Euthanasia: The Process and the Particulars

Part I of Dr. Jeff Werber's three-part series on end-of-life issues for pets focused on when to say goodbye. Now, Dr. Werber focuses on the difficult subject of euthanasia. For more from Dr. Werber, find him on Facebook or on his website at

In Part I of this series on pet euthanasia we discussed when the right time might be to say goodbye to our beloved four-legged friends. In this segment I want to share with you some of the specifics about the process.

How Things Were When I Started Practicing
When I first started practicing 29 years ago, euthanasia was, at least in our practice, always done at the hospital—and often in the back without the pet parents. The tears were shed and the goodbyes were said in the examination room, and the pet was then taken to the back and put to sleep. Sure, on occasion, an owner requested to stay with their pet, but it wasn’t commonplace.

Common Euthanasia Practices These Days
Our attitudes have changed quite a bit since, and now, I believe, most pet parents choose to stay with their pets until they pass on. However, this is a highly personal decision.

What Your Veterinarian Might Do
While each veterinarian's office has a slightly different procedure, your veterinarian will do all he or she can to reduce stress on your ailing pet. Often, we will take the pet, place a catheter, administer a sedative (if necessary) to calm any fear or anxiety, bring your pet back into our “grieving room,” place your pet on your lap lap or onto a bed, and then, when all are ready, administer that final injection. Many veterinarians will also make a little clay mold of your pet’s paw print and snip a small tuft of hair to give to you client as a memorial.

What About In-Home Euthanasia?
I clearly recall an incident that happened very early in my career where a client of ours, an elderly woman who lived alone, called us about her very old German Shepherd dog who was no longer able to get up, was in pain, and she felt it was time. The problem was that she had no one to help her get her dog into the car to bring him in. Understanding how difficult this decision must have been for her, and hearing her own distress over her predicament, I asked if she would mind if I came to her house after work, put her poor friend to sleep at home, and then took the body with me back to the hospital for cremation. OMG, she thought I was a Godsend, and couldn’t have been more appreciative. Well, I must say, this experience was a true eye-opener for me as well, and one that changed me, and my perspective about euthanasia forever!

When it comes to our pets, we all tend to anthropomorphize, to put our own feelings and values into our pets. We do or don’t like something, so we tend to say our pets share those same feelings. As veterinarians, we always try to guard against our clients doing this, because, in actuality, we don’t know what our pets are really feeling. When it comes to euthanasia, even I tend to anthropomorphize. Don’t know why, I just do!

So, here is where I break my own rule—do I really want my beloved patient to feel any fear or anxiety being in a warm, but sterile, hospital, in surroundings that have possibly been anxiety provoking in years’ past, on this, their last day on this earth—in this life? Having gone to that home to put that dog to sleep, with his favorite person by his side holding and loving him, lying on his favorite bed in his favorite room, the answer was clear to me. It was then that I started offering in-home euthanasia to my clients—a service that I’ve continued to offer since. Personally, I believe it is, quite literally, the right way to go, which is why I didn’t think twice about putting my Woody to sleep at home when that time had come.

Now having done dozens and dozens of in-home euthanasias, the whole experience has changed for me. Of course it is still sad and tearful, but as we sit around with family and friends, reminisce of good times past (sometimes over a glass of wine), and share fond memories, the process becomes one of celebrating the life more than one of mourning the loss. Actually, it has become a more beautiful experience for all.

In-home euthanasia may not be for everyone, and I understand that, but if you’ve never experienced it with one of your four-legged loved ones, next time, when that difficult time comes (and I hope it’s not for a long while), you might want to consider it. If your own veterinarian doesn’t offer this service, there are now many veterinarians or services in most cities that do offer House-Call Euthanasia.

If that time is near, my fellow bloggers and I here at the Our Site would like to, in advance, offer our sincerest condolences. We all truly know what you’re going through.

