Saying goodbye - information and guidance on euthanasia

Some of our beloved pets are living longer and longer lives. This is due in large part to the amazing care we provide for them. As our time with them grows, so does our bond and devotion. As they approach the end of life, it can be a very challenging time filled with questions and concerns. When it becomes clear your pet's life is drawing to a close, you may face a painful and difficult decision about whether your pet should be euthanased due to unmanageable illness or advanced age changes. This factsheet is designed to help you understand euthanasia options and provide guidance to everyone caring for the pet. 

When is euthanasia necessary?

Euthanasia (often called 'putting to sleep') is a medical procedure to humanely terminate life. It means 'good death' in the Greek language, and should be a gentle way to relieve an animal's suffering. Euthanasia is commonly chosen for animals when no other care can be provided and suffering is taking place. Before choosing euthanasia, it is important to talk to your vet about the changes your pet may be going through. Some may consider euthanasia when or if their pet is experiencing one or more of the following: 

  • Untreatable pain
  • No longer able to eat or drink
  • Unable to breathe properly or are struggling to get air 
  • No longer able to empty their bowels or bladder without pain or are incontinent
  • Unable to stand or move safely
  • Loss of senses that lead to decreased activity or increased anxiety

There are different forms of suffering worth mentioning: physical and emotional. Physical suffering can come from pain, nausea, too cold/too hot, hunger, breathing troubles and more. Emotional suffering can be anxiety, fear, feelings of being lost and alone, and more. Any form of suffering can lead to a decrease in a pet's quality of life. When it becomes too great, and all options for care have been explored, euthanasia may be ncessary.

It is never an easy decision to end the life of a beloved pet. There may be more factors to consider than the pet's physical condition:

  • Your ability to provide daily care
  • Financial limitations
  • Physical challenges moving big dogs
  • The dog's willingness to receive care
  • The emotional strain of care giving at the end of life

Whatever the reason to choose euthanasia, your vet can help you to decide how to proceed and to make all the necessary arrangements.

What will happen?

Your vet may decide first to give a sedative to help your pet sleep before administering the euthanasia solution or they may give the solution while your pet is awake. Either way is acceptable and your vet will advise on which way is best for your pet. For the solution to work in the body, the vet needs to give it in a vein or area in the body where there is good blood flow. This is done using a needle. Rest assured, the vet will be as gentle as possible. Once the solution is given, your pet will be asleep within a few seconds and the heartbeat will stop with a minute or two. Sometimes it takes a little longer depending on where it was given. Your vet will listen to the heart and let you know when your beloved friend has passed away. Afterwards, you will be allowed to spend some private time. Your vet will also help you decide on body care such as burial or cremation.

Will my pet suffer?

The process is completely pain free, but if you are concerned, it is sometimes possible to give a sedative to your pet first. During the dying process, your pet may show active signs of death that should not be confused with suffering. They are very normal and include: deep reflexive breaths, eyes wide, muscle twitches, urination/defaecation, and body stretching. These happen during natural death too.

Should I be there at the end?

Discuss in advance with your vet whether you wish to be with your pet during euthanasia. Ask them their euthanasia protocol so you know exactly what to expect. Being present may be calming for your pet. They can be held in your arms and be able to hear a familiar voice. Creating a safe and comforting space for your pet can  help the process. If you feel it is too much for you emotionally, you do not have to stay and the veterinary team will make sure things go smoothly.

Should it be done at home or at the vet's surgery?

Vets usually prefer to see their patients at the clinic where all the equipment and trained staff they need is close at hand. However, euthanasia is a special situation for both the vet and yourself so discuss with your vet the best location for all concerned. If you want to have your animal euthanased at home, just ask. Many vets can accommodate this or put you in touch you with someone who can.

How will I know the time is right for euthanasia?

It is not easy to have to think about death, especially the death of those we love. This includes our pets.

Every situation is different, and your vet will advise you, so you can work out together what is best for your pet.

In general, these three points can help you know if euthanasia is now the best option.

  • If your pet is in pain or distress, and no medication controls them properly.
  • If the treatment is a burden for your pet, eg if your pet hates taking tablets and each dose is a big struggle for you both.
  • If your pet 'cannot enjoy the benefits of continuing to live', ie your pet can no longer do any of the things that matter to him/her, even though he/she is not in pain.

It can be very hard to think about these things. As you do so, you may have many questions. Don't hesitate to ask your vet - more than once, if you need to. Your vet will want to advise and support you.

It is you who must decide whether, or when, euthanasia is the appropriate option for your pet. Your vet will be able to advise you on what the options are and make a sensible recommendation, but will not make the decision for you.

It is rare that a decision has to be made on the spur of the moment. Even if a pet is critically ill, there is usually some time when the vet can keep them comfortable, so you have time to talk with other members of your family. It is important that all members of the family are involved in the decision-making process and that they are all in agreement. Please include children in the conversation where possible. Talking with them honestly before the decision has been made may help them to come to terms with what is happening. Some practices now offer palliative care for animals, at home, and this can also give families time to come to terms with the situation.

If a pet's illness and euthanasia is the first time a child learns about death, it makes the situation even more challenging for a parent.There are several books and websites that can help you talk to your children and support them through the death of a pet. Your veterinary team can tell you about different support resources for adults and children. Here are a few examples of where you can find help:

Deciding on euthanasia is one of the hardest things a pet owner ever has to do. Your veterinary team understand this and will want to support you and your family as you reach your decision. 

How will I feel?

It is perfectly natural to feel grief after losing a pet and there is no shame in feeling strong emotions. Sometimes the first response to a pet's death is anger or guilt. Often people wonder whether anyone could have done more for their pet. The depth of friendship with pets may be greater than that of many human friends and a period of mourning is quite normal. However, people experience grief in different ways and there are no hard and fast rules about what you will feel. Talking to friends and family is important.

How will my children cope?

Losing a pet is often the first time that a child becomes aware of death. It is usually best to be honest with a child and explain the truth as clearly as you can. Children may want time to say goodbye to their pet and seeing the dead body may help them understand what has happened. It can be very therapeutic to mark the occasion with some kind of memorial such as a burial or honouring ceremony. Talking about the happy times you shared will often help them and you to come to terms with the change in your lives.

What happens to my pet's body?

Your vet will explain what can be done with the body of your pet. They can arrange for your cat to be cremated, or you may choose to bury the body yourself. If you want to bury your pet in your garden check first with your local authority that this is allowed and make sure that the body is buried at least 2 feet (about 600 mm) below the surface. If your pet is cremated it is usually possible for your vet to arrange for you to have the ashes returned, but you must inform them of your wishes at the time of euthanasia.

Should I get another pet?

After the experience of losing a pet some people say they never want to own another pet. However, many others find that getting another pet helps them deal with their grief. The relationship you build with another pet will never be the same as the one you had, but it can be equally rewarding.

Pet Owner Factsheets