What do I do next?
If you pet has passed away at a veterinary hospital it will be important for you to ask which pet crematory they use. If you utilize a Veterinary Hospital that does not work directly with our facility, please know that you have a choice in where your pet is cremated, and you DO NOT have to use the facility your veterinary hospital suggests. All you have to do is call us 203-263-2146 and we will handle all the logistics. It will be very helpful if you print and fill out our Cremation Form (see link below). Please bring this form with you when you bring your pet to your regular veterinary hospital. If you would like to view our available services, please see our price list (link below).
If your pet has passed away at a Veterinary Hospital that has partnered with us (please view Friendships at the bottom of this website), then you don’t have to do anything. The caring staff at the hospital will help you fill out our Secure Id Forms and will notify us immediately. We will respond to that hospital as soon as possible to care for your pet. If you wish to call us directly please feel free to do so (203-263-2146).
If your pet has passed away at home please know that you can always bring your pet directly to us, but due to the delicate and sensitive nature of our business, we kindly request that you call ahead to schedule an appointment. Our office hours are Monday - Friday 8:30 am - 5:00 pm We are available 24/7/365 for you, please call 203-263-2146 . After hours appointments are available upon request. We can also come to your home and one of our Pet Funeral Directors will transfer your pet from your home to our facility.
Guiding you through the loss of your pet… because your pet is part of the family.
If you’re considering cremation as final care for your pet, this informative page is the right place to start. It includes an overview of the process and explains your cremation options.
The process used to cremate pets is the same exact process used for human cremation. Cremation is a form of disposition that uses heat to transform your pet’s physical remains to its basic elements. Sometimes these are referred to as “ashes”, or “cremains” –a word blended from “cremated remains”.
Most pet cremation providers offer two types of cremation; Pet Passages is the only organization to offer three types of pet cremation services.
Unlike the human cremation profession, there is very little or no regulation when it comes to pet cremations. Thus, different providers might be using the same terminology but for different types of cremation services. It is very important to understand what type of cremation you are receiving, so please read the following carefully!
- A “Private“ cremation is a cremation procedure during which only one animal’s body is present in the cremation chamber during the cremation process and the cremated remains of the pet are to be returned to its owner.
- A “Semi-Private” (commonly referred to as “Individual or Partioned or Segregated Cremation”) is a cremation procedure during which more than one animal’s body is present in the cremation chamber and cremated at the same time. This is the cremation process that has been used for decades by the vast majority of pet cremation providers. The vast majority of pet cremation providers do not use any means of physical barrier between pets. The lack of physical barriers can and will lead to significant co-mingling of pet’s cremated remains. Unfortunately, many people and many veterinarians over the years and still to this day have been mis-lead by the term “Individual Cremation” as it denotes only one pet being cremated at a time. This is not the case with this type of cremation and use of terminology! Be rest assured that Pet Passages, the leader in the pet loss profession, has designed, developed and utilizes it own patent pending stainless steel dividers between pets and has coined the term “Semi-Private Cremation” to help avoid confusion. Please note: Due to a number of factors and by virtue of multiple pets being cremated within the same chamber, active co-mingling of cremated remains can occur but is significantly reduced if not eliminated.
- A “Communal” (or Batch”) is a cremation procedure where multiple pets are cremated together without any form of physical barrier. These co-mingled cremated remains are not returned to the owners.
Because of the lack of regulation, it is important for you to ask your pet cremation provider what they mean when they use the term “individual cremation”.
We realize that each family has their own unique set of wishes when it comes to memorializing their pet. Our staff will work with your family to tailor a distinctive pet cremation a private family goodbye, or a memorial service to meet all of your needs.
Since our pet funeral directors control the entire process, we can ensure that your pet’s cremated remains will be available for return much faster than other providers, typically within days of your pet’s passage. We guarantee that your pet will be treated with dignity and respect and we will care for your companion pet with the same reverence as we would treat any other member of your family. To help with peace of mind we can even arrange for your family to witness the cremation process if you so desire. Unlike other pet cremation providers, Pet Passages does not charge extra for this.
Please contact your local Pet Passages office for cremation pricing.
We will be honored to assist you in the in-ground burial of your pet, and can guide you in arranging a meaningful, comforting, committal ceremony for family and friends.
Burial is a very personal decision and only one you can make. However, the majority of pets in our society are cremated and there are several reasons for this. First, in many urban communities, laws and ordinances make it illegal for owners to bury their pets in the back yard. Second, if you did choose burial, that would more than likely require you to bury your pet in a designated pet cemetery. This option tends to be expensive. Third, cremation is an affordable and simple option that was often not available in the past. Finally, with our society becoming so much more mobile, choosing cremation gives you the ability to take your pet’s cremated remains with you if you move to another home.
If you choose burial we can assist you at a local pet cemetery or in the location of your choice. Be sure to consult local authorities before selecting the location, to make sure your pet’s remains are not disturbed in the future. We carry a complete line of beautiful pet caskets.
