Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
Latest posts by Sarah Hansen (see all)
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The second a dog enters your life, you can’t imagine your day without them. They almost feel immortal. You believe they will always be at the door with dancing eyes and wagging tail when you come home.
If our love could keep them alive, no dog would ever die. But we all know love is not enough. Sooner or later, we will have to say goodbye.
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The Day My Best Friend Died
The vet stepped into the exam room as I tried to keep from hyperventilating through my tears. Dante, our beloved German Shepherd, was still in the back rooming getting painkillers through an IV.
“I’m terribly sorry, but Dante had an undiagnosed splenic tumor that has burst,” she said solemnly.
“We ran his blood work, and we highly suspect it is a cancerous tumor.”
I could feel the blood pounding in my ears as my heart raced and the tears kept flowing like rivers down my face.
“You have two options,” she continued.
“First, we can operate and remove his spleen. This surgery, if he even makes it through, will be very difficult for a geriatric dog and he will be in a lot of pain.”
“However, you should know that if you decide on the surgery and we open him up, if the tumor looks cancerous – and I am about 90% sure that it is – I will euthanize him on the table in the middle of surgery.”
The walls closed in around me as she kept talking.
“It’s too cruel to bring him back out of the anesthesia when he has only a few painful weeks to live trying to recover from losing his spleen before he dies from cancer.”
“Your second option is to simply euthanize him now surrounded by his family and not put him through more pain. He’s bleeding out, so you need to decide quickly. However, given his lab work and symptoms, I would strongly recommend the second choice.”
My mind was racing. My heart was breaking. He was fine just an hour ago. A week ago the vet had given him a clean bill of health. No one caught the tumor.
This was the dog that saved my life from an assault by defending me from my attacker. This dog was my shadow, my protector and best friend.
My husband and I had very little time to make that heartbreaking decision in the dead of night.
We knew if we did the surgery, at best he was facing a painful road of recovery when he was already showing signs or arthritis and hip dysplasia. At worst, he would have cancer and he would die opened up on the cold surgery table away from us.
So, we made the most painful decision of our lives. We chose option two.
Dignity in Death
The vet brought him back to the exam room while I tried to compose myself so we didn’t alarm him. I cradled his head and kissed the black diamond on his forehead over and over like I had done every night for the eight years he had been ours.
I kept whispering “I love you” in his ear so it was the last words he would hear in as strong a voice as I could project from the brokenness that used to be my chest. My husband pressed against his side and hugged him close, and we clung to him as his life slipped away by the vet’s injection on the clinic floor.
When we were weighing that awful decision, we thought of the honor Dante had always inherently possessed, even in old age. We owed him the type of death that matched his valiant life.
So, as much as it hurt, as much as we weren’t prepared to lose him, as much as we wanted a few extra months with him to make us feel better, as much as we wanted to take his place, we gave him the gift of dying with dignity surrounded by people who loved him.
To this day, I still can’t recall that moment without tears. However, given the vet’s advice and what we knew then, we would make the same decision again.
Dante never experienced what it was like to be unable to walk. He never lost control of his bowels. He never had to be carried because he was too weak to move.
Other than the few minutes it took to rush him to the vet’s office and start the pain medication, he never suffered.
We loved him to the end, and we were there to help him through his final breath with the loving act of letting him go before life got too dark.
It was at that moment I realized euthanasia, when done with the dog’s best interest, is a gift.
Not Enough Time
One of the cruelest aspects of pet ownership is that, in most cases, you will outlive your dog. The average dog’s lifespan is between 10 to 13 years. The average human lifespan is 71 years.
Given the amount of love we feel for our pets, these number discrepancies seem very cruel. The odds are good that sooner or later you will have to say goodbye.
There are many reasons pet owners are forced into euthanasia, but here are a few of the more common ones:
- Rabies: No cure, so euthanasia is the only option.
- Traumatic Accident
- Kidney Failure
- Old age
- Genetic disease
Most of the time, even under the best of circumstances with the highest-quality care, the inevitable decision can only be delayed.
When Do You Know It’s Time?
That’s the million-dollar, guilt-ridden question.
You may have heard people say that your pet will let you know when it’s time. Sadly, it’s often not the case.
You just get to a point where you know each day you keep your dog alive is simply giving them existence, not life enrichment.
As dog owners, we hold their lives in our hands. Unless they slip peacefully away in the night, we usually have to face this avalanche of emotions of what to do once our beloved best friend starts to go downhill.
Dogs and humans have similar organ systems. When they start to fail, it’s thought that they feel pain in the same way humans experience it.
I find this helpful when tackling this question of when it’s time to put them to sleep, because the owner can figuratively put themselves in their pet’s place.
As humans, euthanasia isn’t an option. However, many terminal human patients would willingly choose it over lingering in a drug-induced stupor and suffering in a vegetative state while waiting for the end. This is why people sign DNR forms, so their lives aren’t artificially prolonged.
While euthanasia may feel devastating to us, it is actually a merciful final gift we can give our suffering canine companion.
