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The Toughest Choice


By: Brie Taylor, DVM

There aren’t many things in life that are as difficult to accept as death.  It’s even more painful when you must decide whether to end a beloved pet’s life.  However, there may come a time when, for humane, medical, economic, or safety reasons, you need to consider euthanasia for your pet.

The decision to euthanize, or induce a painless death, should never be made without careful consideration.  The right choice is one that is in the best interest of the pet and the owners.

There are a wide range of circumstances under which euthanasia may be considered, such as:  incurable disease, chronic debilitating illness, neonate with serious birth defects, severe traumatic injury, dangerous behavioral trait, undue financial burden of caring for a sick or incapacitated pet, debilitation in old age, or undue suffering for any reason, among others.  Every case is unique and the decision to euthanize an animal is highly individual.  It is also a very emotional issue.  Yet it is important to address the situation from a practical standpoint as well.  Whether you are dealing with an emergency or a long-term illness, answer the following questions and discuss them with your veterinarian to help you decide what is right for you and your pet:

  •     What is the likelihood of recovery or an acceptable return to function?
  •     Is the animal suffering?
  •     Has the animal become depressed, despondent, or does it continue to show an interest to live?
  •     How much discomfort or distress can you accept seeing your own animal endure?
  •     What kind of special care will this animal require, and can your meet its needs?
  •     Can you continue to provide for this animal economically?
  •     What are the alternatives?

As the pet’s owner, you ultimately have the responsibility of determining the animal’s fate.  Your veterinarian can provide the medical information and help you fully understand the prognosis.  They can also explain the options, and offer comfort and support.  However, your veterinarian cannot decide for you whether or not to let your pet go.  If you are in doubt about the prognosis or your options, ask your veterinarian again and/or get a second opinion.

If you and your veterinarian agree that euthanasia is the best choice, it is important to prepare as best you can.  If you are able to make the decision in advance rather than under emergency conditions, making prior arrangements will ease the process.  Determine when and where is most comfortable and practical for you, the veterinarian, and the pet.  Decide whether you wish to be present during the procedure.  Discuss the procedure in advance with your veterinarian so you know what to expect.  Explain to members of your family, especially children, why the decision was made to euthanize your pet.  Allow yourself to grieve. 

Given the affection we have for our pets, dealing with their deaths can be extremely difficult.  But death is a part of life and finding the resources to cope with your emotions is important.  To help you deal with your own grief, there are local and national counseling organizations.  Ask your veterinarian for more information regarding these resources.

As a caring owner, you want your pet to have a peaceful, painless end.  During the procedure, the veterinarian will administer an overdose of barbiturates (anesthesia) in a dose sufficient enough to shut down the animal’s central nervous system.  The drugs will stop the heart and the animal will quit breathing.  They act quickly and effectively.  However, not all animals respond the same way.  Some may die instantly, while others take a few minutes. 

Unfortunately, your pet, like all living creatures, is not going to live forever.  If your pet remains healthy and happy into old age and dies a peaceful, natural death, you are fortunate.  However, by thinking about what you would do in an emergency, or how you would act if your animal’s life became painful and unbearable to watch, you can be prepared for whatever happens.  You show the ultimate respect for your pet by relieving it of unendurable pain or disease.  And we as veterinarians are here to help you through the process and procedure.

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