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Pet Euthanasia vs. Natural Death

Updated on July 26, 2015
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Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of dog books.


Euthanasia or Natural Death: Making the Big Choice

As your pet grows older or advances in the progression of a deadly disease, you may start thinking about those dreaded final days. Will you have your dog or cat put to sleep at the vet's office or will you let him die at home? These are big decisions, and despite what people may tell you, it's also a personal choice based on your pet's personality, your personal beliefs and your pet's condition and level of pain. Unless your pet passes on to a better life in his sleep or suddenly out of the blue, these decisions will need to be thought over carefully. Important questions to ask yourself are: is my pet in any pain? is he very fractious when at the vet's office? how do I deal with death? Will I be able to bare watching my pet stop moving, and refusing food and water? what are my beliefs on death? Do I have a hard time accepting death? Is my pet's pain well under control?

In the United States, I have noticed many pet owners are often very quick to choose the euthanasia option. Indeed, many pet owners think this is the only choice or they may feel that allowing a pet to die at home is unacceptable. In other countries, pets often die at home, either because there is simply no other choice or they perceive death differently. This article will tackle both views. There is really no right or wrong way to die, it just inevitably happens as we are all common mortals. All that matters is that the pet isn't in any major pain.


About Pet Euthanasia

The good thing about pet euthanasia is that it is quick and for the most part painless. The pet is booked at the vet's office which reserves special time slots specifically for this procedure. More often than not, the appointment is either early in the morning or late in the evening when the hospital is quieter and the vets aren't busy as during normal business hours. This is also a good time for cats, as there are likely no dogs around to add up to the stress.

When you call for your appointment, you may be asked several questions such as what you will want to do with your beloved pet's body. Options include communal cremation, private cremation and burial. In communal cremation, your pet's body is cremated together with other pets and the ashes are often spread in a pet cemetery. In private cremation, your pet is cremated individually, and the ashes will be returned to you. For burial, your pet's body will be returned to you if you wish to bury in your yard (check your local ordinances for this) or it may be given to a company that runs a pet cemetery.

Other questions you may be asked is if you want to be present for the procedure. This again, is a personal choice. Some owners cannot bare the thought, others may want to be with their pet for their last moments. And last but not least, even though it sounds inappropriate, the staff may ask you if your pet has bitten or scratched anyone in the past days. Don't get offended by this question, as this is asked so to abide to rabies's law in many states.

If you are debating if it's time for your pet, you may find this article helpful on "Determining dog quality of life" This article has a helpful link to the HHHHHMM scale crafted by a veterinarian. When the day comes, your vet may inject a sedative to make your pet more comfortable and then he will finally inject a dose of brightly colored pentobarbital, a liquid barbiturate often used for anesthesia. In this case though, it will be an overdose amount, and because the barbiturate depresses the central nervous system, the dog or cat drifts into an anesthesia- like sleep, that will ultimately halt the pet's breathing and cause cardiac arrest--thus the terminology to put a "pet to sleep" For more details about the euthanasia appointment read "what happens when your pet is put to sleep"

Advantages of Pet Euthanasia

The main advantage of pet euthanasia is that it's mostly pain free and often peaceful. The only pain most pets feel is the prick of the injection. If your pet is in pain because of his underlying health problem, he will finally be pain free. Many people wished euthanasia was a legal option for humans because it frees from pain and can be a blessing for the terminally ill. The first euthanasia appointment I assisted had the owner crying and as he hugged his family, he remarked while sobbing "it was so peaceful" Those words have never left my mind as they felt very relieving.

Another advantage is that it is quick. I had seen countless pets in agony, finally get the peace they deserved very quickly. Most pets lose consciousness within seconds, just as when you are given an anesthetic and asked to count backwards.

Disadvantages of Pet Euthanasia

A big disadvantage is that you will have to drive to your vet's office. This can be a problem if your pet has mobility problems or is in lots of pain when you touch him. Also, some pets may not do well in the car. Some cats get panicky the moment they see their carrier, others may get carsick.

