Overview of the Euthanasia Process
A quick and painless death is the overriding goal of euthanasia. Most veterinarians won’t euthanize healthy animals or pets with curable ailments. Most vets also don’t euthanize a pet without first giving it some type of pre-anesthetic sedative. The purpose of sedation is to help the animal relax, help the veterinarian insert the needle quickly and efficiently and allow the euthanasia process to proceed smoothly. Sedation also helps prevent last-minute struggling, which can be especially unpleasant for owners who opt to be present during the entire procedure.
Cats are almost always humanely euthanized using an overdose of injectable anesthesia solution that is administered into a vein in one of the front legs. It can take a bit of time for even the most skilled veterinarian to locate an appropriate vein, especially in a small, sick or elderly kitty. Owners who choose to be present should try their best to be patient during this stage. The injection site may be trimmed or clipped and swabbed with alcohol. Once the catheter or needle is properly placed, the euthanasia agent is injected in a dose large enough to cause loss of consciousness and cause the cat’s heart to stop (cardiac arrest). Death comes quickly. In fact, it is almost instantaneous. Many animals appear to exhale a large breath shortly after they pass, and many also lose urine or stool. Some will vocalize. Involuntary post-mortem muscle twitching is also common. The veterinarian will check the pet’s heart to confirm that it has stopped beating, and that the animal’s life is over.
There is no right or wrong way to feel about euthanasia. Owners should take all the time they need to grieve in their own way. Veterinarians tend to be compassionate people who will accommodate owners’ wishes as much as they can during this difficult time. They know that every person handles loss of a pet differently. It is perfectly appropriate to ask your veterinarian if you can be present during all or the final part of the procedure, and if so whether you want to hold your cat as it passes. Many people want to spend a few moments alone with their pet before and after it has been euthanized. Maybe you don’t want to be present for the sedation and placement of the intravenous catheter, but you might want to participate in the rest of the process. Maybe you want your children to be present, or maybe you don’t. These are extremely personal decisions that are best thought about ahead of time.
The stages of grieving over loss of a loved one can include denial, bargaining, anger, sadness and acceptance. They can happen in any order and don’t necessarily each occur in all people. Pet loss hotlines are available at many veterinary schools to help owners dealing with grief. These include the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Hotline: 509/335-5704. The veterinary schools at the University of California Davis, Colorado State University, Cornell University and the University of Illinois, among others, also have pet loss hotlines. Friends, family members, counselors and other groups may all be helpful during this time.
What To Do Afterwards
Ideally, an owner will make arrangements for what to do with her pet’s body before the actual event occurs. Sometimes, this isn’t possible. Some people prefer to bury their pets on their own property. City, county and state laws may prohibit or regulate backyard burials for health and safety reasons. Pet cemeteries and group or individual cremation are other options. The cost of these varies dramatically from place to place. Memorial urns, garden stones and other markers are available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Some people choose to plant a tree over the burial site or where ashes are spread. Lockets containing a snip of the pet’s fur or a bit of its ashes can be comforting. Some owners elect to donate to a local animal rescue group, animal shelter or health research fund in memory of their pet. The animal’s veterinarian should be able to provide information about all of these options.