Adrienne is a dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several specialized courses on hospice care for dogs.
How Do You Know When a Dog's Life Is Over?
It may just feel like days ago when your best friend was just a puppy romping around, and now you wake up to find a white muzzled friend, with a touch of arthritis but still happy to see you around. It is a very sad fact to acknowledge this, but our furry friends are very short-lived compared to our own life span. Indeed, humans are capable of outliving a lot of pets, but when each pet gets old it almost feels like an unacceptable fact that somehow always feels to come all too soon.
Many pet owners indeed have a hard time accepting the fact that their beloved pets will cross the rainbow bridge soon. What really makes it worse is that dogs—unlike humans—are unable to use words to express what is going on mentally, physically, and spiritually, leaving their owners with the heavy load of deciding for them.
It would all be much easier if dogs could simply drift into a better life in sleep, but unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is up to the owner, therefore, to decide if and when that much-dreaded appointment should be scheduled.
Who Decides When a Dog's Life Is Over?
Many times dog owners cannot make up their minds and therefore decide to ask the vet or the vet staff. Unless the dog is visibly in distress or pain, this is a difficult question that ultimately can be answered only by the owner that only knows the pet best. Generally, the best guideline is to carefully observe the dog's quality of life from a neutral, yet compassionate standpoint.
- Is the dog still enjoying life?
- Are there more bad days than good?
- Is the dog able to walk?
- Is the dog still happy to eat?
- Is the dog crying from pain?
- Are the drugs prescribed working?
- Is there anything else that can be done to make life more enjoyable?
Generally, these questions help to make a decision that is in the dog's best interest.
Some dogs express their will to go on their own. Attentive dog owners will notice the dog giving up on life. This can be a lack of that special spark in the eyes or an absence of a tail wag. It could be a lack of interest in the dog's favorite food or a sudden withdrawal from wanting to be pet.
When the time comes, it really hits owners hard. It is not unusual to cry on the phone when making the appointment, but the vet staff is used to it. If this is the first time a dog is put to sleep, this article will help understand what to expect and will provide accurate insight into what will happen.
Why Dogs Are Euthanized
Dogs can be euthanized for various reasons. Some may be obvious, others may be less obvious and hard to accept, even for veterinary personnel who often are faced to comply with the owner's wishes.
The most common causes of dog euthanasia:
- Old Age. This is the most common cause of euthanasia. Dogs nowadays lead longer and longer lives. It is not unusual to see nowadays dogs living up to 15-16 years old or more. These are often dogs that are no longer able to get up, that have lost their will to eat and that clearly are starting to ''give up." Owners, therefore, decide to give back their dog's unconditional love and provide the ultimate act of kindness even though it is the toughest decision a dog owner is faced with.
- Illness. Dogs that have been provided with veterinary care and that are no longer responding to medications (such as aggressive cancers) or dogs that are in distress from diseases that have no cure are often euthanized. These pets are in constant pain and euthanasia is the only way they may finally rest in peace, free from the pain and the anxiety that comes along.
- Aggression. In some cases, aggressive dogs that could not be rehabilitated or that have a serious unprovoked bite history are put to sleep because they are no longer controllable and are deemed to pose a danger to the public.
- Unwanted Dogs. There are also unfortunately less noble causes for dogs to be euthanized. Some of them are pets that are no longer wanted, pets the owner can no longer afford, pets that have behavior issues that can be fixed, pets whose owners, move, divorce, have a baby, etc.
What Is the Euthanasia Process Like?
Euthanasia (from the Greek language, meaning "good death") is the process of humanely putting an animal to sleep. This procedure is carried out by a licensed veterinarian commonly with the use of a chemical substance, a barbiturate solution, known as Sodium Pentobarbital. This solution is better known in the veterinary field with trade names such as Sleep Away, Fatal Plus or Euthasol, and it is typically colored a bright color such as turquoise, pink or a bluish-red color so not to be confused with other solutions.
The solution is injected intravenously, often using the vein in the leg. Usually, all the dog will feel is the needle prick. Inserting a catheter is an option that has many advantages versus injecting directly into the vein.
If the dog is in severe shock, however, its veins may not be accessible, and therefore the solution must be injected directly into the jugular vein, heart or liver. Because the solution is irritant to tissues when it is not inserted into a vein, it may be painful. This is why this is usually done under sedation.
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Because Sodium Pentobarbital produces an anesthetic effect, the pet drifts into a deep peaceful sleep, thus, the term "to put to sleep". Indeed, the euthanasia solution is basically an overdose of an anesthetic-like drug. The solution works quickly by first depressing the cerebral cortex, causing unconsciousness, followed then by respiratory and cardiac arrest within 30 seconds.
Dogs that are anxious in nature may benefit from a sedative given prior to the injection. This may delay the procedure, because it may take a few minutes to take effect. But it may help the pet relax often along with the owner.