How Does My Vet Handle My Pet's Remains?
Another very personal decision at this difficult time is what to do next -- private burial, private cremation, or communal cremation. Pet cemeteries do exist in many cities, but are often far off the “beaten path” and are often very expensive. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few clients choose to bury their pets in these cemeteries, but have found that after a few “visits,” the geographic challenges became too great, and they stopped going as frequently.

Most cities and municipalities prohibit burying a pet on one’s own property, but some do it anyway (of course no one that I know!).

The next option that most clients opt for is cremation. It seems that many, if not most, choose to have their pets cremated individually so they can get the ashes back, which many will then bury in a special spot in their yard, spread out over their pet’s special “place,” or simply keep in a safe place in the home. For those who don’t want the ashes to help memorialize their pet, opting for a communal cremation may be ok (which is often less expensive). For this group, the paw print clay mold that we make seems to be a real favorite.

Whatever decisions you make, they are all personal ones, and there is most often no “right” or “wrong.” If you ever need help or someone to talk to, grief counselors specializing in pet loss are generally available in most areas.

In Part III, coming soon, we’ll talk about when might it be right time to get your next pet.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

End of Life Pet Care

When a pet’s quality of life deteriorates to the point where they experience more bad days than good days, you may be faced with the difficult decision regarding whether to choose euthanasia.

The same way we provide compassionate care for pets in their early days, we’re prepared to support you and provide end of life care for them during their last. As partners in your pet’s health, we’ll make sure you’re informed about all potential treatment options before you make a decision. We understand that making that kind of choice is never easy, but we promise to be there every step of the way.

Should you decide euthanasia is the right choice for your pet, we’ll prepare you for the process and answer any questions you may have about what’s going to happen. We hope you’ll find some comfort knowing our humane methods will ensure your pet is laid to rest peacefully.

Coping with Pet Loss

Pets are family and losing them comes with the same grief as any other loss. If you’re struggling with grief following the loss of your pet, remember to:

  • Give yourself time to mourn and cry
  • Do your best to stick to your regular routine
  • Talk about your feelings with family, friends, or even our hospital staff
  • Memorialize your pet in a way that’s special to you

You can use these resources if you need additional support:

Please reach out to us at (201) 825-4545 if there’s anything we can do for you.

Euthanasia Process

Arriving at the decision to euthanize a pet is a difficult and complicated process. If you have come to that decision or are contemplating the possibility, there are some things you should know. As veterinarians, we take an oath to ease animal suffering and part of this is humane euthanasia when it is in an animal’s best interest. We take this very seriously, and as hard as it can be, view it as a gift that we can give to our patients who are old, diseased, and in pain. It is a way that we can help to ensure a peaceful passing from this world. There are many ways to die, and all animals deserve to have a peaceful and loving good-bye. Throughout their entire lives, our pets rely on us to make decisions on their behalf when it comes to end-of-life choices LOVE and COMPASSION should be our guides.

The process of euthanasia is a simple one. The animal is sedated with a combination of injectable pain-killing and tranquilizing drugs given into a back leg muscle. The sedation allows the animal to slowly relax so that their passing can be as gentle as possible, and gives you some time to ease gently into the moment. The sedation takes about 5-10 minutes to take full effect. There may be some mild discomfort with the injection since it is a shot, but most animals don’t notice much—especially if they are being distracted with a special meal, their favorite treats, or just loads of attention. If they do feel it, the discomfort is very short-lived and soon the medications will take effect and they will be comfortably sedate.

The drug used for euthanasia is called sodium pentobarbital—it is a barbiturate and is given at an extremely high dose into a vein through a temporary (butterfly) catheter. It typically stops the heart within about 30-60 seconds. With the animal already completely sedated and comfortably unaware, it is a gentle and easy transition. I think of it as falling asleep and just not waking up, and always hope that it is a peaceful experience. Sometimes you can literally feel the relief of an animal… like a big sigh.

After an animal has passed away there may be some reflexive muscle movement/twitching, a couple of last big breaths, and urination/defecation as the body completely relaxes. These are all very normal, natural processes. The eyes will not usually close after the pet is gone. There is a medication explanation for that, but I like to think that they are just making sure we’re okay.

