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Deciding when to end the life of a beloved pet is an extremely difficult decision-a decision based on love, but associated with fear, loss, and uncertainty. Am I doing the right thing? Will my pet suffer? What does the process entail? Should I be present? What happens afterward? Choosing the right time is a personal decision between you and your family, in consultation with your veterinarian. But fear about the process need not be a stumbling block along the path to this difficult decision.

Euthanasia is sometimes referred to as putting a pet "to sleep." This is a very apt description, because the intravenous injection induces immediate and deep unconsciousness that allows your pet to slip away gently and painlessly. The euthanasia solution contains several drugs that make this possible. First and foremost, it contains a strong barbiturate that is the equivalent of an overdose of sleeping pills. This drug acts immediately to induce a deep state of unconsciousness in which pain and anxiety are impossible. In most cases, the barbiturate alone would be sufficient, but euthanasia solutions also include drugs to stop the heart and/or respiration of the unconscious animal. Finally, these solutions generally include a prominent red, blue, or other dye, as a warning agent against the possibility of accidental injection.

Usually, the injection is given into the cephalic vein on the upper surface of the foreleg. If this vein is in poor condition (because of an illness or having been used for multiple previous injections), a vein on the inside or outside of the back leg may be used. Often, the area will be clipped free of hair to make the vein easier to locate. An assistant (or elastic tubing) will hold this vein off with gentle pressure by rolling the overlying skin to the side of the leg near the elbow. This will help distend this vein, and the needle is then introduced at a shallow angle directly into the vein. The pressure on the vein is relieved, and the injection is made. In rare instances, such as very small pets with tiny veins, a tube-like catheter with a very tiny needle can be used to assure that the injection is made slowly and accurately. The injected solution travels rapidly through the bloodstream, reaching the brain in a matter of seconds. On occasion, a pet's body may spasm or twitch after the solution is administered, but it is important to remember that this is unconscious, involuntary movement that is not associated with any anxiety or pain. A pet may also relieve its bowels or bladder afterward, but again this is an involuntary postmortem response.

A very difficult decision for many people is whether or not they should be - or wish to be --present during the euthanasia. They want to comfort their pet during these final moments, but are concerned about having this as the last memory of a beloved friend and family member. This is a very personal decision, and there is no right or wrong answer. However, several factors are important to consider:

  1. As already mentioned, your pet will be unconscious almost immediately during the injection, greatly limiting any potential for anxiety or fear. If fear is still an issue, an antianxiety medication can be given to calm and soothe your pet before its trip to the vet.

  2. Pets are very attuned to our emotions, so that they can become anxious in the presence of owners who are worried or distressed.

  3. Vets and their employees love animals, and will make every effort to calm your pet and to make sure that the process is quick and painless, whether or not you choose to be present.

A good compromise for many people is to say their goodbyes as a family, and then leave the room, so that they have living memories of their pet. It may also be possible to ask a family friend to be present in your place, someone who is less emotionally involved but who can soothe your pet and oversee the process. If you feel the need to be present, try to focus on the fact that euthanasia is a compassionate decision that will remove the suffering associated with your pet's end-of-life ailments.

After the euthanasia is performed, your pet's remains will be preserved, usually by refrigeration, until they can be taken care of according to your wishes. You may decide on cremation or on individual or group burial. Pet remains are never used for teaching or for any other purpose. If you wish, you may take your pet's remains with you to handle at your discretion. If you do choose to bury your pet yourself, it's advisable to check into local laws and regulations beforehand.

Q&A

What is in euthanasia solution?

Euthanasia solution contains a strong dose of barbiturates to induce a state of deep unconsciousness, as well as other drugs to stop the heart and breathing once unconsciousness has occurred.

How is this solution administered?

This solution is injected into a vein, usually the cephalic vein located on the upper surface of the foreleg. The area may be clipped free of hair to make the vessel more visible.

Should I be present?

This is a very difficult, personal decision that only you can make. However, bear in mind that pets feel no more pain than a needle stick, and that no matter what you decide, your veterinarian and his or her staff will make the process as quick, painless, and compassionate as possible.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, Ph and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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