Owners that wish to stay for the procedure must be aware of possible nerve reactions such as vocalizations, muscle twitches, urination, defecation and failure for the eyelids to close. In some cases, the dog may be seen taking a few last deep breaths (agonal gasps). The pet is unaware of all of these and does not feel pain, as these are simply nerve reactions that take place while the pet is unconscious. Such reactions are natural and occur regardless of the way the pet passes on.
The vet will confirm death by checking for a heartbeat. Once confirmed, the owner may be left alone with their pet to say a final goodbye. Afterward, the pet is placed in a plastic bag and frozen if it needs to be cremated or sent to a cemetery, or given to the owner if it will be buried at home (owners should check on local ordinances first).
The goal of euthanasia is therefore to produce a ''good death,'' emphasizing the fact that it must be pain-free and peaceful—basically, a death carried out with the highest respect for the animal.
Frequently Asked Questions About Dog Euthanasia
Here are a handful of commonly asked questions about the process of putting down your beloved dog.
Will my dog feel pain?
In most cases, the dog will only feel the needle prick. Dogs that appear to be in pain because of their medical condition or dogs that are anxious in nature, may benefit from a sedative before the euthanasia solution is administered.
How long does it take for the dog to die?
With the use of pentobarbital, dogs usually will succumb within 30 seconds after the injection. In some cases, it may take a bit longer for dogs that suffer from severe heart disease, because the heart may be unable to pump the solution effectively as a healthy heart may.
Can euthanasia be done at home?
There are more and more dog owners requesting euthanasia to take place in the home, and there are more and more vets (especially mobile vets) willing to accommodate them. Dogs may be more comfortable at home, or may be unable to climb out of a car, and dog owners like their dog's last memories to be spent at home.
Should I be there . . . or not?
Some dog owners may opt to stay for the euthanasia appointment, whereas others may decide to drop the dog off. This is ultimately your choice. There are pet owners that want to be there to say goodbye and hold the pet in their arms for the last time, and there are those dog owners that want to only keep vivid images of their pet alive.
Will my dog's eyes be open?
Because the solution working is quick-acting and is ultimately the same solution (in an overdose amount) used to put the dog under for surgery, the dog will most likely have its eyes open. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can ask your vet to close the eyelids and call you once the procedure is over.
What are my burial options?
You may ask for the body back so you can bury your dog at home (check your local ordinances first), you can have your dog cremated and get the ashes back, you can have your dog cremated and not get the ashes back (the ashes will usually be spread in a dog cemetery) or you can have your dog buried in a pet cemetery.
Reach Out for Support
A euthanasia appointment is the most dreaded appointment dog owners will make in their life and it never gets any easier. It is not unusual to cry over the phone when making such appointments and the veterinary staff truly understand. The home may feel quite empty afterward, and it may take a while to get used to the idea of living without a much-cherished canine companion.
There are ample resources for dog owners having a difficult time, from books to online forums. If you are considering euthanasia for your beloved dog or if you just had a pet put to sleep, rest assured you are not alone. Reach out to your family and friends for support, and try your best to cherish all the best memories.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is Euthosol administered orally?
Answer: Euthosol is a euthanasia product for dogs containing pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium as the active ingredients. It is only administered intravenously.
Richard Lindsay from California on March 29, 2016:
This is a very good post, I have had a lot of animals in my lifetime. This post is well written and explains things really well.
Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on May 11, 2011:
Thank you for a very detailed and thoughtful article. I want to comment on this part where you've said: "Because the solution is irritant to tissues when it is not inserted into a vein, it may be painful. This is why this is usually done under sedation." This is disturbing due to a very negative posting on the local craigslist regarding the local humane society's practices. It is said they do not use a sedative. But I do see that you have clarified that as long as the solution goes into a vein, it is not painful for the animal.
Peter Owen from West Hempstead, NY on May 09, 2011:
very good description. This was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I elected to stay in the room but I wish I hadn't.
GetSmart on May 09, 2011:
What a very helpful article for a very difficult decision we will all have to face as pet parents. Thank you for all of this information.
Kathy from The beautiful Napa Valley, California on May 06, 2011:
Alexadry, thank you for a very matter of fact and reasoned approach to information about pet euthanasia. Never an easy decision to make; your hub helps us understand why, when, how, if and all the other questions which come to mind and heart at a time such as this. I am very happy that you have shared this excellent hub with your excellent skills. I have had to say goodbye to many many of my companion animals (we do cat/dog rescue and have had tens of dozens throughout the years) and it is never easy, even when Veterinarian and we know there is no other choice. Of course, we hold our loved ones close, saying familiar and tender phrases they've learned to know and which make the animal feel secure, safe and comfortable...as comfortable as possible. This is, indeed, so difficult but, we, as guardians, must understand our role as "parent" to these dependents. Thank you so much..UP, Useful, Beautiful and Awesome.
laddriggers on May 05, 2011:
This is a wonderfully thought out post. It is so hard to have to say goodbye to a beloved pet.