A pet funeral or memorial service is a fine way to bring friends and family together in remembrance of your pet. We take care of all the details and support you through the service.
Humans throughout all societies and cultures use ritual and ceremony to mark life’s transitional moments. Weddings as they celebrate love, partnership, and give all in attendance hope for a bright future. Birthday events, graduations and yes, funerals–are all ceremonies that bring people together in shared celebration–and affirm the common values of living in community.
When a cherished animal companion passes away support from family, friends, and neighbors is important. Holding a pet funeral in remembrance of your pet is a fine way to bring them all together, at a time when you need them most. Just as every pet is different, every family is different. Yet, the love we have for our pets is universal. And today, the memorialized expression of this deep affection is growing more common throughout North America. And chances are good that you and your family are currently thinking of designing and placing a memorial to your cherished pet. But where do you begin? You begin by thinking with your heart, not just your head.
So What Makes a Pet Memorial?
We think it’s the love you shared, which becomes infused into the personalized cremation urn, pet grave marker or keepsake you’ve selected. Whatever you’ve chosen becomes a testament to your family’s love and devotion to their cherished pet. With that said, we invite you to browse our online selection of pet urns & memorial products to explore the creation of a physical memorial to your cherished animal companion.
Online Pet Memorials
Grieving families today have a unique opportunity, born of Internet-based technologies: the online memorial pet tribute. Similar in concept to the online tribute websites available for human members of a community, our full-featured online pet memorials, Pet Tales™, will give you and your friends and family unique ways to pay tribute to your pet, including:
- A Gallery of Treasured Photographic Memories
- The Lighting of Memorial Candles
- Personal Messages of Condolence
- Sharing via Social Media
If a Pet Tales™ online tribute dedicated to the memory of your pet sounds like a wonderful way to pay tribute to their loyal devotion, then please visit Pet Tales on this website.
We can help you to host a pet memorial service or pet funeral that’s a fitting expression of the love you shared with your pet. Our experienced staff can assist you in making all the arrangements, we invite you to call us today at 888-831-8711, or stop by our office at 4200 First Ave. NE Cedar Rapids, IA 52402 to explore the many unique ways to celebrate the life of your animal companion, and acknowledge their love and loyalty. To assist you, we have prepared an informative guide which you may download A Guide to Planning Ahead.
Naturally, you want to ease their way.
The decision to euthanize is a very difficult decision to make but is a necessary decision when the animal is starting to suffer as a result of its incurable disease and drugs are no longer available or enough to help relieve this suffering. Please consult with your veterinary professional! If your pet is not in pain, there are many things you can do at home to naturally help your pet through the process of letting go of life. Here are some helpful recommendations: Please consult with your veterinary professional!
- As you wish to comfort your pet, speak soothingly to him or her. Keep lighting soft, and you may also want to put on some soothing music in the background.
- Since his or her circulation could be slowing down, you may wish to cover your pet with a blanket.
- Do not force him or her to eat. Keep their mouth moistened if possible, by gently dripping water onto their tongue.
- Recognize that when death is near, their senses will begin to fail. The first is their sense of smell, followed by the senses of taste and sight. The last to go will be their hearing.
- Gently reposition him or her, if needed, to make them more comfortable.
- Allow your pet to choose the place he or she wishes to lay down, and then make him or her as comfortable as possible by surrounding them with well-loved toys, pictures, etc.
- Respect their need for solitude, but don’t feel a need to isolate your pet from the family. Just like you, your pet would like to be surrounded by those people he or she loves most. Stay close, but don’t crowd your pet, or make them nervous by being too close.
A Practical Guide to Pet Euthanasia
The difficult decision to euthanize a beloved family pet is an issue all too often faced by pet parents. The simple truth is that most pets do not have a long lifespan and we humans often outlive them many times over. Consequently, most people who take on the love and joy of owning a companion animal will at some point need to face the sad realities of their furred, scaled or feathered friend’s mortality. If you are at this point, your veterinarian can and will be a guide for you during this time. There will be medical discussions, quality of life discussions, financial discussions and every other element of end-of-life care factors that will need to be part of the process. There will be another part of this decision that you should also consider the fact that you are the pet parent and you know your pet better than anyone does. As the guardian of this pet, you are intuitively aware of your pet’s emotions, feelings, and communicative nature, all points of consideration during this emotional decision making time. The following information can be used as a practical guide to the euthanasia of pet animals.
The euthanasia topics are covered in the following order:
- What is euthanasia?
- Reasons for euthanasia:
- How to decide when it is time:
- The euthanasia process itself:
- Hints and Tips to help you cope better on the day – making the process of pet euthanasia a little easier.
- What should I do with my pet’s body?
1. What is euthanasia?
The word euthanasia comes to us from the Greek word that means “good death” or “fortunate death”. In modern society it generally refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering.