Some Questions To Ask
Try to put yourself in your pup’s place when considering if it’s time to let them go.
- If you had a terminal disease and were in constant pain, would you want to continue that life?
- Would you want to be alive if you could no longer do the things you enjoyed?
- Do good and happy days outnumber painful and sad days?
- Does your dog still like to eat?
- What type of life would you have if you couldn’t control your bowel movements or walk?
- Would you want to go through painful surgeries and try to recover when your body is already about to give out?
There are also the financial aspects when considering whether or not to prolong your dog’s life. While it may seem heartless to consider this factor, many owners don’t have pet insurance or, if they do, it may not cover that particular expensive treatment.
When age, expense, suffering and a poor outcome come together in the perfect storm, it makes sense to stop fighting the inevitable outcome.
However, on the opposite side of the argument, if your dog’s quality of life is good and they aren’t in pain, you should also try to do what is in their best interest and care for them, even if it isn’t convenient or cost effective.
When Putting Off Euthanasia Was the Right Decision
In contrast to Dante’s story, we have a happier ending for his successor. This story illustrates that you should not be afraid to try a therapy if the dog is able to continue with a good life during the process.
Our German Shepherd, Soren, was diagnosed with decimated aspergillosis. The fungal infection had moved to his lungs and leg bones, and he was given a poor prognosis for survival.
Part of the reason that the prognosis was so bad was that many pet owners put their dogs down due to the extensive treatment protocol and poor outcomes associated with this disease.
No only were the anti-fungals expensive, they took months or even years to fully eradicate the infection. Usually, the medicine still didn’t work and the dog would eventually die after consuming thousands of dollars of medicine.
We Chose to Fight
However, Soren was only four years old and had a long life ahead of him. We knew that he was a fighter. His pain could be managed during the treatment and his quality of life and appetite were still good.
We were prepared to put him to sleep if it became clear that he was losing his fight and no longer enjoyed life.
Yet, even though he had a poor prognosis, we took a chance. After thousands of dollars and six months worth of anti-fungals and time-consuming care, it paid off.
Soren beat the very slim odds and miraculously survived. Today, he is a happy seven-year-old dog with no trace of the fungal infection.
In this case, we weighed the quality of life and decided if we could manage his pain and he started to improve, these sacrifices were well worth having him with us another decade.
No One Can Make This Decision But You
Ultimately, this question of when it is time to put your dog down is one only you can answer. You know your dog best. You can see the suffering in their eyes and changes to their personality.
For some people, it’s difficult to separate the need to keep their pets alive with their dog’s need to go.
For others, it’s tough to separate the inconvenience of the cost and care necessary to give them a fighting chance over the ease and cost savings of the euthanasia option.
As their owner, it is your job to protect them from needless suffering, even at the cost of your own heartbreak.
However, it is also your job to help them recover if there is a good chance they can do so, even if their care may take some effort or financial hardship to manage. Always remember to error on the side of your dog’s highest well being.
While the decision is yours, you don’t have to go through the experience by yourself. Your vet will be there to advise you on the best treatment for your dog. Partner with them to get all the facts to make the most informed decision.
Making Preparations and What To Expect
We don’t like to think about sad things, and saying goodbye to your furry family member certainly tops the list of devastating experiences.
When you ultimately decide it’s in your dog’s best interest to give him the dignity of a painless death, there are some things you must consider to help prepare yourself for the experience.
While it may be tempting to put off thinking about these preparations while your pet still seems healthy and happy, it’s actually better to address them now before you’re an emotional puddle in the vet’s office.
Making the Appointment
If you decide it’s time, you will first make an appointment with your vet to schedule the euthanasia procedure. Make sure to do this when the office isn’t too busy and the vet won’t rush your goodbyes.
Some vet clinics have special rooms specifically for euthanasia with back doors so you don’t have to walk through the waiting room blubbering like a baby.
There are also mobile euthanasia services that will come to your house to perform the procedure to spare your pet a trip to the clinic and let them pass in familiar surroundings.
What to Bring
Decide what to bring to the appointment. If your pet is still eating, bring their favorite treat. Take things that comfort them, like a favorite bed or toy.
If you are planning to take the body, bring a blanket, towel or crate to use to transport them to their burial location.
Do You Want to Be There?
You will also need to decide if you want to stay with your pet while the euthanasia is administered or leave the room until after the procedure is finished.
Some people don’t want that memory and would rather let their kind vet help their dog go to sleep calmly while they wait in the waiting room. Others want to be there to hold them until the end. You need to decide what is best for you and your family.
Please understand, witnessing euthanasia is very upsetting as you watch your pet slip away. However, it can also be comforting to see for yourself that they don’t suffer.
If you decide to not be present for the euthanasia, don’t do drop-off euthanasia. Pets can sometimes be kenneled until the end of the day when the vet has time to get to them.
Please don’t leave your dog in a strange cage alone listening to other crying animals in their last hours. Your dog doesn’t deserve to have this final experience as the bookend to a life of love and companionship.