Another big problem is that some pets do terribly at the vet's office. Some cats are extremely fractious, and even though sick, may get an adrenaline rush and fight being put in the carrier and being handled by the vet. Some owners couldn't bear thinking of their cat's last moments spent fighting at the vet. Many wish their cats can peacefully die at home.

dog natural death versus euthanasia
dog natural death versus euthanasia

About Natural Death

Natural death has always been around. This was what happened to animals before there were vet offices and anesthetics. The pet fell ill and eventually died in his home or yard. Natural death is common in humans since euthanasia is not an option. Natural death doesn't necessarily mean an uncomfortable death; pets now can also be prescribed pain killers to help them better cope with the pain in their final days.

During natural death, you will see your pet's health decline and reach several stages. Some of these stages your pet may not go through if you elect for euthanasia prior to when they unfold. If you decide to let your dog die at home, you will need to learn how to recognize pain and must acknowledge and accept all the events as they unfold.

Pain management is crucial if you want your pet to die at home. The problem with pain though is that often cats and dogs tend to hide pain. In cats, pain is a sign of weakness which could make them vulnerable to prey. They therefore prefer to hide rather than manifest it. Dogs are often stoic and will not necessarily manifest pain in obvious ways.

Investigators at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine once observed dogs after a routine spay surgery. As they monitored the dogs, the researchers noticed how when they interacted with the dogs, they would hide their pain by greeting and wagging their tails. When the researchers left, they soon where back to being restless and in discomfort. This suggests that when around their favorite humans, their affection and enthusiasm may mask their pain.

Observing for the most subtle signs of pain is important if you chose natural death. Pets don't have to vocalize to be in pain; they may show pain through acting lethargic, losing their appetite, exhibiting behavioral changes and hiding or moving around less. When in doubt, best to see a vet to make an assessment. Blood pressure measurements done by the vet may be helpful indicators as blood pressure rises when a pet is in pain. Learning about the pet's normal pulse and respiration rate may help recognize pain at home. Rapid breathing and a rapid pulse are all signs of pain. Anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesic drugs prescribed by a vet today can help make a pet more comfortable.

As the pet nears death, he may refuse food and water at some point. This may be difficult to accept, since as pet owners, we were always used to nourish and nurture. Yet, this is a normal stage of death. The body no longer needs fuel as it shuts down. Yet, hydrating the pet may help him be more comfortable. Your vet can teach you how to give sub-q fluids; however, in some conditions, such as edema, fluids may make the condition worse and cause breathing difficulties. Consult with your vet.

Hospice care for pets is a new trend. Some offer this care until the very end, others endure in it until they feel the need to use euthanasia. The end of life stage include symptoms such as anorexia, behavior changes, decreased urine production, different breathing patterns, decreased alertness. In this reverse transition period, where the body starts shutting down, we need to no longer focus on quality of life, but quality of death, claims Dr. Wynn.

Everybody wishes a pet to die peacefully, perhaps in his sleep. Unfortunately, this is not common. If you are considering having your pet die naturally at home, you will need to keep in mind that there may be a chance you may have at some point the urgent need to have the pet put out of its misery. Always best to have a vet's number always available for sudden changes if the pet's condition takes a turn for the worst.

Advantages of Natural Death

The pet gets to die in a natural environment. Cats often hate to be taken out of their environment so dying in the home may seem to be the best choice. Owners can create an area, a sanctuary, for the pet to feel comfortable and in familiar surroundings. Some owners like to play some music to their pets, or they may take their pet to a special area in the garden to say their goodbyes. The pet is spared from the stress of seeing the vet or going on a dreaded car ride.

Another advantage is the owner has less chances for regrets of putting the pet down too early. The owner doesn't go through the pressure from a vet advocating euthanasia. There are less chances for the owner feeling guilty for forcing the events of nature.