Humane euthanasia is a dignified way to pass on… it is probably how we all wish we will go—falling asleep surrounded by loved ones. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier to reach. It is important to feel like you are making the right decision about euthanizing your beloved friend. You should always have a thorough discussion with a veterinarian to make sure that all of the alternative options have been considered and that the time is right. Euthanasia, after all, is irreversible.

If you are respecting your pet’s life and thinking only of them, you won’t be wrong. They (whoever “they” may be) always say that “you’ll know” when its the right time. That can definitely be true but often it is a “gray” area and, as such, requires thoughtful consideration. The decision may be made for you if your pet is obviously suffering or clearly not enjoying life anymore, and you will have no doubts that the time is right. But sometimes it is not that easy—if you are doubting, wavering, or just not sure, please refer to the Quality of Life Scale and always feel free to give us a call.

Euthanasia: Making the Decision

While some pets die of old age in the comfort of their own home, many others become seriously ill, get injured in some way or experience a significantly diminished quality of life as they grow very old. In these situations, it may be necessary for you to consider having your pet euthanized in order to spare it from pain and suffering. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this difficult decision, as well as some information about the euthanasia procedure itself.

Knowing when it’s time

Talk to your veterinarian. He or she is the best-qualified person to help guide you through this difficult process. In some cases, your veterinarian may be able to tell you definitively that it is time to euthanize your pet, but in other cases, you may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude. Here are some signs that may indicate your pet is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life:

  • He is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication (your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is in pain).
  • He has frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
  • He has stopped eating or will only eat if you force feed him.
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself.
  • He has lost interest in all or most of his favorite activities, such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats or soliciting attention and petting from family members.
  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk.
  • He has chronic labored breathing or coughing.

Saying goodbye

Once you have made this very difficult decision, you will also need to decide how and where you and your family will say the final goodbye.

  • Before the procedure is scheduled to take place, make sure that all members of your family have time with the pet to say a private goodbye.
  • If you have children, make sure that you explain the decision to them and prepare them for the loss of the pet in advance. This may be your child’s first experience with death, and it is very important for you to help her or him through the grieving process. Books that address the subject, such as When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers or Remembering My Pet by Machama Liss-Levinson and Molly Phinney Baskette, may be very beneficial in helping your child to deal with this loss.
  • It is an individual decision whether or not you and your family want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming, but for many, it is a comfort to be with their pet during the final moments. It may be inappropriate for young children to witness the procedure since they are not yet able to understand death and may also not understand that they need to remain still and quiet.
  • Some veterinarians will come to your house, which allows both the pet and the family to share their last moments together in the comfort of their own home.

What to expect

Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is stressful, and your anxiety can often be exacerbated if you do not know what to expect during the euthanasia procedure.

  • Your veterinarian will generally explain the procedure to you before he or she begins. Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for further explanation or clarification if needed.
  • Small to medium-size pets are usually placed on a table for the procedure, but larger dogs may be more easily handled on the floor. Regardless of the location, make sure that your pet has a comfortable blanket or bed to lie on.
  • In most cases, a trained veterinary technician will hold your pet for the procedure. The veterinary technician has the skill needed to properly hold your pet so that the process goes quickly and smoothly. If you plan to be present during the entire procedure, it is important that you allow enough space for the veterinarian and technician to work. Your veterinarian will probably show you where to stand so that your pet can see you and hear your voice.
  • Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either the front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet.
  • Often, veterinarians will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the pet’s vein before giving the injection. The catheter will reduce the risk that the vein will rupture as the drug is injected. If the vein ruptures, then some of the drug may leak out into the leg, and it will not work as quickly.
  • Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbitol. This is most often done in pets that are not likely to hold still for the IV injection. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take effect in about five to 10 minutes. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection.
  • Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbitol is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less.
  • Your veterinarian will use a stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped.
  • Your pet may experience some muscle twitching and intermittent breathing for several minutes after death has occurred. Your pet may also release his bladder or bowels. These events are normal and should not be cause for alarm.
  • After your veterinarian has confirmed that your pet has passed, he or she will usually ask if you would like to have a few final minutes alone with your pet.

