Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Pet

Although each of us knows that death is a very necessary part of life, dealing with the death of your pet is generally not much easier than coping with the death of any other family member. Compounding the grief is the fact that many times we are the ones who must decide that it is time to euthanize the pet when he loses his quality of life.

grieving woman

How can I know whether the time is right to put my dog down?

Euthanasia is one of the hardest decisions most guardians will ever face. Most people go back and forth in their decision-making process several times before finally having the dog put down. It is tough to decide that the pet no longer needs to live, especially for an animal who may still have good days and bad days.

When you first learn that your pet is ill, you will need to find out as much as you can about the prognosis and probable course of whatever disease is involved. This will help you to know what to expect as your pet gets weaker. You should also speak to your vet about the expected treatment and its costs. Although sad, it is a fact that money for pet care does not grow on the trees in most of our backyards. Veterinary technology now allows pets to live much longer lives than they have in the past, but the cost of this technology is sometimes too steep for the average family to afford. And unfortunately, the cost of treatment may make the euthanasia decision for you.

Assuming that there is a treatment available for your dog, and that you can afford it, the next consideration should be whether or not your dog is able to enjoy his life. Consider some of these stories from pet guardians who finally decided on euthanasia as the best option for their pets:

“I travelled quite a bit on business, and just left enough food and water out for the cat while I was gone. Whenever I came home, the cat would trot to the door to greet me. However, I noticed it was getting harder and harder for her to walk. One day when I came home, she was lying under the coffee table and couldn’t get up to come see me. I knew then that it was time.”
“My beagle had been diagnosed with lymphoma about 2 months ago when we found lumps in her neck. We agreed to try chemotherapy, even though it would really stretch our budget because Molly was only 2 years old, and was a great dog. She responded really well to the first treatment, but about 3 days after the second treatment, her lumps came back, much larger than they had been originally. Her eyes looked so droopy and sad; we knew we couldn’t put her through any more of this.”
“Our mutt-i-gree was diagnosed with cancer in her lower jaw. It got to the point where she could only eat soft food, and really wasn’t all that interested even in that. On her last vet visit, he told me that there were only two ways to relieve Tracy’s pain: remove her jaw, in which case she would starve to death, or put her down. Some choice.”

As you can see, each situation is a bit different. But in each case the guardian just knew that the time had come. It is an intensely personal decision that can be made only by those who know and love the dog best.

What happens during euthanasia?

The process of putting a dog down is not very complicated at all. In fact, it is very similar to what happens when an animal is put under anesthesia for a medical procedure. Your pet will be brought into an examination room and placed on the exam table. The vet will then inject him with a very high dose of pentobarbital in one of his leg veins. The pentobarbital makes the dog very sleepy, then stops his heart from beating. The whole process takes no longer than about 15 – 30 seconds, although it may be the longest 30 seconds of your life.

Some veterinarians do not invite the dog’s family into the examination room, although most experts recommend that you insist on attending your dog’s death. It is the least you can do after the years of companionship he gave you, and it does give you a bit of closure. After the dog is declared dead, the vet will usually allow the family some private time in the room with the body to say goodbye.

What do I do with my dog’s body?

pet coffin

Whether you choose to euthanize your dog or whether he is hit by a car or dies of natural causes, once the animal is gone, you will need to decide what to do with the body. As with humans, you may choose to cremate the remains or to bury them. However, with a pet, there are a few other things to consider. Cremation may be done individually, for your pet alone, or his remains may be combined with those of others in a group cremation. Depending on local laws, the ashes may be sprinkled, kept in an urn, or buried. If you choose not to cremate, you may choose to bury your dog in his own plot in a pet cemetery or in a group plot with many other animals. Depending on regulations in your locality, you may also choose to give your pet a private burial in your own backyard. An uncommon choice, but one that some people choose is to take the body to a taxidermist to have it preserved for posterity.

Depending on how your dog died, another choice you may have to make is whether or not to have the bodied necropsied (the animal equivalent of autopsy). In some cases, such as infectious disease deaths, it may be necessary to perform a necropsy in order to protect other animals and even humans with which the dog has had recent contact. Breeders often want to know a cause of death because they can use this information to plan future breeds, selecting away from any fatal congenital defects. If an otherwise healthy animal dies, sometimes a necropsy can indicate whether any foul play was involved for the purpose of pressing criminal charges. Even a dog who dies of natural causes can be necropsied upon request if the owner feels that it would help with the grieving process.

How do I deal with the pain I am feeling?

There are many books on pet loss which may be helpful, especially if you know ahead of time that you will be putting your dog down soon. Many of these books will be available at your local library at no cost.

In addition, there are pet loss hotlines that can be consulted for support when you feel overwhelmed. Many veterinary colleges host hotlines staffed by veterinary students, and helping pet guardians deal with their grief is an important part of their training. Hours vary by location, and you can find a hotline close to you by looking at the AVMA website here.

You should expect to go through the same stages of grief you would go through with any death: denial, bargaining, anger, sorrow, and acceptance. In any of these stages, you may experience physical symptoms such as crying and loss of appetite; cognitive symptoms like confusion or trouble concentrating; emotional symptoms including irritability and possibly embarrassment for being irritable; and social symptoms such as becoming withdrawn or feeling dependent on others. All of these feelings are normal and will eventually reduce in intensity. If they seem to get stronger or if they persist longer than you think they should, we here at encourage you to seek help, either from one of the hotlines mentioned above or from your personal physician.


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