Instead, insist that the vet perform the procedure while you wait and remain in the waiting room until it is finished.
When It’s Time
You will probably feel a large range of emotions on the day you bring your pet to the vet’s office. Many people feel guilt, fear, sadness and confusion. Others feel numb or in shock.
Understand that all of these feelings are normal. You are experiencing a huge loss to your family. You have the right to grieve and work through the sadness at your own pace.
Your vet will most likely ask you to sign an Authorization for Euthanasia document to prove that you requested the procedure for legal reasons.
They will then give you some time to say goodbye. Try to make your pet as comfortable as possible in their last moments by bringing their favorite bed to lie on, toy to snuggle with or a tasty treat if they are still eating.
Try to stay calm while they are still conscience so you don’t alarm them. Your dog can pick up on your grief and may become frightened. For their sake, try to remain strong while they are aware of their surroundings.
What Will Happen During Euthanasia?
If you decide to stay with your dog, the vet will then give your dog a calming sedative that will help them go to sleep peacefully. Unconsciousness usually sets in within 5 to 15 minutes.
Remember that all your pet will experience is a sleepy feeling and will fall into a deep sleep. They will feel no pain.
Next, your vet will administer a dose of highly concentrated anesthesia specifically made for euthanasia. It basically overwhelms the brain and shuts it down.
The breathing may quicken at first as a reflex to the brain’s lack of activity. It usually stops within 30 seconds. The heart then slows and stops over one to three minutes.
Sometimes the dog will take a few final, sudden breaths before completely succumbing to the injection. Their eyes may remain slightly open, the skin may twitch and the tongue may relax.
Once you have witnessed euthanasia, you will realize just how peaceful it actually is for your dog. They literally just go to sleep.
After Your Pet Has Passed
Decisions on what to do after your pet has been euthanized are best made before your appointment. Planning early gives you more time to just grieve without having to make any difficult decisions.
You may want to keep a memento to remember you pet. Some people keep a tuft of fur or make an impression of a paw print in a clay mold.
You will also want to decide what to do with the body. Some people like to take their pet’s body and bury it in a grave on their property or a pet cemetery. Others will let the veterinary clinic dispose of it.
Some owners will also pay to have their pet cremated, at times with a favorite toy, and the ashes returned to them.
You can also choose group cremation. In these cases, your pet will be cremated with other dogs and cats and you will not get their ashes back.
Many families prefer to have a private funeral to honor their pet’s life. You can even order a bio urn for your pet and plant a tree that grows from their ashes.
If you’re unsure which option is best, ask your veterinarian for recommendations on pet cemeteries or cremation services in your area. You can then check pricing and procedures and decide what works best for your family.
Take Time To Process Grief
Realize that just like any traumatic loss, you will have to take time to heal. Try to schedule the euthanasia for a time when you don’t have to immediately go back to work or interact with people if you need some time to have a good cry.
Many people may not realize the impact losing a pet can bring on their emotional health. It’s helpful to seek out counseling, support groups or create tributes to your pet’s memory to work through the grieving process.
Don’t feel guilty or listen to people saying, “It was just a dog.” We all know that isn’t true.
Dogs are a daily part of our lives and family. They are often there when people aren’t, and that devotion forms a strong bond that will hurt just as deeply when severed as losing a human family member.
You may feel a false guilt when you decide to put your dog to sleep. You need to realize that you are not “killing” them. You are giving them the greatest gift by sparing them from a prolonged and painful end.
Instead of feeling like their executioner, recognize your true title – their hero. You selflessly put their comfort and best interest before your need to keep them lingering for your benefit.
While you help your human family grieve, don’t forget about the other pets in your household. Dogs and cats often form strong bonds with other animals in their pack. Your remaining pets may go through their own grieving process.
Moving Forward After Loss
While it may feel like the pit in your heart will never heal, there is hope. While time doesn’t erase all wounds, it does dull the feeling.
You may find that the sadness comes in waves. When the death first happens, you feel like you’re in a stormy sea, feeling the waves of grief constantly. As time passes, the waters calm, but you still get the occasional wave hitting you.
Eventually, the sea is as calm as glass and you see the sun again. While you will occasionally get a rouge wave when a memory hits you or you see their favorite sunbathing spot, you will find that the majority of your life is again filled with happiness.
You may even decide to get another dog to fill the void in your family. There are so many good dogs that need loving homes, and offering your heart to your next fur kid is a great way to find healing and a sense of purpose after loss.
It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest injustices that our beloved pet’s lifespan doesn’t match our own. Dogs give us far too little time on this earth, but they make up for their shorter years by experiencing them to the fullest with us.
While euthanasia is the darkest day of dog ownership, take comfort in the fact that it is also the time your dog needs you the most. Just like you were there for life, having the strength to support them in death is the greatest act of love you can offer.
When you miss your pet, just think back to all of the good memories you’ve had with them. This way, they will never truly be gone, but will live on in tail-wagging splendor in your heart.
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