Wednesday, 26 January 2011

When The Rainbow Bridge Beckons ( Part 2:Euthanasia)

Most pets don't have a life expectancy that even approaches that of the average human, so most pet owners will share their lives with a number of special animals.
I couldn't find any statistics about how common euthanasia is, so I created a little survey of my own and sent it out to friends and colleagues. The results suggested that almost 2/3rds of pet owners have had to have a pet put to sleep at some point. So while it's a familiar enough procedure, it's not one that is often discussed.
When I tell people I am a vet, someone almost always tells me that they wanted to be a vet too but they couldn't bear killing animals. Don't get me wrong, it's not my favourite part of the job, but there is a certain relief when a euthanasia goes smoothly and the patient is no longer suffering.
I think it's really important that clients know exactly what to expect when they present their pet for euthanasia, and have a chance to think about the various options beforehand. All vets do things slightly differently, so if you have any specific concerns, you should contact your own vet and discuss them before you make the final appointment.

At Home or Away?
I am a mobile vet so I do all euthanasias in the client's house.
I feel that home euthanasia's are less stressful for both the pet and the client, especially if the patient doesn't like traveling or the vet clinic. Very ill animals can be difficult to transport and if you have decided you will bury your pet in your garden, this is a sensible option.
Even if your vet is surgery based, they should be able to come out to you on request. Some may refuse, but unless you live in the back of beyond , you should be able to get someone else to visit by phoning around. Be prepared to be flexible with your times as they will have to fit you in around their clinic times. There will also be an added 'visit fee' on top of the cost of euthanasia as it takes a vet, and probably a nurse, away from the surgery for an extended period of time.
If your pet is already hospitalised and very ill, then it's almost always best not to move them. 
Sometimes vets discover something nasty during surgery and ring clients with the option of putting the animal to sleep without waking them up from the anaesthetic. If they are sick and you already suspected that this was a possibility, then this the humane option. Owners in this situation sometimes ask for their pet to be allowed to wake up again, so they have a chance to say goodbye. Your vet will be able to help you make the decision that's right for you and your pet.

People are sometimes surprised that their vet would be insensitive enough to ask for payment at the time of euthanasia. Many years ago it was the done thing to send out a bill after a suitable amount of time had passed, but these days people move around more and many vets would be left unpaid with no way of tracing the client. If you are an established client your vet might well agree to send you out a bill but if you are a new client you will have to pay up front. No one enjoys asking for payment for this part of the job and things can get very awkward if you are trying to pay  afterwards, so you might like to consider paying beforehand. This will mean you, or the vet, can just leave when it's all over without having to talk about money.

Making the appointment.
You will need to tell the receptionist why you want an appointment, as euthanasias can take up more time than a standard appointment, and the vet will want to see you at a quiet time of day. You may get emotional on the phone but don't worry if you cry, the receptionist will have heard it all before. If you think you'll be too upset, get someone to make the phone call for you. Unless the clinic knows your pet well, they will probably ask about its size, and if you know what you'd like to do with the body.
The receptionist should be able to go through the options with you, but the main choice, as with people, is between burial, or cremation. Most burials involve private gardens but pet cemeteries are available in some areas. If you choose cremation, your pet will be sent away to a commercial pet crematorium and you can ask to have your pet's ashes returned, or not. The return of ashes will cost extra, depending on what sort of container you want them returned in.These costs vary between areas so make sure you know exactly what you are getting, and the costs involved.

