If you’re making the difficult decision to say goodbye to your beloved dog, integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby understands your grief. In part two of her series on grieving the loss of a dog, she offers guidance on how to prepare for your dog’s euthanasia. By understanding the procedure, may you embrace the final gift you’re giving your dog … and may you find peace.
After last week’s blog post (Grieving the Loss of a Dog After Euthanasia) generated the most reader comments of any blog we’ve ever published, I realized that I owed it to our community to write some difficult things about pet euthanasia.
Replace your guilt with grace
The overwhelming sentiment in those comments was grief wrapped in guilt. It broke my heart to realize the abundance of guilt burdening the souls of our readers—sometimes for years—regarding euthanizing their dogs. These dog parents had done the best they could with the information they had. They had nothing to feel guilty about. Rather, they had heroically given their suffering dogs a final gift when they unselfishly let them go.
But at the root of most of the reader comments, there were some common threads: lingering questions, confusion, and a lack of confidence in their decision on the euthanasia process.
Letting your dog go is every shade of difficult
As a veterinarian, helping dogs and their families through this difficult time is something I’ve done hundreds of times. It’s not routine by any means, but it is familiar. However for pet parents, it may be something they are experiencing for the very first time or will only experience a few times during their lifetime. There is nothing familiar or comfortable about it…at all. It’s the worst of times.
I can’t provide specific medical advice as to determining the right time to let your dog go. Even for my own clients, whose dogs I know well, I often find myself telling them it’s not a black and white moment in time—it’s a grey zone. But what I can help you with is the fear of the unknown and managing expectations.
Finding the peace in the goodbye is possible
I want to give you as much honest information about the procedure of pet euthanasia as I can. It’s a painful subject, but it shouldn’t be taboo. I want you to feel proactive, prepared, and peaceful when it’s time for you to say goodbye to your dog.
10 things to help you thoughtfully prepare for your dog’s euthanasia
1. Give your dog a party or “best day” beforehand.
Inevitably, I find myself saying to my clients during a euthanasia appointment, “I’m so heartbroken for you, but I’m not sad for your dog!” What do I mean by this? While saying goodbye to your dog may be one of the worst days of your life, it can be one of the best days of your dog’s life.
First of all, you are making this decision because you know it’s time to end your beloved friend’s pain and suffering. I take hope in knowing that the dog is going to be better off. But we can take the “best day” idea one step further.
One of my veterinary colleagues tells his clients to bring chocolate to their dog’s euthanasia appointment. In the moments preceding the euthanasia, while the doctor and owners are talking, they feed chocolate pieces to the dog, who thinks heaven has descended on earth.
If your dog is food motivated and has an appetite (I know many don’t at this stage), consider feeding a little bit of something typically “off limits.” You don’t want to do this in advance of the appointment because you don’t want to create an upset stomach. However, a few bites of a previously forbidden delicacy right before the euthanasia procedure can spark joy and create a special memory.
2. Script the setting and characters of the last chapter of your dog’s story.
I have euthanized dogs in living rooms, in clients’ vehicles, in backyards, on porches, and on clients’ beds. Although I know it’s still “the norm” and sometimes it is for the best, my least favorite place to facilitate the goodbye is in a veterinary exam room. It’s not that the environment isn’t compassionate—often the staff weeps alongside the owners—but there’s no real privacy and it’s probably not the dog’s favorite place. So I hereby give you permission to write the end of your dog’s story.
When it’s time to say goodbye, where would you and your dog like to be? And who would be with you? Sadly, COVID has ushered in some limitations.
However, I want you to know that in addition to working with your regular veterinarian, there is a growing subset of veterinary medicine that is dedicated to customized home-based euthanasias for dogs. (Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement are two excellent resources that offer compassionate end-of-life care and euthanasia services.) Ideally, I try to euthanize pets in the location where they are happy and most comfortable.
3. Bring the props—your dog’s favorite comforts.
In addition to the characters and setting, you may bring “props” to make the sad appointment a little bit brighter. Perhaps you know that your dog is relaxed by a certain type of music. Feel free to play it on your phone during the euthanasia. Further, consider bringing along a favorite toy or “comfort” item.