Typical humane euthanasia procedure:
During the process of euthanasia, the animal patient is normally injected with a chemical substance (called pentobarbitone) that is very closely related to some of the drugs normally used to induce general anesthesia in animals. This chemical essentially acts like a severe overdose of veterinary anesthetic: it enters the animal’s blood stream and suppresses the function of the animal’s heart and brain, causing instant loss of consciousness, pain sensation and stopping the beating of the animal’s heart, thereby causing death while the animal is deeply asleep. This is where the term “put to sleep” comes from. The animal peacefully and instantly falls asleep (undergoes anesthesia) and then passes through into death without experiencing any pain.
2) Reasons for euthanasia:
People elect to have their pets and other domesticated animals put down for a huge variety of humane, personal, practical and financial reasons. The following is a list of reasons that consider by many veterinarians to be valid reasons for having a dog, cat or other animal euthanized.
The animal is suffering from a terminal illness that medical or surgical therapy can no longer relieve or help:
The relief of pain and suffering is probably the most common reason pet parents have for euthanizing a beloved pet. Because animals are now living long enough (just like people) to die slowly by degrees from chronic, incurable, sometimes-painful illnesses like cancer, renal disease and heart failure, it is becoming very common for owners to have to make this choice about what is kindest for their terminally ill pets.
It is important to note that not every animal that develops or is diagnosed with a terminal illness needs to be put down right away. There are many owners who hear the words ‘cancer’ and ‘kidney failure’ and ‘heart failure’ and panic, thinking that their pet needs to be put down right away, when the reality is that some of these animals can often tick along for months or even years, with the right medications and diets, and even have a good quality of life. As long as these animals are not suffering; are not in unmanageable pain and are performing all of their normal functions adequately (eating, drinking and toileting normally and not losing excessive amounts of weight), then it is generally fine to keep them going.
The decision to euthanize is indicated when the animal is starting to suffer as a result of its incurable disease and drugs are no longer available or enough to help relieve this suffering. Please consult with your veterinary professional!
The animal is suffering from a severe illness whereby survival and recovery is possible, but of minimal likelihood, and the animal is likely to go through significant pain and suffering while attempts are made to correct the problem:
Because animals, unlike humans, are unable to give any consent about the procedures that are performed on them, performing a large, painful surgical procedure on an animal or exposing that animal to long periods of severe illness, hospitalization stress and repeated medical procedures, in the remote chance that there will be recovery, must be weighed up very carefully. Human patients have a choice about how much pain they are willing to suffer for the remote chance of a cure and they also have a better cognitive understanding of what will be included in that care (prolonged hospitalization, the use of ventilator assistance, nausea-inducing medications and so on). Animals, on the other hand, do not have this understanding and so we (vets and owners) are the ones that must act on their behalf and in their best interests. Sometimes the pain and suffering involved in the care and attempted cure of an animal patient is simply not worth the very small chance there will be of a good outcome. Please consult with your veterinary professional!
The pet has a severe, chronic disease where death from the disease itself is unlikely, but drugs are no longer helping the pet with its pain or mobility.
There are certain chronic disease conditions whereby the animal is unlikely to die as a result of the condition per se, but is in such severe, chronic, continuous pain or so debilitated (e.g. unable to move very far, unable to stand up) or so unable to maintain its hygiene and dignity that it can no longer be said to have any decent quality of life. Please note: The idea of what constitutes a “quality of life” for an animal and what importance “dignity” plays to an animal differs from owner to owner and pet to pet. The factors that make up “quality of life” for any one animal may be far removed from what makes up “quality of life” to a man or even to another individual animal of the same or different species. Many humans would consider it a fate worse than death to be left blind and/or deaf and yet a dog or cat may cope just fine. Some dogs are perfectly content being able to shuffle back and forth from kitchen to living room, whereas other dogs become depressed if they are no longer able to walk around the block or retrieve a ball. Some owners simply cannot bear the thought and indignity of their pet soiling itself and lying in its urine or feces, whereas other owners are happy to accept these accidents and happy to routinely bathe and clean their pet’s bottom. Please consult with your veterinary professional!
The animal is exhibiting severe aggression:
Aggression, particularly regularly-occurring, non-provoked aggression, in dogs and cats, even rabbits, is a valid reason for euthanizing these animals. This aggression may be towards people, other pets in the household or other animals outside of the household.
Whether an animal needs to be euthanized after its first act of aggression is debatable and you should discuss the matter with your veterinarian if it occurs. Some instances of aggression only occur the once because of circumstances occurring at the time and may not require euthanasia (e.g. a dog that has a snap because a person stepped on its tail or kicked it); some forms of aggression are highly situation specific and may not require euthanasia (e.g. if vets put down every dog or cat that showed aggression towards them, there wouldn’t be many patients left to treat). Some forms of aggression can be easily treated with behavioral modification and training, whereas certain other forms of aggression only get worse with time and do require the pet to be euthanized. (ex. psychotic, unprovoked aggression due to various brain diseases).
Notifiable diseases of high risk to human lives, animal lives and the economy:
Animals that contract diseases, normally infectious diseases, which are of a high safety risk to man and other animals (e.g. rabies, bird flu, Anthrax) are generally euthanized.
