Time to Let Go
A guide to euthanasia, the death of a dog and pet bereavement
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell/Cats Protection League
Adapted with permission from Cat Resource Archive and edited by Dog Breed Info Center®
Ideally we would like our dogs to die peacefully in their sleep, and indeed many do. We are also familiar with the idea that injured, sick or very old dogs ”go off to die',” but often they die from dehydration, starvation or self-neglect because they are unable or unwilling to drink, eat or even seek attention. Sadly some dogs do go missing, never to return, and this makes it hard to let go because there is always hope, however faint, that they will one day return. Equally sadly, others die suddenly for no apparent reason or meet an untimely end in an accident such as being hit by a car. The disappearance or sudden death of a well-loved pet causes much anguish because the owner has had no time to prepare for this and may be unable to say goodbye in the way that they would have wished.
With recent advancements in dog care and medical knowledge, most pet dogs have long and healthy lives, but some will also reach a point when life is no longer enjoyable. When a dog reaches such a point in his life, the owner must decide whether it would be kinder for the dog to be put to sleep to prevent further suffering. Euthanasia is an act of love toward a dog that is no longer able to enjoy life.
Euthanasia literally means “gentle death.” Other terms you may hear are ”put to sleep,” “put down,” ”put out of its misery,” or, less kindly, ”destroy.” Veterinary staff may use the term ”humane destruction” which is simply a technical term for putting an animal to sleep.
The decision to end a life is never easy. It is a personal, loving decision to euthanize a pet for which the quality of life has deteriorated. It takes courage to assume this last duty and it is our last responsibility to a pet that has given us love and companionship. There is also no easy human comparison. The bond between dog and owner is a very special one. It is easy to become emotionally caught up in keeping your dog alive when you know that there is no hope of him regaining his health.
Points to Consider
Your vet is an invaluable source of advice when you feel the time for euthanasia may be approaching. He or she cannot make the decision for you, but he can help you to decide when it is time to let go. You need to consider things from the dog's point of view.
Is your dog in incurable pain or continual discomfort which cannot be alleviated by drugs?
Is treatment of his condition no longer possible?
Has he suffered severe injuries from which he will never recover?
Does he have an age-related or illness-related condition that cannot be alleviated and which now causes misery, e.g. advanced senility or incontinence?
Is he suffering from a terminal illness that has now reduced his quality of life to such a point that he is no longer happy?
Has your dog had a puppy that has an inoperable deformity that will give him a poor quality of life?
Making the decision
The decision almost always causes much soul-searching, especially if you and your dog have been companions for several years. What matters to the dog is quality of life, not length of life, since a dog has little concept of future time. An illness may be treatable for a period of time, but there eventually comes a point when the dog no longer enjoys life. He may be in visible distress or withdrawn.
Having seen your dog when he is happy and healthy, most owners recognize the signs given by a dog that is miserable. Your vet will be able to tell you whether the dog has a treatable ailment or is approaching the end of his life.
Warning signs are:
Since some of these can also be symptoms of treatable illness, you need to discuss your dog's welfare with your vet. He will be able to advise you and help you to make the right decision for your dog, but he cannot make the decision for you.
A Last Goodbye
Sometimes it is possible to delay euthanasia for a day without causing suffering, for example where the dog has a terminal illness or is extremely old and the euthanasia is planned in advance. You may wish to give your dog a last night of pampering, his favorite foods or foods that were normally forbidden. This is a time in which to say goodbye and reassure him that he is very much loved. However, if he is suffering, or is already under anesthetic, he will not enjoy having his misery prolonged.
Your vet will usually ask you to sign a consent form giving permission for your dog to be euthanized (put to sleep). This is often worded along the lines of:
How Is Euthanasia Performed?
In pet dogs, euthanasia is performed by an anesthetic overdose injected into the vein of a foreleg. Some fur will be clipped from the foreleg first. In some cases, the vein can be difficult to locate and occasionally a couple of attempts may be needed to find it. In elderly or sick dogs where the veins have collapsed, the injection may be made into a kidney or the heart. A veterinary assistant, or the owner, will gently restrain the dog while the injection is given. If the dog is held firmly, but gently, this will cause little or no distress. If the dog is extremely difficult to handle, he may have to be placed in a ”crush cage” with sliding sides and be sedated first; this is less stressful than trying to corner and restrain an agitated dog.
How Quickly Does It Happen After The Needle Has Been Inserted?