On The Day.
Your pet can eat and drink normally before their appointment, there is no need to fast. Some people like to gather their favourite toys and blankets or beds to be buried or cremated with them. If you are having a home visit, then decide where you want your pet to be during the procedure, and if necessary put some old towels down, as animals often empty their bladder and bowels when they die.
 If you are going into the clinic by car, it's a good idea to have someone to drive you home afterwards. When you arrive send someone in ahead to make sure the clinic is not running late. If there is a delay, you should be able to go into an empty consultation room and not have to wait in a crowded waiting room.
concious family pet alone with strangers for the last minutes of it's life is probably something you'll regret afterwards.
Whether you stay or go, you will be asked to sign a consent form. This will contain a basic description of your pet, along with your details and a statement saying you give your permission for the euthanasia.
Some vets routinely sedate; I do, as I work alone, but it's more common not to in the UK. Usually sedation is only used if your pet is very nervous, aggressive or in a lot of pain. The sedation is given into the leg muscles or skin at the back of the neck by injection, and usually produces a calmer animal within minutes. I like my sedated patients to be as deep as possible before I give them their final injection, so will often wait 20 mins. A clinic based vet will have a nurse on hand to help position your pet correctly, so they won't have to wait as long.
The final injection is usually given into a vein on the front leg . This vein needs to be raised and there may be a nurse present to do this. Otherwise, the vet may use a tourniquet to raise the vein; this wraps tight around your pet's leg but does not cause them any pain. You should be able to stroke your pet while the injection is being given, and will probably see or feel their bodies relax. Death comes quickly when the injection is given into the vein and once the vet has finished injecting your pet's heart will have stopped.
With some animals it can be difficult or distressing for the animal for a vet to try and find a vein. These pets are often sedated, and the euthanasia solution is given into another organ or even into the abdominal cavity. This will not hurt your pet but it can take longer for the solution to work. The advantage to this method is that you can often cuddle them or have them on your lap as they slip away.

What Happens Afterwards?
Most of the time euthanasias are very peaceful, and it looks just like your pet is falling asleep, apart from their eyes remaining open. Sometimes there is twitching or vocalisation and larger dogs may have chest movements for a minute or two, although they are no longer breathing. These movements are due to electrical activity in muscles being released, they do not mean your pet is waking up or in pain.
Your vet will use a stethoscope to check that their heart has stopped and will remove any needles or syringes that were taped into place.
This is a good time to remove their collar, or ask to clip off a bit of fur if you'd like to keep these to remember your pet by.
If your pet needs to be moved to their final resting place, they should be placed in or on a plastic bag in case of body fluid leakage. If you are going to bury them in the garden, make sure you dig a deep enough hole and put a rock or paving stone on top so that nothing can dig them up again.If you are going to leave your pet with the vet for cremation, then you be able to have some final moments with them before you have to say goodbye. And if their ashes are being returned, your vet should be able to tell you how long it will take before they call you to pick them up.

The grief you feel after losing a pet is often no less intense than if you lost a human being that was part of your life. It can sometimes be worse, as not everyone will be understanding and you may feel you can't talk about your feelings in case other people consider them silly. It's completely normal to feel bereaved when a pet dies, they have been part of your life and shouldn't be considered 'only an animal'.
People often think they see or hear their deceased pet around their house or garden afterwards, and this, along with the completely normal feelings of loss and sadness can bring back memories of other times they may have lost someone special to them.
It's important to find someone understanding to talk to; a friend or family member who has gone through pet loss is generally a good bet but if there is no one, or you'd rather remain anonymous then there are some good  internet sites that can help you.
The Blue Cross also run a Pet Bereavement Support Service staffed by understanding trained volunteers who will talk to you on the phone or reply to your email about how you are feeling.

To get another, or not?
It's very common for newly bereaved pet owners to swear they will never have another, usually out of loyalty to their previous animal. But it's a hard pledge to keep. More than 3/4's of people who lose a pet go on to replace them, as once you are used to a little furry body around the house it's hard to live without it.
'Replace' is not really the right word, as the next pet is never exactly the same and a new one won't fill the hole the other one left behind, but they can take your mind off the absence for a bit while the old wound heals.
There is no ideal time scale. Some people like to have a period of mourning before taking on another pet, others get another almost immediately afterwards. There is no right or wrong; you must do what feels right for you and your family.

There are so many animals out there looking for good homes, that if you have a good home with space for a pet, it would be a real shame to leave that space empty.

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