Deciding to euthanize your dog is the one of the most difficult and painful choices you will ever have to make. The following is written based on my own experience and practices, and may differ from the way your own clinic carries out euthanasia. Different veterinarians and clinics have different protocols for euthanasia. This is meant as a guide for understanding how euthanasia works.
This is a decision only you can make for yourself and your pet. Your veterinarian can only advise you where your pet stands medically. When the bad days outnumber the good, or if your pet no longer recognizes you or cares if you’re around, it may be time. Please refer to the article Euthanasia: Deciding When to Let Go for a more in-depth look at making this difficult decision.
My personal preference is to sedate or tranquilize your pet on arrival. This injection can be given intravenously (IV) or intramuscularly (IM). This way your dog is not frightened by being at the clinic, and if they are in a great deal of pain, a cocktail including a pain killer can be administered. If you are able to plan ahead for the euthanasia, you can ask your veterinarian for a prescription for an oral sedative which you would give your pet at a certain time prior to your appointment. Giving your dog the sedative prior to placing the IV catheter will also ease the process of placement. Placing an IV catheter is ideal, although in some situations, such as severe dehydration or shock, it is not possible.
Some owners prefer to stay the entire time, and some prefer to say goodbye and leave. This is your choice. If you would like to stay, your pet will probably be taken to the back to be sedated and have an IV placed, then brought back to the room. Sometimes owners bring special treats along with them to give to their dog in the exam room. Others choose to say their extra special goodbyes at home, but remember, treats including something like chocolate cannot be given in advance because you could make your dog sick. You don’t want them vomiting and even more miserable in their final hours.
The injection used to put a dog to sleep is typically a barbiturate. Your dog will slip into unconsciousness, then their lungs will stop, and, finally, their heart stops. Given intravenously, the entire process usually takes only seconds, and is a quiet, peaceful process. Your dog is not paralyzed in these moments or otherwise suffering as a result of the injection. In fact, the two-injection process of first a sedative then the barbiturate means your dog is very relaxed and sometimes falls asleep even before the final injection.
Things you should be aware of if you stay with your dog during euthanasia or plan to bring your child along:
- Your dog’s eyes will not close on their own.
- Their muscles may move or twitch after the injection.
- They may take a final gasping breath, which is referred to as agonal breathing. They are not alive or struggling to breathe.
- They may make a noise or sound of some sort, which is a normal post-mortem vocalization.
- Their bladder and bowels will empty.
- The heart may take a few moments to stop entirely. Your veterinarian will check their heart with a stethoscope to be sure your dog’s heart stops entirely.
These movements or sounds after your dog has passed away are caused by electrical impulses that remain in the peripheral nerves even though brain activity has ended. They are completely normal; your dog is not in pain or fighting for their life. Usually your dog will simply relax all over and sigh. The euthanasia process done this way is humane and painless, and a kindness for an elderly or very ill dog. The loss of a beloved pet is a grieving process just like any other loss, and you should take the time to mourn.
You have the option of leaving your dog’s body at the clinic to be taken care of or cremated and have their ashes returned to you. There are quite a few options for urns and wooden cases that can be engraved with their likeness and/or name. You may want to ask your veterinarian if you can leave a few photographs or a favorite toy to be cremated with your dog. Keeping a bit of fur or requesting a paw print on a piece of thick paper are good ways to memorialize your pet. Creating a paw print using an at-home decorative stone kit is another option especially good for kids to participate in while your dog is still with you. If you are unable or forget to make one ahead of time, ask if the print can be made by a member of the veterinary staff so long as you provide the kit. No matter what you choose, remember that your best memories are the ones in your own heart and mind, and you carry them with you forever.