Being a veterinarian is a very rewarding, joyful, and satisfying profession. However, with every job, there is a down side. In this profession, it is performing euthanasias.
Our own dogs are our family members. The realization that our "children" are fatally ill and dying is painful enough: having to play God and consider the option of euthanasia can be devastating.
Dogs may be sickly for many reasons. It is the veterinarian's duty to perform a thorough exam, run applicable diagnostic tests and hopefully arrive at a diagnosis so a prognosis can be given. Once an animal has been determined to be terminal, the owner's pain escalates. Now phase two of asking questions commences. Is she/he in pain? How much time do they have? What do we do now? What would you do? Are you sure she/he is not suffering?
What to do with a pet is a very personal decision often tempered by an owner's previous experiences and present situation. A person who recently lost a loved one to a painful/trying disease may be less likely to go ahead with treatment. We have to understand the owner's pain and their wanting to spare their loved ones. Some animals will be sent home to live their life to completion. Some owners elect euthanasia while the animal is still relatively okay, in hopes of avoiding any potential suffering. When discussing options with owners, it is very important for the owners to ask questions. Unfortunately the answers are not always available.
There are many options in the treatment of terminal pets. These include: 1) benign neglect (i.e. do nothing and let nature take it's course): 2) benign neglect while the animal is stable and happy, then euthanasia when the quality of life deteriorates; 3) treat either medically and/or surgically to increase survival time, euthanasia when doing poorly; 4) immediate euthanasia, sometimes to decrease the suffering of the owners as well as the pets. Sitting by and watching our "children" doing poorly can be unspeakably difficult-- sometimes it is best for some family members not to have to experience the pain. Before any euthanasias are performed, the owners must be convinced that they are making the correct decision. I never want anyone, years later, second-guessing themselves...should we have? did we do the right thing? Personally, quality of life becomes the ultimate determining factor in making any decisions. If the animal is terminal and suffering, it is time. If the animal is terminal, yet doesn't know it is sick, take the dog home and spoil it. My Dobe, poppy, has chronic active hepatitis. The disease was discovered early with routine blood work and the diagnosis was confirmed with exploratory surgery and biopsies. The disease is usually fatal since is typically diagnosed when the animal is end-stage (in the final stages of the disease). Instead of only having one month with her, it has been almost five years since she was diagnosed. She has not had a sick day yet. (For this reason, I recommend a minimum of yearly work-ups once the animal is five-years-old. Some professionals recommend starting even earlier.) We've had other dogs with terminal cancer that had surgery to help prolong their lives for only four weeks -- and yet those four weeks of quality time for the pet and owners were very important. Those twenty-eight days can give the owners quality time to spend with their loved one and time to accept and grieve at their eminent loss.
The most often asked question I hear is "How will I know when it is time?" To those people, all I can say is that when it is time, they will know it. When the animal has that look in their eyes, when life is no longer fun, they stop eating, playing and basically they stop enjoying life--then it is time. If the owners are not sure if it is time, then it's not time.
The act of performing euthanasia is a painless, peaceful experience for the pet. An overdose of anesthetic agent is given intravenously. Within thirty seconds the animal is sleeping. Within minutes, the brain becomes totally anesthetized. the brain then stops telling the lungs to breath; therefore, the dog ceases to breath. The brain then stops telling the heart to beat; therefore, the blood stops circulating throughout the body. Throughout the process, the pet is unaware and they peacefully go in their sleep. Owners should be aware that as the anesthetic is injected, the animal passes through different anesthetic planes. Stage II, plane II may cause the animal to be disoriented, so they may cry out, not in pain, but because the world is spinning. Two post-mortem events can also be frightening if the owner is not prepared. The first event is agonal breathing. After the pet is gone, it appears as though the pet is gasping for breath. Actually the animal is gone and the act is a normal reflex act. Muscle fasciculations can also be seen, here the muscles can be seen to ripple as if the body is still alive. Again, these are post-mortem changes. People are often startled that their eyelids do not close. With additional time, the animal may void its bowels and/or bladder.
Many owners want and need to be present for the euthanasia, others may want to remember their pet the way they were and don't want to witness the euthanasia. The decision is purely personal.
The final decision is what to do with the animals remains. Standard options include burial, group cremation, group burial, and private cremation with the return of the ashes. Less typical options include taxidermy and freeze-drying.
If ever I've been disappointed with God, it has been that our pets don't live long enough. Wouldn't it be nice if our loved ones lived as long as we did and we could go to heaven together?
© 1997 Margot B. Schwag, VMD. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint contact author at Landisville Animal Hospital, 3035 Harrisburg Pike, Landisville, PA 17538.