The answer is very quickly. The dog loses consciousness within seconds of the injection and death follows a few seconds later. If you are holding the dog, you will feel him exhale, relax and become heavier in your arms. Urine may trickle from his bladder as the muscles relax. The vet will check for a pulse or eyelid-flick reflex and if there is any chance at all that the dog is deeply unconscious, he will give a second injection into a kidney or the heart. Your dog will not be aware of a second injection if it is needed.
Most vets will place the dog into a natural-looking sleeping position (he will look as if he has fallen asleep) and close his eyes since animals do not always close their eyes when they die. Because all the muscles of the face have relaxed, his lips may pull back into what looks like a grimace. This is simply due to relaxation of the muscles and to gravity and is not a sign of pain, but it can cause concern if you did not expect it.
Should I stay to the end?
This is a personal decision. Some owners feel that it is their last duty to be there. Others prefer not to be present. Many take a friend or family member with them for emotional support.
Most vets will allow you to remain with your dog during euthanasia if you wish. If the vet does not want you present, ask why and ask if another vet at the practice can perform the euthanasia with you present. If you become distressed then this will upset your dog and make it harder to handle which is traumatic for all concerned. Your vet understands that this is a difficult time and he will only ask you to leave if you become so upset that it is impossible for him to perform the euthanasia. If you remain calm this will reassure your dog and make the end very peaceful.
Not all owners wish to be present and there is no shame in this. Some people simply cannot stand the sight of injections. Your vet will allow you to say goodbye to your dog and leave the consulting room. If you are taking your dog's body away with you, he will call you back in afterwards. Your dog will be treated with the same respect and dignity whether or not you are present.
If you have provided a towel or blanket, your vet will normally wrap or cover your dog's body. Otherwise, he may place him in a black bag. This is not a sign of disrespect; it is for hygiene and your own privacy. A few veterinary practices have a place where you can sit for a few minutes afterwards and regain your composure. If you do need a few moments before you are able to leave the surgery, tell the veterinary assistant. Alternatively, they may be able to help you back to your car, but bear in mind that they are unlikely to have the time to sit with you.
Can I have my dog put to sleep at home?
If you are willing to pay a call-out fee, your vet might euthanize your dog in your own home. Both you and your dog may find this less traumatic than waiting at the vet’s office. However, locating your dog when the vet arrives may be a problem as he knows the best hiding places. Many dogs have been put to sleep enjoying a last meal of steak or cheese. In the case of a home visit where a veterinary nurse is not available, and the vet does not feel that you are able to restrain the dog, he may sedate the dog first and then inject into the kidney or heart. This is less distressing for all concerned than trying to restrain an agitated dog.
Do not be surprised if your vet makes a hasty exit afterwards; he does not want to intrude upon your grief and he will have other calls to make.
Do dogs know what is about to happen?
If you are agitated or upset, your dog will detect this and become upset himself. However, he will not know why you are upset and he will not know that this visit to the vet is any different from other visits, e.g. for vaccinations.
How much does euthanasia cost?
The price will vary from area to area and vet to vet. It will be more expensive if there are other fees involved, e.g. for tests, operations or if the vet performs the euthanasia in your own home. Some vets will cremate your dog for you.
When do I pay?
This all depends on the vet, but vets usually understand that it is difficult to write checks when you are in a state of shock or grief. If you are a regular customer he may send you an invoice after a couple of days. Alternatively, you may be able to prepay when you arrive at the hospital—ask about this when you make the appointment and arrive a few minutes early. If you pay in advance or by invoice, you may be able to leave the hosptial by the back door rather than walk back through the waiting room.
When a Dog Dies Unexpectedly
Many dogs die peacefully of natural causes or by euthanasia. Although this is expected or even planned, it can still be a shock when it actually happens. When a dog dies suddenly or unexpectedly or in an accident this is more traumatic for the owner and feelings of grief are compounded by feelings of anger and often guilt.
Following an accident of any kind it is all too easy to say ”if only I had done this instead of that,” but you had no way of knowing that your dog would meet with misfortune. Try to think of the good times you enjoyed together and, although it is hard, try not to feel guilty about an event you could not have foreseen. Owners are not expected to be psychic and however hard you try to ensure your dog is safe, accidents do indeed happen.