Disadvantages of Natural Death

The worst disadvantage is regretting not performing euthanasia. If you decide to allow a natural death and then your pet suddenly starts suffering, you may regret your choice. Nothing is worse than hoping for a peaceful death and then seeing the pet suffer and not being able to get a hold of a vet. Do your best to prevent this from happening.

Another disadvantage is that dying is not pretty. In euthanasia, the pet is put to sleep with an overdose of pentobarbital. The pet seems to just drift into a deep sleep. Yes, the pet may still twitch, defecate and urinate, his eyes may be open, and at times, he may even vocalize after dying, but these are reflexes the vet may make you aware of in advance. When a pet goes through natural death, the process of dying may take hours or days, and the owner may see labored breathing, the pet may vocalize, appear anxious or undergo seizures before dying. Many find this hard to watch.

Cat/Dog Natural Death versus Euthanasia: A Controversial Subject

The topic remains subject to controversy. We will now be looking at both sides and using some references to gather different views so to make an informed decision. Veterinarians, of course, will recommend euthanasia, because that's what they are used to doing and some may not be familiar with hospice care, just as others may not be familiar with holistic treatments. However, it is also true that vets know the pet's condition best and now for a fact, that certain diseases are prone to cause a very painful ending compared to others.

Veterinarian Dr. Anna O'Brien for instance, notes that a pet that is alert, awake and aware is most likely to suffer both pain and fear, compared to a glassy-eyed pet that is distant, unresponsive to the environment and less aware. The latter is more likely to be a better candidate for at-home dying. A pet that is struggling to breath and gasping for air is a very scary experience and " is just about the cruelest thing I can imagine." she adds.

It all boils down to comfort, the level of pain and responsiveness. Pets that are not eating and drinking are not necessarily suffering, and inserting feeding tubes and catheters don't "make for a more humane and comfortable dying process." further adds Dr. Anna O'Brien.

The Animal Discovery website claims that "Keeping your cat alive and suffering because you cannot deal with his death isn't humane". This seems to suggest that euthanasia is the best way to deal with death. Patti Waltz makes a good point though, she claims " Isn't it more like, we euthanize our pets because we can’t deal with death? Does mainstream America turn a blind eye to the process of dying and death? And if so, maybe we should think about why."

A common question posted by people living in countries where pet euthanasia is still uncommon is "would you put your elderly grandma to sleep?" However, it's also true that hospice care is much more advanced for humans and the ill are kept heavily medicated to not feel pain. At the same time though consider that many people who are suffering from non-treatable terminal illnesses wished there was a humane way out as euthanasia for pets.

Ultimately, it's important to realize that end-of-life decisions in pets are not a one-size-fits all affair. There are no standard procedures. An important consideration to keep in mind is that you may have no control over when your pet will die but at least how. Consulting with your vet and inquiring about how you can make your pet more comfortable is recommended.


What May be The Best Decision

So you are debating about having your pet undergoing euthanasia, but yet, you know how much you pet dreads being at the vet, the car ride and being put in the carrier. If so, you may be happy to learn that there may be an ultimate solution that may mediate your conflicts and put them to " rest. "

In this case, we are talking about having your pet put to sleep by a vet in the comfort of the home. For more on this read the hub "putting dog to sleep at home". Also, you may want to think in advance about what to do if your pet dies at home. The article "what to do if dog dies at home" may be also helpful. If you decide to go this route, make sure you contact your vet in advance and arrange a plan should your pet suddenly deteriorate during your vet's office after hours. It's a good idea to have several emergency phone numbers to keep on hand should your vet for some reason not be available. There's nothing worse than watching your pet take a turn for the worse and not being able to find a vet to come to your home to allow your pet to rest in peace.

Alexadry © all right reserved, do not copy.

" ..I thought of you today, but that is nothing new. I thought about you yesterday, and days before that too. I think of you in silence, I often speak your name. All I have are memories, and a picture in a frame. Your memory is a keepsake, from which i'll never part. God has you in heaven, I have you in my HEART."