Financial euthanasia – the pet has a life-threatening and/or costly-to-treat disease and the owner simply cannot afford life-saving surgical or medical treatment:
The concept of financial euthanasia is probably the one reason given for euthanasia where peoples’ opinions are most polarized and where vets and their clients most commonly clash. Some people consider finances to be completely inexcusable grounds for euthanizing a pet and are outraged that vets will not provide services for free and/or that non-financial owners will even consider this option instead of going into debt for their animals. Other people and most veterinarians consider financial limitations to be a perfectly reasonable grounds for euthanasia of an animal (how reasonable does depend on the situation).
The owner is moving house or changing situation and owns a pet that cannot cope with the stress of moving or rehoming:
Some pets are so anxious about minor changes in their lives that they are unable to be rehomed or relocated at all without this setting off a major crisis. Some animals will develop and exhibit severe anxiety behaviors: self-mutilation, psychosomatic vomiting and diarrhea, over grooming etc. Others will develop stress-induced diseases: e.g. feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), urethral obstruction in cats (iFLUTD – idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease), Addison’s disease, colitis, feline herpes virus and herpes ulcers of the cornea. Often these animals will not be able to be rehomed by the owner or by a shelter because of the stress to the animal and the fact that most prospective owners do not want to take on an animal with behavioral problems. For these animals, euthanasia may be the most humane option for the animal.
2a) Not so valid reasons for putting an animal down.
The pet has outlived its usefulness and the owner just does not want it around anymore. The pet is no longer young, cute, trendy, interesting, able to produce pups for sale, able to win in the show ring, able to win races … and so on:
- The owner is relocating to a place where pets are not permitted or practical.
- The owner’s living circumstances have changed. A new baby is joining the family; the owner has no time for an animal
- The animal has behavioral issues that the owner does not want to take time and effort to correct.
- It is cheaper to euthanize a pet and get a new one than it is to treat any minor to moderate illness it might have. Custody disputes.
- Putting down this pet and getting a new one next year is cheaper than paying to board the pet over the Christmas and summer holidays.
- Euthanizing a pet because its owner died and the owner wants to be buried with there pet.
3) How do you decide when it is time to euthanize a pet?
This is the most commonly asked question about euthanasia. How will I know when it is time? The honest truth is that is no easy way to answer this question: it depends on the individual owner, the individual animal, the individual case (e.g. the type of medical problem, behavioral issue) and a fair bit of emotion and “gut-feeling” by both owner and vet. The following are some hints and tips on how to know when the time has come to have your dog, cat or animal friend euthanized:
You have started asking the question:
In general, once owners start asking themselves and their veterinarian the question: “do you think it is time to put him or her down?”, you are already advanced in the decision making process. People tend to get a gut feeling about when it is time. They just know in their heart that things are not right with their pet’s spirit and that things are unlikely to improve: their animal is depressed all the time, it seems sad and/or in constant pain, its weight is dropping, it doesn’t enjoy eating anymore, it doesn’t respond to them like before and so on.
Have a family discussion about it:
Every member of the family will be feeling the effect and heart-ache of their pet’s deterioration. Talk about it. Everyone will have their views and someone may make a valid point that no-one else has thought of that sways the decision one way or the other. Involve your children in this decision if you consider them emotionally mature enough to face this reality.
Have a discussion with your vet (ask a couple of veterinarians if you need to):
Veterinarians see a lot of pets in their careers and often need to counsel pet owners about euthanasia. Veterinarians can often provide you with informed, objective information and advice on what degree of suffering and/or pain your pet is in or expected to be in with regard to the type of condition it has. This advice can often be very useful in the decision-making process because it comes from an informed, experienced, professional source and is not being clouded by the same degree of grief and emotion that you, the pet’s owner, are experiencing. Your vet can also provide you with extra pain killers (analgesics) and advice on ways to make your pet comfortable, should you require a day or so at home with your pet to say goodbye.
Keep a pet diary:
A diary can help a lot of owners to gauge when the time has come to say goodbye, particularly in those cases where the pet has a slow-moving, chronic, progressive disease (e.g. heart failure, renal failure, arthritis, cancer). The pet diary is basically a day-to-day record of how the pet feels, behaves and acts. You can put whatever you like in the pet diary, however, I have found that many owners find it helpful to note such useful indicators of health and well-being as:
- Responsiveness to you: does your pet respond when called? Respond to being petted? etc.
- Ability to walk: The pet walks well; walks a few steps but tires easily; cannot get up at all and so on.
- How much the pet ate today: Calories eaten each day, volume of food eaten and so on.
- How keen the pet is to eat: Does it gobble its food? Pick at the food? Refuse to eat? etc.
- How much the pet is drinking: You can measure how much the pet is drinking each 24 hours.
- Whether the pet is urinating: You can note how often you see the pet urinate each day.
- Whether the pet is defecating and if feces are normal: Note how often you see the pet pooping each day and what the droppings look like etc.