Equally shocking to the owner is the sudden death of a dog. Most often this is due to a sudden stroke or heart failure or to an illness or condition where there were no symptoms for you or your vet to detect. Sometimes, unknown to the owner, a dog has been in an accident that left no outward marks, but caused internal damage. A post mortem, should you request it, may identify the cause of death, but dogs very occasionally die for no known reason (in humans this is called Sudden Death Syndrome). It is more upsetting if he was young and apparently healthy, but it is very possible that he had a birth defect, such as an abnormal heart, which led to his sudden and unexpected death. It is unfair to yourself to feel guilty at not noticing signs of illness if there were no signs to for you to detect, but you may wish to discuss the death with veterinary staff. They may not be able to tell you the cause of death, but they can often reassure you that you could not have anticipated or prevented such a sudden death.
Just as with euthanasia, you need to decide how to deal with the dog’s body if he has died in a road traffic accident. If the body of a dog is not collected from a roadside after several hours, your local government has an agency that will usually collect it for incineration. If you find the sight of a body too distressing, a friend or neighbor may be able to help you or you could place a towel over it before moving it. If you cannot bury your dog, many vets will allow you to leave his body at the hospital where the body can be dealt with by the vet or be collected by a pet cemetery or pet crematorium if you make appropriate arrangements. The following will help you decide on a suitable course of action.
How do I dispose of the body?
There are several options for disposal of your dog's mortal remains following death. In the case of a terminal illness or old age when euthanasia is not sudden or where death is expected, owners are encouraged to think about the disposal of the body in advance. This depends on where you live and on how much you wish to spend. Only in cases where the body poses a serious risk to human health will you be denied permission to deal with the remains as you wish.
Your vet can dispose of the body for you. The body will be stored in a veterinary deep freeze (for hygiene purposes) and collected for incineration by a firm licensed to incinerate animal remains, or ”medical waste.” Some vets can provide individual cremation; it is best to ask about this in advance if possible so that you know what options are available to you.
You can arrange for a pet cemetery or pet crematorium to collect the body from your vet. The body will be labeled with your name and the dog's name, and stored in the veterinary deep freeze until collected. If the euthanasia was expected, you may be able to take the body to the pet cemetery or crematorium yourself.
Pet cemeteries and crematoria offer several services: individual cremation where the ashes are either returned to you or buried at the crematorium; cremation with other animals with the ashes scattered in the garden of rest; or individual burial in a cemetery plot. Pet cemeteries have no legal protection so check that it is not likely to be bought up for redevelopment. If it is your wish, cremation or burial may often be accompanied by a short memorial service. Look in the Yellow Pages or for leaflets at the vet hospital for details of pet cemeteries and pet crematoria and their prices.
You can bury the dog in your own garden (or friend's yard) unless local bylaws forbid this. The grave must be at least three feet deep to deter scavengers. It is a sensible precaution to place a paving slab or heavy object on top of the grave until the ground settles as added protection from scavengers. Later on you may wish to plant a rosebush or place a memorial on the grave.
If you take your dog home for burial, he must be buried as soon as possible (within hours) otherwise putrefaction (decay) will set in. If you cannot take your dog's body home immediately, your vet may be able to store it in the veterinary deep freeze for a day or two. It is not advisable to store the body in your domestic deep freeze. If you do not collect the body on the arranged day, it will be collected for incineration.
Burial, cremation and incineration are the normal means of disposing of your dog's mortal remains. Some owners arrange to donate their dog's remains to a nearby veterinary school in the same way that people donate their bodies to medical science. A few arrange for taxidermy although the results are often disappointing.
Will My Other Dogs Mourn?
It is impossible to say exactly what emotions dogs feel, but if you have any other dogs they will certainly be aware that someone is missing from their lives. It is unlikely that they mourn in the human sense of the word, but there will be some behavioral changes as they adjust to the gap in their lives.
If the dogs were sociable, the surviving dogs may search, cry out or even pine. If they were unsociable or indifferent to each other, the survivors might simply rearrange themselves into a new hierarchy, dividing up their former companion's territory between them. Sometimes the surviving dog(s) blossom if they were previously bottom of the pecking order.
Should I show my other dogs the body?
If there is no danger of infection then this is a personal choice. Some owners say that the surviving dogs do not search for a companion, having seen the body. Others say that veterinary smells on the body disturbed their other dogs. They may sniff around the body, lick him and maybe try to wake him up before concluding that their friend has gone. We cannot know what dogs understand about death, but they probably have some awareness that a dead animal does not return to life. If there is no danger of infection and you believe that it will help your other dogs come to terms with the loss of a companion, then by all means allow them to see and smell the body.
How soon should I get another dog?
If your dog was put to sleep as the result of an infectious illness, then your vet may advise you to let a period of time elapse before getting another dog. This is to reduce the risk of infection remaining in your home.
