
Should You Be There?
Choosing whether to be there as your pet slips away is a decision only you can make, and there are no rights or wrongs. Go with whatever you feel most comfortable with, but consider the animal. Sometimes pets can become stressed when they see that their own is emotionally upset.
Things to Be Aware Of
If you do decide to stay, there are some things to be aware of as death takes place. In the majority of cases, there will be a peaceful release of tension as if you pet really were just going to sleep. But each animal is individual, and therefore different. The following things may (or may not) happen:

  • There might be some twitching of the muscles
  • The heart may continue beating briefly
  • Your dog’s eyes will not close
  • While there may be a final gasping breath, known as the agonal breath, this is really more of a muscle spasm, and your animal will not be aware that it is happening. However distressing it may seem to you, the animal is not fighting for breath: it’s just the body shutting down.
  • The contents of the bladder and the bowel may be emptied on death

Euthanasia Methods: Variations
In some cases, the procedure may differ, with the injection made into a different part of the body, such as the stomach, from where drugs are more slowly absorbed. For an animal like a rabbit, it could be the ear vein.
For small mammals, such as mice, where an injection could be too distressing or difficult, some veterinarians use lethal doses of anesthetic gases like chloroform in an anesthetic chamber.
At all times, your veterinarian should explain exactly what they are doing and why. †
Of course, having a beloved family pet put to sleep is never going to be an easy task. But knowing what to expect will make it easier. Make sure you have the answers to all your questions before going ahead.

Disclaimer: This service is meant to provide advice only and is not meant to replace an appointment with a registered veterinarian. Users should always seek a second opinion. Unfortunately we are only able to answer several questions per week so not everyone gets a published answer. And, unfortunately we can't answer by email.
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ArtMaxwell
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Added on May 28th, 2013
"But when it feels as though the good days seem to be outnumbering the bad ones, itís probably time to consider euthanasia seriously."
   
I am sure you meant to say when the bad days outnumber the good days. ;)
   
Art