Euthanizing your companion animal: Be present. Or not?

Euthanizing your companion animal: Be present. Or not?

The decision to accompany your pet until his or her last breath is a difficult and heartbreaking one to make. It’s also a personal choice.

September 24, 2019 By Louise Dugas

All veterinary health professionals agree that deciding to euthanize your companion animal is one of the toughest decisions you can make. “Very few animals die of natural causes. These days we predominantly see geriatric diseases, such as kidney and liver problems, and cancers. As quality of life declines, most patients will be euthanized,” says Dr Jim Berry, a veterinarian at the Douglas Animal Hospital in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

According to Dr Berry when euthanasia is carried out properly it doesn’t make the animal anxious. “The human-animal bond is very important at my clinic. When I euthanize in a calm and quiet room, in the owner’s presence, there is no difference to the animal between euthanasia and getting a vaccine or having blood drawn.”

A heartbreaking decision

Appreciating this fact doesn’t make the decision to euthanize your companion animal any easier. When we decide that the end for ours has arrived, “people feel terribly guilty,” says France Carlos, a Montreal-based psychotherapist and author of a book about mourning the death of a pet. “And it can be even more traumatic because people are afraid of making a mistake.” A person might wonder if their animal still has happy days ahead. Or if they’ve prolonged their pet’s suffering by waiting too long. These questions can be discussed with your veterinarian, whose expertise and experience will help guide your decision-making process. However, this may not help answer our inner voice asking whether we have the strength to be present until our pet’s last breath.

Many people question whether they have the strength to accompany their beloved cat or dog to the pearly gates. In an American study published in 2014, 63% of pet owners stayed beside their pet until the very end. In the United Kingdom, it was 88%, which, according to veterinarians we spoke to, is a fair reflection of the reality in Canada. Several factors help explain this high percentage, notably the fact that companion animals are now considered a part of the family, that procedures for euthanasia have evolved and that veterinarians openly discuss the procedure with their clients.

According to Dr Susan Dailley, who runs a mobile veterinary clinic in Guelph, Ontario, mourning the death of a companion animal is now more socially acceptable. “I think it is quite likely that more pet owners stay with their pets through the euthanasia appointment than they did 10 or 20 years ago. This trend could be due to many factors including a change in the human-animal bond, social pressure, improved vet communication skills, improved euthanasia protocols and techniques, better access to grief counselling for pet loss and less stigma on emotional responses to pet loss,” she says.

In other words, until recently, pet owners left their veterinarians to administer the injection while they rushed to their cars to cry. These days, the pain and anguish associated with the death of a pet are better understood and a vast majority of veterinary clinics are careful to support their human as well their animal clients.

Controversy

Last September, a veterinarian sparked controversy with a shock declaration on Facebook. He asserted that pet owners who decide not to be present during the euthanasia of their pet should be ashamed of themselves because their pets die with a feeling of abandonment.

“For me, this feels like anthropomorphism,” responds France Carlos. “The person who made that declaration is so scared of dying alone that he’s projected his fears onto animals.”

“Euthanasia, in itself, is a very compassionate and selfless decision when it is done to remove or prevent suffering. Some people may not be emotionally equipped to handle situations like this and that’s where veterinarians and their staff, who have been trained in end-of-life care, can be of support to both pet owners and pets. When pet owners choose not to stay with their pets during a euthanasia, vets and vet staff do their best to ensure that pets do not feel alone or abandoned,” adds Dr Susan Dailley.

At peace

Nevertheless, the procedure frequently goes more smoothly when the pet owner is present, say veterinarians we interviewed, because the animal is more trustful. Except when a pet owner is especially distressed. “In these cases, it doesn’t help the animal and it’s a good idea to postpone the appointment or not to be present,” says Dr Dominick Rathwell-Deault, whose PhD dissertation focused on convenience euthanasia.

One thing is certain, being present until the end of the euthanasia procedure can help the grieving process says Dr Elizabeth Sinclair-Kruth, a veterinarian and psychotherapist in Guelph, Ontario. “Being there at the end helps give people a sense of closure and an opportunity to say their final goodbyes. Also, the relationship and conversation they have with the vet and staff during and after the euthanasia may help them find peace with their loss.”

“I sometimes tell people who are preparing their final moments with their animal: you don’t have to stay for the injection, but once he’s passed away, go and see him,” says France Carlos. “You’ll see that he’s calm and peaceful and when you get home you won’t look for him around the house. You’ll be able to begin the mourning process.”





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