Apart from this, it is a personal decision. Some people cannot live without K-9 companionship and get another dog almost immediately, sometimes within hours. Others would consider this to be indecent haste. Many owners need a period of time to come to terms with the loss of a pet; how long this takes varies from person to person. Some feel that getting another dog too quickly would be disrespectful to their former companion. A few owners take on another dog before their pet goes into terminal decline; this is only possible if the dog is sociable and there is no risk of infection
Important: Do not get a new dog if you are emotionally upset. Your new dog will not know you just lost a friend, will not know you are mourning; it will simply read your emotions as weakness, and it will instinctually feel the need to be YOUR pack leader. If you do not feel mentally strong, do not bring another dog into the house until you do.
Remember that the new dog will not replace the one you have lost. He will commemorate your previous dog, but will have a personality all his own. If you try to replace your dog with an exact duplicate, you are likely to be disappointed as all dogs are individuals.
Coping with Pet Bereavement
All dogs die, whether from old age, accident, illness or euthanasia. Dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans, although most owners would like to think their dog is immortal, especially if he is hale and hearty in his late teens or beyond.
The death of a well-loved pet is on a par with the death of a human family member, despite what thoughtless people may say. Grief and anger are natural reactions to the death of an animal companion. Most people need time to come to terms with the loss of a close animal friend. Many seek consolation in remembering the joy that their dog brought them. Others find it harder to come to terms with pet bereavement especially if the dog had been rescued, nursed through illness or was their main companion.
No one who has had to make the decision to euthanize a pet will deny that there are feelings of loss and perhaps guilt. However, owners must take some comfort in having been able to be merciful to their loved pets. In a sense the owner has taken on the pain of a loving act of mercy in exchange for the suffering their dog has been spared from.
It sometimes helps to share your feelings, but people who have never lost a pet themselves may seem unsympathetic. Many GPs and religious ministers are now sympathetic to those who have lost an animal family member and can offer bereavement counseling. Suppressing feelings of grief is unhealthy and the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) runs a Pet Befriender Referral Helpline which can put you in touch with a Pet Befriender in your own area. Pet Befrienders understand just what you are going through, having experienced it themselves, and know that it helps to talk about your feelings after the death of a pet.
Modern drugs are extremely fast-acting and the end is very peaceful compared to the latter stages of a terminal illness or age-related illness. Your vet will administer an overdose of anesthetic by injection and the dog will simply fall into a painless and final sleep. If, during his life, your dog has been a cherished member of your family, this is the last, and often most compassionate, duty you can perform for him.
Beamed from the Bright Cattery in the Sky
RAINBOW BRIDGE (Anonymous)
All the animals that had been ill or old are restored to health and vigour; those that were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they each miss someone very special to them who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together...."
The Animals' Eden (Anonymous)
The Animal's Eden is a huge, beautiful walled garden where all pets go until such time as their human companions can join them. Only pet animals go to this walled garden and there are other special places for all the other animals, and especially beautiful places for animals that have suffered while on Earth and whose souls need peace and healing before they can move on. The garden is full of lawns and hedges, flower borders and shrubberies, wildflower meadows and patios of red brick. All of this is surrounded by a wall, just like a Middle Ages English garden, but much, much larger. The wall is not to keep the animals in and the garden is so huge that none of them feel as though they are in any way enclosed. And in any case there is a special gate, but I will come to that later.
In the Animal's Eden all the pets that have passed over and are waiting for their special human are free to do what they want, and because it is a heavenly place, none of them want to do anything that harms their animal friends. The horses and ponies graze and gallop in the meadows. The dogs romp on the lawns and sniff in the shrubberies. The cats lounge on the patios, basking in the sunshine, or take their ease in the dappled shade of trees. Birds are no longer caged, but fly free in the trees, eating the plentiful fruit and seeds. None of them actually feel hungry, but are provided with heavenly food if they wish so that they can eat without harming the others waiting alongside them. The garden is full of every kind of animal that has ever been a pet and which has someone special it wishes to wait for.
There is a special arch in the garden wall, the sort of brick arch which might have held a wrought iron gate in earthly gardens. Sometimes one or more of the animals gets a funny feeling, a bit like butterflies in the tummy. Those animals stop their playing or basking and make their way to the arched gate. Something special is about to happen. When they reach the gate they can see that their special human is walking towards the gate. Then, because the Animals' Eden is a place for animals only, those animals can walk through the arch to join their human friend(s) and walk together in the sunshine on the next stage of their souls' journey. For although the garden is a beautiful and happy place, there is nothing more joyful than a reunion between dear friends who have been apart too long.