- The pet’s weight: Weigh the pet daily or weekly – is the pet losing weight over time? Weight is a big indicator of health.
- Episodes of pain: Crying when being handled, panting all the time, displaying aggression and so on.
- Episodes of hospitalization and duration of hospitalization.
- Resting respiratory rate: Each evening, when the animal is at rest, record the number of breaths it does per minute.
- Disease signs and if the worsening or improving: For heart failure, you could note if the pet is coughing more than normal (e.g. coughs seen per day); for arthritis you could note the degree of lameness and time taken to “warm out of it.”
What you want to establish is a way of objectively determining if the pet is getting worse or not. This can be done by establishing a grading system of severity for each criterion (e.g. grade 1-5). Noting the grade each day to see if it increases. For example, for the criterion: Can the pet walk, Grade 1 would be: gets to feet and walks well with no issues or tiring; Grade 2 would be: has some trouble getting to feet, but can walk well with minimal fatigue; Grade 3 might be: having significant trouble getting to feet and can only walk or stand for limited period of time before lying down again; Grade 4 might be: tries hard to get to feet but cannot (needs help to stand, but can remain standing and even walk a bit once up) and Grade 5 might be: remains laying down and does not attempt to get to feet (flops down immediately when helped to stand). If, over time, you see the grading for each of the individual criteria increasing in severity (e.g. all 4s and 5s), then this can be an objective indicator of when the time is drawing nearer.
As a bare minimum, writing down in the diary whether you feel your pet “had a good day today” or a “bad day today”, according to your criteria of what a good day or bad day is, can be very helpful. When you start to find that your pet’s bad days are well exceeding its good days, then you know that the time to seek further treatment/advice or the time to euthanize drawing near.
You are starting to feel that you are keeping the pet alive because you can’t say goodbye not because the pet has quality of life:
Don’t feel ashamed or guilty if you are in this position. It is probably the most common reason why pets that should be euthanized are not. Pets are important members of the family, in many cases taking up a big portion of our own lives. We come to rely on their presence as much as on the presence of any human member of the family. We need them. It is hard to say goodbye. At the same time, an owner’s inability to let go should not be a reason why a suffering pet is made to go on living. Once you have come to the realization that you are keeping your pet alive because you can’t live without it, it is time to let go. Euthanizing a pet is hard but you wouldn’t want a loved family member to suffer.
3a) How to recognise that a pet is in pain.
One of the major criteria that veterinarians use to determine whether an animal is suffering or not is the presence of constant pain. It is also the main criteria that owners use and ask their vet about when trying to decide when to euthanize. An animal might be deemed to have an acceptable quality of life if it cannot move around much; coughs occasionally or has a large mass on its face so long as it is pain-free. However, the presence of unmanageable moderate to severe pain is not acceptable and is not considered conducive to a good quality of life even if the animal is otherwise surviving okay. In order to determine whether an animal is in pain or not, both owners and their vets need to be able to recognize the signs of pain and discomfort. Unlike human patients, animals cannot tell us in words how much and where something hurts.
The following are some symptoms of pain in animals:
- Whining, whimpering, vocalising (i.e. crying out in pain) or groaning/moaning.
- The animal cries out in pain or yelps when it tries to move.
- The animal cries out in pain or yelps when it is touched or handled, particularly if the painful region of the body is touched.
- The animal seems depressed and subdued compared to normal.
- The animal keeps to itself, seeks isolation away from the family or herd.
- The animal chooses to hide itself (e.g. hiding under the bed, in corners, dark places).
- The animal is reluctant to move from a comfortable position.
- The animal is restless: sometimes, rather than hiding or staying still, a painful animal will be unable to settle and will pace the room or yard.
- The animal remains standing and won’t sit or lie down.
- The animal is unable to sleep.
- The animal goes off its food (stops eating or becomes very picky with its food).
- The animal has an elevated heart rate: animals in moderate to severe pain will usually have a higher than normal heart rate.
- The animal has an elevated temperature: animals in moderate to severe pain will usually have a greater than normal temperature.
- The animal is panting excessively: dogs in particular pant when in significant pain.
- The animal’s pupils are dilated. Some animals are good at masking symptoms of pain and all you may see are widely dilated pupils.
- An otherwise nice-mannered animal exhibits aggression (biting, snapping, growling) when touched or approached.
- The animal bites or licks at the painful region of the body (e.g. animals with arthritic joints will often lick the skin over the painful joint).
- The animal self-traumatises: animals with severe pain can attack the painful region of the body. Birds will sometimes pluck out feathers in painful regions. Mammals will often pluck out fur. Some traumatize themselves so badly that they put holes in their own flesh.
- The animal limps or walks stiffly: animals with painful joints and limbs will often limp as a sign of pain. Note that limping is not always a pain sign: e.g. animals with non-painful scarred or fused joints may have a reduced range of motion in the affected limb which can make them move oddly and appear to be limping.
- The animal grinds its teeth: livestock animals and horses in particular will grind their teeth when in pain. Dogs and cats and rodent and rabbit pets will also do it.