Burial and cremation options

Your veterinarian can offer you a variety of options for your pet’s final resting place.

  • Cremation is the most popular choice, and you can choose whether or not you would like to have your pet’s ashes returned to you. Most cremation services offer a choice of urns and personalized memorials.
  • Burial is another option. You may want to bury your pet in your own yard, but before doing so, be sure to check your local ordinances for any restrictions. There are also many pet cemeteries throughout the United States. To locate a pet cemetery near you, check with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries.

The process of euthanasia

Euthanasia should be a quick, peaceful and virtually pain-free procedure for your pet, regardless of where it is performed. The standard euthanasia process for adult dogs and cats is as follows:

1. Your pet is made as comfortable as possible, for example lying on a soft bed.

2. A nurse or other suitable assistant will usually help to hold your pet if you are present for the euthanasia (see Should I be present?) it is usually possible for you to continue to stroke, talk to and comfort your pet.

3. The veterinarian will clip a patch of fur on one of your pet’s legs – usually a front leg – over the site of a blood vessel (vein).

4. The veterinarian may then place an intravenous catheter (cannula) into the vein and check that it is working fine by flushing some saline solution through the catheter.

Rather than placing an intravenous catheter, your veterinarian may instead elect to inject the euthanasia solution directly from a syringe via a needle into the vein ('off the needle'). The use of an intravenous catheter is recommended in the majority of cases as it ensures that the euthanasia solution does not leak out of the vein which can be painful. In addition, once the catheter is placed, it is usually then possible to relax the restraint on your pet and allow you more access to him/her while euthanasia is performed. However using an intravenous catheter may not be the best option for a small proportion of pets where it can prove more distressing than the 'off the needle' method. You should feel free to discuss the options with your vet please note that some practices will charge a small additional fee for the use of an intravenous catheter and you may need to clarify this.

In some cases a sedative is administered to relax your pet and allow the intravenous catheter to be placed with minimum distress, or once the intravenous catheter has been placed to ensure euthanasia goes smoothly. However this is not done in all cases and it depends for example on the behaviour and demeanour of your pet and other circumstances related to the euthanasia. It is advisable to discuss this beforehand with your practice and clarify your wishes in advance where there is any doubt, the use of a sedative is recommended.

5. The next step is for the vet to administer the euthanasia solution via the intravenous catheter. The euthanasia solution contains a drug called pentobarbital that used to be used as a general anaesthetic drug the current solutions used are often coloured blue, yellow or pink. Euthanasia is essentially achieved by administering an overdose of this anaesthetic drug and your pet will therefore be unconscious at the time of death he/she will experience no awareness of the end of their life. The drug works very quickly, typically within seconds, and causes your pet’s muscles to relax, breathing to cease, and finally heart to stop beating. The vet will check your pet’s heart has stopped beating and confirm to you that ‘he/she has gone’.

Note that in some cases the animal may void urine or stools or for example gasp or twitch. It is essential to realise that these are reflexes that can occur despite the lack of a heart beat and you should not interpret these reflexes as a sign that your pet is still alive.

It is also important to realise that when animals die their eyes typically remain open.

Following euthanasia, you can if you want spend a few moments alone with your pet saying goodbye depending on the aftercare arrangements. Some people like to take a tuft of fur or a whisker or the pet tag/collar as a memento.

Please note that the above euthanasia process applies to the euthanasia of adult dogs and cats and the process may vary with other species or for puppies/kittens although the same euthanasia solution is used. For example, with rabbits a leg vein may be used as for dogs/cats but sometimes a vein in the ear is used depending on the rabbit’s size. Rodents and small furries are often anaesthetised in an anaesthetic induction gas chamber before the euthanasia solution is applied into the abdominal cavity (around the liver). You should discuss the euthanasia process for your particular pet with your practice beforehand.

Watch the video: The euthanasia process revealed - Trailer

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