Finally, whether at home or at the veterinary hospital, your dog will be lying down for the euthanasia. Plan to use your dog’s favorite dog bed. (You may want to place a waterproof pad on the bed under a blanket in case urine is leaked.) Remember, the goal is to help your dog feel comfortable and content.
4. Pre-pay at the beginning of the appointment.
My friend, Jamie, whose goodbye story was shared in last week’s blog, says, “As a kid, I remember watching my dad with tears in his eyes paying the bill after losing our family dog. From that memory, I learned to pay ahead, so that afterward I could just walk out.”
I couldn’t agree more with Jamie. Most vets handle payment discreetly, along with the required paperwork, at the beginning of the appointment. This way you don’t have to leave the privacy of the exam room or vehicle.
5. Understand what to expect in the process.
Typically, both the dog’s body and the humans’ hearts are fragile during this journey. Both deserve to be gently cared for throughout the process. As a veterinarian, I’m privileged to help the dog through this final transition and to act as a sherpa for the family.
I always begin a euthanasia by carefully explaining to the family what to expect. It’s natural to fear the unknown, and I think having a roadmap is somehow comforting, even though it’s a roadmap of sorrow.
I tell my clients that the euthanasia process will be extremely smooth thanks to wonderful drugs. However, this is not Hollywood. The dog will not close his eyes after the procedure and look like he’s in a Disney movie.
He may urinate and/or defecate after he’s gone. This occurs as the body “lets go.” (Taking the dog for a slow, sniffing-filled potty walk before the procedure reduces the likelihood of this happening.)
Sometimes after passing, a dog will take a few deep, dramatic breaths. We call this agonal breathing, and the very name is creepy. Watching it happen is even creepier, so I’m careful to prepare my clients in case it happens. They need to know that this is not an active reaction of pain or distress on the dog’s part. It’s simply a reflex.
And during those initial moments after the dog has passed, it’s possible to observe the muscles twitching as nerves fire and cells die. This is involuntary and not cause for alarm.
If and when any of the above occur during a euthanasia, it’s important to remember that the dog is unconscious, the heart has likely already stopped, and the spirit is free.
6. Allow your veterinarian to place an IV catheter.
Although I concede that placing an IV catheter does cause a prick of pain, because I know how it feels when I’ve had one inserted, an IV port ensures no future pain-associated injections. Injecting into the IV is not painful and is reliable. On the contrary, often our patients are frail, dehydrated, or hypotensive. Injecting a solution intravenously can be tricky even for seasoned vets under these circumstances. Without an IV catheter, I may struggle to hit the vein the first time. If any euthanasia solution is accidentally injected outside of the vein, this will cause a painful response.
An IV catheter is a one-time step in the procedure. It’s designed to save the dog from pain and anxious moments later.
7. Allow your veterinarian to administer a pre-euthanasia sedative injection.
Not all dogs follow the textbook as they transition out of this life. There are three reasons why I prefer to euthanize a sedated dog:
- Occasionally, a dog seems to “stall” after the euthanasia solution is injected and seemingly refuses to go to sleep. This may be due to the dog’s underlying disease process (especially if there’s brain involvement), organ dysfunction, or abnormal drug delivery because of dehydration or poor perfusion. Whatever the cause, sometimes the dog lingers. And it’s not because they don’t want to leave their loved ones, or are fighting the drugs, or their heart was too strong—all things I’ve heard well-meaning pet owners say. It’s because the chemicals are not working as expected in an old, sick, or diseased body. But when the dog is sedated, if things don’t go as planned, I can simply administer additional injections as needed without the dog feeling pain, stress, or anxiety. Once the dog is sedated, there’s virtually nothing that can derail a peaceful euthanasia.