- The animal is drooling: drooling can be a sign of pain in some pets.
- The animal is squinting: animals with eye pain and head pain (e.g. head ache) will often squint one or both eyes.
- The animal ‘chatters’ its teeth: animals with mouth pain and dental pain will sometimes chatter the teeth, especially when eating or drinking.
- The animal has a lesion/problem that is expected to be painful. Even if the animal shows minimal symptoms of pain, you can assume that an animal is in pain if it has certain “painful” problems (e.g. fractured limbs, kidney stones, gall stones, intestinal blockages).
3b) I just want to let my pet die at home – is this okay?
This is a very common question that is often asked by owners of chronically ill or terminally ill pets. These are usually owners who cannot quite bring themselves to make that final decision: they hold off on the active euthanasia of a critically ill pet in the hope that the pet will just “die in its sleep.”
The sad truth of the matter is that many (maybe most) of these left-to-die pets do die in their owner’s sleep (they are found dead when the owner gets up in the morning), but they do not die in theirs. Death is unfortunately not always a swift or painless process that occurs whilst you are sleeping. Some forms of death can be very painful or highly distressing (e.g. heart failure, respiratory failure) and many occur over several hours, not mere minutes (much slower than you as a loving owner would like to think happens). The prolonged sufferings that may occur as the animal is dying are not recommended and border on inhumane when assisted euthanasia is available and is so quick and peaceful and painless.
3c) Why won’t my veterinarian just tell me when to put down my pet?
Owners of chronically ill or terminally ill pets seeking definitive advice often ask their veterinarian such questions as: “What would you do if s/he was your pet?,” “What do you think I should do?” and “Do you think it’s time?” Although some veterinarians will give a direct answer when asked such a question, it is common for veterinarians to avoid giving the owner a definite answer on the matter of euthanasia, which can often be frustrating.
There are a couple of reasons why veterinarians often refuse to tell clients outright when to euthanize their pet.
- Many vets are also afraid of telling an owner to euthanize for fear that an emotionally unready owner will take offense and be angry at the vet for “pushing them” to make the decision.
- In addition to this, many vets are concerned about the possibility of an owner coming back to them after the euthanasia, having read or heard about other options for their pet’s treatment, feasible or not, angry that their vet told them to euthanize.
4) The euthanasia process itself:
The following section will focus on the use of injectable euthanasia drugs (e.g. pentobarbitone) because these are the agents most commonly used for the humane euthanasia of domestic pets.
4a) What drugs are used in euthanasia:
Intravenous injection of pentobarbitone is the most common method by which animals (particularly small pet animals and horses) are put to sleep is through the use of an intravenously-given, injectable barbiturate drug called pentobarbitone, also referred to by trade names such as Valabarb, Pentobarb and Lethabarb. Most commercial preparations of pentobarbitone euthanasia solution come mixed with a green dye for ease of identification. Pentobarbitone is very closely related to some of the drugs that vets use to induce general anesthesia in animals. During the process of euthanasia, this chemical essentially acts like a severe overdose of veterinary anesthetic: it enters the animal’s blood stream and suppresses the function of the animal’s heart and brain, causing instant loss of consciousness and pain sensation and stopping the beating of the animal’s heart, thereby causing death whilst the animal is deeply asleep. This is where the term “put to sleep” comes from. The animal peacefully and instantly falls asleep (undergoes anesthesia) and then passes into death without any pain.
Intravenous injection of potassium chloride is used occasionally. The euthanasia may be performed on an animal via the administration of large volumes of potassium chloride: this causes the animal’s blood potassium levels to rise to critical levels, resulting in the animal dying from heart arrhythmia (sort of like a fatal, severe heart palpitation in people). Because potassium chloride injection is thought to be painful, the animal is normally placed under general anesthesia before the potassium solution is injected. Potassium chloride injection is not a method that is generally used in routine pet euthanasia; it is typically used in the euthanasia of horses whereby there is the possibility for the horse’s meat to enter the food chain (meat that contains barbiturates is lethal to other animals that eat it).
4b) Is euthanasia painful?
Pentobarbitone given by the intravenous or oral route is not usually considered a painful procedure. The only discomfort felt by your pet might be the insertion of the needle or catheter into your pet’s vein. This discomfort felt is no more severe than that experienced by any pet having a typical routine anesthetic.
Injection of the barbiturate drug outside of the animal’s vein (e.g. if the needle or catheter is not placed into the vein correctly) may be uncomfortable for the animal because the euthanasia solution is very concentrated and irritant to body tissues. The risk of this happening can be greatly reduced if the vet places a catheter (a small plastic intravenous tube) into the pet’s vein prior to performing the euthanasia and flushes this catheter with saline prior to the injection of euthanasia solution to ensure that the catheter is not allowing leakage of fluid into the tissues around the vein.
4d) Is euthanasia instant?
Pentobarbitone (Lethabarb) given by the intravenous route usually produces unconsciousness within seconds (much like having an injectable anesthetic).