Natural Death or Euthanasia? What's best for our beloved pets?

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    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Great hub. I've had the unfortunate experience of choosing to put a few of my pets to sleep and it has never been easy. It is a decision I'd rather leave to natural causes, but I can never stand to see a pet suffer. So, when I saw them suffering, I chose euthanasia. Like you said, it is a personal decision and one that isn't taken lightly. Great information for both those who have not been through it yet and for those who have.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 3 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      What a great hub. Many people will be fortunate enough to read it before making a decision. I have just had to part with my 16 yr old dog and we chose euthanasia as her quality of life had deteriorated so much. Although the vet was wonderful, Reassuring and comforting. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I don't think I could go through it again. Thanks for such a great hub that should help many people face that awful final decision.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      Unfortunately, that's the disadvantage of natural death; you never know how things may unfold, and if the pet may start suffering, you may not have a vet handy at the time of greatest need. I think too,

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      It is tough, every time we lost a pet we always said no more pets, but then for some reason we ended up with another one.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I know you've just been through this. So this hub is probably a good way to help put this difficult time into perspective. Glad you were able to do it.

      I've only had one parvo puppy who had to be put to sleep when I wasn't there (I regret it to this day). But our vet at the time was amazing and venturing into the hospice arena. Because of the quarantine, he even stayed with him overnight because we were just exhausted from round the clock home care. So I knew our little pup was handled with love and kindness even to the end.

      Otherwise, with every single one of my dogs, I've had to make that decision we don't ever want to make and been with them to the last moment. But it's odd. I've always had a sense of when it was right. It never got easier, but I always knew I was doing the right thing to end their suffering.

      I hope you're recovering from your recent losses. Take care!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      It's great you found an amazing vet willing to do all that and I am sure his care and kindness was helpful at such a hard time. Parvo is such a devastating disease! Yes, I am doing better, thanks for asking. As the days go by, it gets better. Thanks for stopping by!

    • dingyskipper profile image

      Carolyn 3 years ago from Northamptonshire

      Fantastic hub, I had two dogs one who died at home in his sleep, he was as you described, not crying, just lethargic and uninterested, the other we had put to sleep he was 18, had had two strokes he recovered from enough to still escape the garden, and could not really see, we he collapsed the third time we decided he had had enough. We have had similar experiences with pet rats too.

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      Gman 3 months ago

      I scheduled a tooth extraction today because of a cracked Canine tooth and we thought it was causing some discomfort and it was. But Vet called and said your 7 year old has a Mass on his Spleen. I almost pulled the plug on him after hearing this but seeing him today with his tail wagging and still plenty of spunk in him, not sure if I should pull the plug on one of the best dogs I have ever had, I have had a sick dog before and I knew when it was time, just unsure as I see little if any signs of suffering. Plan on using Meloxidyl to manages his pain and keep an eye on the signs, just think it's way to early to call it quits. When the dog loves walks and seeing other dogs and people.

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      Pat 7 weeks ago

      My female rat terrier will be 18 in April. This past winter has been tough on her and she seems disorientated and has trouble manipulating her back legs. She is in no pain and eats very well and drinks water. She has become incontinent and bowel movement is quick to happen. I have put many dogs cats and horses to sleep by euthanasia. I hate the fear of taking my dog to the vet because she is so afraid and knows where she's going and something always painful happens when she's at the vet. I'm really contemplating letting her die peacefully at home as long as she's still eating and drinking. She does not seem to be in any pain and a lot of times when I think I need to do this she Springs back and runs around like she's ten years old. Putting an animal to sleep is not something you want to make an appointment for. If I decide to have her euthanized I want to be able to make a call and say I'm bringing her in. Do most vets try to help you with this decision. It hurts me to make an appointment a day or two out and then she has her outbursts of feeling so good. Please someone give me advice as I have always euthanized my pets that were ill and this one I just feel she needs to be at home to go peacefully.

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