- A second reason why I prefer sedation is because some dogs briefly vocalize (bark or cry out) while they are being euthanized. You can imagine how upsetting this is to the family. The good news is the vocalization is not considered to be a fear or pain response, but rather what we call “dysphoria”—an excitatory “high as a kite” disoriented feeling from the drugs. Thankfully, this virtually never happens in a dog who’s had a sedative injection beforehand.
- Finally, a dog who is sedated before euthanasia is much less likely to experience agonal breathing (explained in point five above) after the procedure.
It’s important to mention that, while the sedative is just that—heavy sedation—sometimes it seems to push dogs right into the realm of anesthesia. I hadn’t considered how critically important communicating this detail was until reading Jamie’s story in last week’s blog post.
When describing the loss of her elderly Cocker Spaniel, Rémedy, Jamie shared her disappointment in not realizing that, after Rémedy was given the pre-sedation injection, her beloved dog would become so unresponsive that it was almost as if she were already gone—even though the euthanasia solution had not yet been administered.
Jamie regretted not taking time before the sedation was given to look into her dog’s eyes and say all that she wanted to say. She thought she’d have time before the actual euthanasia injection was given to share that moment.
I experienced something very similar when a colleague came to my house to euthanize our dog, Luke. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I missed my opportunity to be intentional about saying goodbye to our dog because of Luke’s quick-acting sedation.
It should be mentioned that veterinary associations consider pre-euthanasia sedation be the gold standard, but sedation can occur very quickly. Oftentimes, sedation from the first injection will be so profound that you won’t be speaking to an alert, responsive dog once it takes effect (typically within moments).
In the interest of honesty and transparency, the other thing I tell my clients is that the sedation injection may sting a bit. The dog may even react a little. But this is very fleeting and, I think, greatly outweighed by the many benefits of administering sedation before euthanasia.
8. Keep speaking loving words (even if your dog is sedated).
So what words of comfort did I have for Jamie when she lamented the way Rémedy left her? I explained that a dog’s hearing is the last of the five senses to be lost in the journey of death. And even though she was not able to look into Rémedy’s eyes when she spoke the words on her heart, I believe Rémedy still heard those words and knew she was present. I encourage owners to speak loving, reassuring words until I let them know that the dog has slipped away.
9. Take the time you need (and don’t feel guilty about it).
If at any time before, during, or after the procedure, you have a question, please ask freely. I tell my clients that I want their minds to be free to focus on their dog and grieve without being entangled by confusion. This means that before the euthanasia I spend time getting an update on the dog, reaffirming their decision, and just listening to them.
After the euthanasia, I always let the client know that their dog’s heart has stopped, and he is free. The room typically gets very loud or very quiet. Some clients burst into wailing; others are reverently silent. Some clients leave quickly after the euthanasia; others stay for extended periods of time, holding on to those last moments in the presence of their dog. This is also the time that I recommend removing the collar and keeping it as a memory of your beloved pet.
Please know that as veterinarians (and this is true for veterinary staff too), we don’t judge you. Virtually every one of us has walked in your shoes. Take the time you need and grieve without feeling embarrassed.
Our hearts are with you.
10. Know your wishes for care of the body.
Before your dog’s appointment, speak with your veterinarian about final arrangements such as burial or cremation. Sometimes I discuss the options of burial, affordable communal pet cremation, or private cremation at the beginning of the appointment when heads are clearer. But more often, I discuss these types of decisions with my clients well in advance of the painful day. This way, when emotions are raw, the client already knows what they want and doesn’t have to give this decision a second thought.
I would encourage you to make a plan in advance of your dog’s last day. Also, if cost will play a factor in your decision (because private cremation service is significantly more expensive), call your veterinary hospital to get pricing.
Finding peace and comfort through understanding
Whether you are grieving the loss of your dog or dreading an upcoming decision, I hope somewhere in these 10 points you are able to find comfort, understanding, and empowerment to reject the guilt you are not meant to carry.
Are you preparing for your dog’s passing?
Please comment below. We’re here to offer comfort and support through this difficult time.
Finally, if you’re navigating your dear old dog’s senior years, I invite you to sign up for my weekly updates, tips, and articles dedicated to senior dog care.