4e) What can I expect to see happen as my pet dies?
When an animal passes away, regardless of whether it dies from natural causes or from assisted death (euthanasia), there are certain events and signs that you might witness as the animal is in the process of dying and also in the moments just after death (just after the heart stops). For those of you who have never witnessed an animal or person dying before, these sights may come as a surprise or shock to you – which is why I have listed them here. The most important thing to remember is that the events and symptoms mentioned below are not painful for your pet: they are the normal reactions of the body and its nerves and cells to the stopping of the animal’s heartbeat and brain activity.
Events that often occur as a pet passes away:
- The animal may vocalize or cry out as it passes away.
- The animal may experience a very brief period of excitation as the barbiturate is being injected: the animal may appear to the owner to be fighting the injection because it is pulling its leg away and holding its body in a stiff, rigid position (the animal will soon relax again as this excitation phase passes).
- The animal may go rigid and arch its head backwards for a brief period of time while the injection is being given (or while death is coming on in certain other natural-causes situations).
- The animal may experience a brief period of very deep, heavy breathing (with the rib cage heaving up and down) just before it passes away.
- The animal will often display intermittent gasps (sucking air in loudly) after the heart has stopped. Termed “agonal gasping” these loud gasps are often very distressing for owners to see because they think their pet is still alive. The truth is that these gasps are actually a sign of death: they occur after the animal’s heart has stopped beating and are caused by the diaphragm of the animal contracting spasmodically as the animal’s brain and muscles are deprived of oxygen. Agonal gasps are a reflex and they are not painful for your pet.
- The animal may urinate or defecate as the muscles of bladder and bowel relax after death.
- Shortly after death, the animal’s muscles and tongue may fasciculate (tremble or shiver) all over. It will look like the animal’s skin and tongue is rippling. This is a normal muscle response to loss of oxygenation. It normally lasts under a minute.
- The animal’s pupils will dilate widely.
- The surface of the animal’s eyes will become dull, not shiny.
- Animals with certain lung and heart disease conditions (e.g. congestive heart failure) will often have frothy fluid bubbling out of their mouths and noses after euthanasia. This fluid comes from the animal’s diseased lungs and comes out because the pet is lying prone in death.
- Animals with certain intestinal disease conditions (e.g. gut stasis, severe vomiting) will often have bile coming out of their mouths and noses after euthanasia. This fluid comes from the animal’s intestines and stomach and leaks out because the pet’s stomach is full of fluid: this runs out of the mouth when the pet is lying prone in death.
- Many hours after death, the pet’s body will become stiff (a phenomenon called rigor mortis). This can last for many hours, after which the animal will relax again.
- It is typical for a pet’s eyes to remain open after it has been euthanized, particularly if the animal was awake and alert just before death. Animals that are very sick or heavily sedated or asleep prior to euthanasia will often have their eyes closed in death.
4f) How to tell when a pet has died? – signs of death.
In a euthanasia situation, the vet is the person who will examine your pet for symptoms of death and pronounce it deceased for you. The vet will look at your pet’s eyes, gums and breathing and listen for its heart-beat using a stethoscope to be sure of death. It is, however, useful if you the pet owner can recognize the signs of death yourself just in case you come home to an animal that has died in the home or yard and need to determine if it truly is dead or not.
Signs that an animal is dead:
- The animal’s lips, gums and tongue are purple in color.
- The animal is not breathing – you won’t see a rib cage moving up and down.
- The animal has no heart beat – you can put your hands firmly on either side of the animal’s chest to feel for a heartbeat or, alternatively, use a stethoscope to listen for one (some owners have them).
- The animal’s pupils are dilated.
- The animal’s pupils do not react to light – if you shine a light in the animal’s eye, the pupil will not constrict.
- The animal does not blink if you touch its eyeball.
- The animal’s eyeballs are dull and seem dry in appearance and no longer shiny.
- The animal is not moving and is unresponsive.
- The animal is floppy when picked up or, during the period of rigor mortis, stiff.
4g) Do I need to be in the room with my pet to have it put down? Am I a bad owner if I don’t stay?
When it comes to euthanasia, there is no “one way” or “right way” of doing it. Each person has his or her own way of coming to terms with death and each person has his or her own opinion and feeling about whether he or she can bear to be present for an assisted death. Some people feel bad if they are not with their pet bringing comfort to it in its last moments, while other people cannot bear to see their pet die and prefer to have their last memories of their pet as a living, breathing animal. It is not wrong of you to elect not to be present for the euthanasia and to leave your pet with the veterinarian. The right answer is whatever is right for you at this hard time.
5) Hints and Tips to help you cope better on the day – making the pet euthanasia process a little easier.
