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The Pet Gazette

The Pet Gazette

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Cold Blooded Vet: Euthanasia

Euthanasia is not a happy place. However you cut the cake there is sadness  and confusion about the event.  It may be the kinder thing to do; it may be the expedient thing to do; it is nevertheless an act fraught with conflict and regret.

 I euthanize two kinds of animals: those that have a client or caretaker and those who do not.  Those who do not have caretakers are wildlife.  They live on their own without care.

The euthanasia procedures are the same.  The decision making process is not.  With a caretaker there is a lot more tolerance for living with an anatomical or physiological problem. With a caretaker there is someone to help the animal work around its defect. If your pet rat has a limp, who cares? Food and water can be put in a bowl so the rat does not have to perch on one leg to reach up for sipper tubes and feeders. In the wild If the sea gull has a bum wing it is generally a death knell.  The only creatures hanging around are predators not caretakers.

So how do you know when to euthanize?  With wildlife the simple, uncomplicated answer is that euthanasia is chosen when an animal can no longer be self-reliant in the wild.  For this column, that answer suffices. Nevertheless, knowing whether a wild animal is self-sufficient is complicated and worthy of long discussions and arguments.

How about for pets? When do you know it is time to euthanize? There is as many answers to that question as there are pet owners. There are no hard fast rules. There are guidelines and things to think about.

In this day and age, euthanizing a dog or cat is like euthanizing a family member.  And so the same is true for some parrots, some turtles, iguanas, goats, horses, llamas, and any animal that has made its way into the heart of a human.  Rightly or wrongly there are pet animals that do not rise to that level of love. Over the years I have had clients who have quickly and with no moral morasses decided that an animal needed to be euthanized.  It is my job as a veterinarian to have an opinion about these issues but it is not my job to deny the service if I think that they have arrived at the decision sanely.

Most clients come to the decision to euthanize with difficulty.  The most common question I get when a pet has a chronic, deteriorating illness is “How will I know when it is time?”
I don’t know. Everyone’s value system is different. For some people it is when there are more bad days than good days. For others, it is never: never take a life. For others it is the first medical crisis.  And for yet others it is pain. I don’t know.

What I do know is that however a client comes to the time of their decision they are resolute in their choice. This is when they have decided to euthanize.  Many people come wondering if it is time, and often it is not. But when they do come with their mind made up, it is hard to dissuade a client from not going forward.

What I also know is that most people are really good at second guessing their decision after they have gone forward and had their pet euthanized. One of the most common questions asked after the fact is “Did I do the right thing?”

The answer is always yes. There is no going back and however the person got to their decision it was not easy. What I also know, is that this decision is a matter of timing not a matter of choosing. People who come to the vet have already decided that euthanasia is a viable decision.

Most of the animals that I see in my practice are small, and this makes euthanasia easier and more difficult. As contradictory as that sounds it is true. Big animals have big veins. So euthanasia is done by injecting a sleep inducing, breath and heart stopping chemical with a needle and syringe.  The animals are big enough to be held.  In exotic medicine most animals are so small that ‘hitting’ a vein is virtually impossible so different techniques are needed.  That’s the harder part.

The easier part is that because they are so small they can be placed in a gas chamber (this is not Auschwitz) and anesthetic gas is easily absorbed into their bodies so that they go to sleep quickly and with little agitation. If you did this with a dog, being a big animal, it would take forever and it would be very disturbing.  Once the animal is asleep the same chemicals are injected into the chest or into the heart.  The hard part of this for the client is that they are unable to comfort their animal while it is in the chamber and getting sleepy. The patient’s last aware moments on earth are not in the arms or hands of their caretaker. Nevertheless it is the best of all the alternatives.

Euthanasia is not for the faint of heart. It takes forethought, compassion, moral turpitude, and bravery. I have over the years euthanized several of my own animals. Like everyone else, I second guessed my decisions, but know in my heart I did the best I could.