- Take a friend with you:
At this hard time, you may find that you cope better with a friend by your side, particularly a good friend who is not a family member or pet co-owner and not likely to be grieving as much for your pet as you are. Such a person can be a real rock of clear-headedness and support at this time. They can give you comfort, take care of the vet clinic paperwork and other practicalities, help you to move your animal or its body (should you choose to take your pet home with you) and drive you to and from the vet clinic. It is never a good idea for you to drive in a distressed or emotional state because you might have an accident: a friend who can drive you and your pet around can help to keep you safe.
- Schedule the euthanasia for a time when the clinic is quiet:
If you have a choice over when to euthanize your pet (i.e. it is not an emergency humane euthanasia), book a time when the veterinary clinic is likely to be at its most quiet and with fewest other clients around. This will ensure your privacy from other people during your time of grief and will also allow your vet to proceed slowly and guide you carefully through the procedure (i.e. the vet won’t be trying to carry out the euthanasia procedure as fast as possible because he has another five people waiting to see him or other vets needing the consult room you and your pet are in). Ask your vet clinic when a quiet period is most likely: they should have the best idea of when they are expected to be quieter.
- Book a half-hour time slot with your vet:
When booking a time for the euthanasia to be done, it is recommended that at least thirty minutes be set aside for the procedure. Thirty minutes will give you time to fill out forms, discuss matters with the vet (what to expect etc.), discuss funeral arrangements for your pet with the vet, take a moment to say goodbye to your pet before and after the procedure and so on.
- Take the day off:
A pet euthanasia is not something you generally do in the lunch break before going back to work. You need time to grieve and come to terms with your loss. Take the day off or schedule the euthanasia for a day that you are normally not working. If you have a job that gives you the weekend off, book the euthanasia on the Saturday so that you have the Sunday to recover. If your vet clinic is not open on weekends (this is uncommon, but does occur), take a Friday off work to have the procedure done and this will allow you a Saturday and Sunday to grieve.
- Allow the vet to take your pet away and place an intravenous catheter prior to euthanasia:
As mentioned in the previous section (4i), an intravenous catheter (IV catheter) is a tube of sterile, inert plastic that sits in the pet’s vein (usually a leg vein) and gives the vet direct access to the animal’s blood stream. It is far nicer (less painful, with less likelihood of the drug going outside of the intended vein should the animal struggle a little) for an animal to be given the euthanasia solution through a pre-placed IV catheter than it is for it to be held down by a vet and nurse, in the presence of a distressed owner, while a needle is inserted into its leg. Placing a catheter does require a needle-stick too, but this often occurs well before the euthanasia solution is given (allowing the animal to settle again) and it is often performed out of the presence of the owner (the owner doesn’t have to watch a needle being given, which is less traumatic for the owner, and the animal is often more relaxed and better able to cope with a needle when it is away from the owner because most pets can pick up on their owner’s distress and sadness and will often react to this in a negative way).
- Allow the vet to give your pet a sedative prior to administering the euthanasia solution:
A sedated pet is less likely to experience any sensations of discomfort or anxiety than a fully awake, excited pet is and will pass away more calmly.
- Pay before you have the procedure performed or get the vet to send an account:
The last thing on your mind will be paying the account for the procedure. You will be upset and emotional and the last thing you’ll want to do is stand at a reception desk while paperwork and billing is being finalized. Paying the vet clinic prior to the euthanasia procedure being performed is often preferred by owners because it means that they can just walk out the door afterwards. Some people even choose to pay for the procedure several days beforehand so that their pet is their absolute and only focus on the day. Alternatively, some vets will let good clients have accounts and you may be able to arrange to pay the account later on when it is not so raw.
- Ask to leave the veterinary clinic by a back door:
Most clinics have an alternative exit to the car park that does not pass through a waiting room full of clients. Most clinics are happy to help you leave by an alternative exit, particularly if you are carrying a pet’s body with you, so that you do not have to pass through a room full of strangers.
- Having a pet euthanized in the car is an option:
Owners often find it very distressing trying to move large, painful dogs into the vet clinic for euthanasia (e.g. old dogs with cancer, arthritic dogs, animals that can’t walk and so on). Many vets are willing to put non-aggressive pets down in the car so that they do not have to be moved into the clinic whilst still in pain.
- Having a pet put down in the home (home pet euthanasia) is an option:
Some vets will do house-calls, allowing a pet to be put down in the comfort and stress-free environment of its own home. There are also mobile vets around whose role it is to visit pets in people’s homes.
- Think about what you want to do with your pet’s body prior to scheduling the euthanasia.
Although vet clinics can usually store a pet’s body while the owner is deciding what to do with it, it is usually better for all if the owner has an idea on the day of what s/he would like to do with the animal’s body. Knowing beforehand if you want a pet buried, cremated and so on will save you having to make that decision afterwards while you are going through the grieving process. Your vet can help you with options or you can seek out the help from a Licensed Pet Passages® Affiliate.
Please note: The aforementioned euthanasia information is general advice only. The decision to put euthanize a pet is a very private, individual process that each owner must go through and decide upon on his or her own. Opinions about this process; how it should be done; when it should be done and even if it should be done vary with an individual’s past experiences, religious beliefs and emotional capacity for the idea.