Pet Euthanasia vs. Natural Death
Is It Time to Put My Pet to Sleep?
As your pet grows older or as an incurable and fatal disease progresses, 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 them 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 their condition and level of pain. Unless they pass on to a better life in their sleep or suddenly out of the blue, these decisions will need to be thought over carefully. Here are some important questions to ask yourself:
- Are they in any pain?
- Are they very fractious when at the vet's office?
- How do I deal with death? Do I have a hard time accepting it? What are my beliefs about it?
- Will I be able to handle seeing their health rapidly decline?
- Is their pain well under control?
- Is their condition no longer treatable or curable?
Dr. Babette Gladstein, a vet who practices integrative veterinary medicine in the greater New York area, says, "Many people really have to think hard about whether they are keeping the animal alive for themselves or for the animal."
In the United States, I have noticed many owners are often very quick to choose the euthanasia option. Many people 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 inevitably happens as we are all common mortals. All that matters is that the pet isn't in any major pain. But it's important to start thinking about what you will do when the time comes so you can have some plans in place.
The Process of Euthanizing a Pet
The good thing about euthanasia is that it is quick and for the most part painless. The pet is booked at the vet's office, and they reserve a special time slot 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 as busy. This is also a good time for cats, as there are likely no dogs around to add to the stress.
If you're debating whether it's time to make an appointment, it's important to determine your pet's quality of life. If they have congestive heart failure or untreatable cancer, it might be worth looking into euthanasia since you don't want them to suffer.
When you call your vet, you may be asked several questions such as what you plan to do with their body after they pass away. Options include communal cremation, private cremation, and burial. In a communal cremation, the body is cremated together with other pets, and the ashes are often spread in a pet cemetery. In private cremation, the body is cremated individually, and the ashes will be returned to you. For burial, their body will either be returned to you if you wish to bury them 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. Again, this is a personal choice. Some owners cannot bear the thought while others may want to be there for the 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 to abide by rabies law in many states.
What Happens the Day of the Procedure?
When the day comes, your vet may inject a sedative to make your pet more comfortable before injecting 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 their breathing and cause cardiac arrest. Many owners like to hold their animal throughout this short 10-to-20-second process.
Advantages of Euthanasia
The main advantage of euthanasia is that it's mostly pain-free and often peaceful. The only pain most animals feel is the prick of the injection. If they're in pain because of an underlying health problem, this will help them finally be free. Many people wish euthanasia was a legal option for humans because it could potentially be a blessing for the terminally ill. In the first euthanasia appointment I assisted with, the owner cried as he hugged his family and said, "It was so peaceful." I'll always remember these words.
Another advantage is that it is quick. I have seen countless pets in agony get the peace they deserved very quickly. Most pets lose consciousness within seconds, just like when you are given an anesthetic and asked to count backward.
Disadvantages of 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 a lot of pain. Also, some animals may not do well in the car. They may get panicky the moment they see their carrier, or they might get carsick. To help reduce this anxiety, you might want to bring a favorite blanket and toy to help them feel more comfortable in their last moments.
Another big problem is that some pets do terribly at the vet's office. Some cats are extremely fractious, and even though they are sick, they may get an adrenaline rush and fight being put in the carrier and being handled by the vet. Some owners can't bear thinking of their cat's last moments spent fighting at the vet.
Letting a Pet Die at Home
Natural death has always been around. This is what happened to animals before there were vet offices and anesthetics. The pet fell ill and eventually died in their home or yard. It doesn't necessarily mean an uncomfortable death; pets can now be prescribed painkillers to help them better cope with the pain in their final days.
When giving hospice care to your animal, you will see your pet's health decline and go through several stages. Your companion may not go through some of these stages if you euthanize your pet before they unfold. If you decide to let your dog or cat 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 animals tend to hide the pain. In cats, pain is a sign of weakness that 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.
Being aware of the most subtle signs of pain is important. 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, it's best to see a vet to make an assessment. Blood pressure measurements may be helpful indicators since blood pressure rises when an animal is in pain. Knowing your pet's normal pulse and respiration rate may help recognize pain at home—rapid breathing and pulse are both signs of pain. Anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs prescribed by a vet can help make them more comfortable.
As they near death, animals may refuse food and water at some point. This may be difficult to accept, but this is normal. The body no longer needs fuel as it shuts down. Yet, hydration may help them 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 includes symptoms such as anorexia, behavior changes, decreased urine production, different breathing patterns, and decreased alertness.
Everybody wishes their pet dies in their sleep. Unfortunately, this is not common. If you are considering having your cat or dog die naturally at home, you will need to keep in mind that you may have a sudden urge to put them out of their misery. It's best to have a vet's number always available if you decide to put them down. You also might want to call a close friend or family member when it seems like the end is near. They'll be able to help you take care of logistics and provide emotional support.
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 at the home may seem to be the best choice. Owners can create an area in familiar surroundings—a sanctuary—for the animal to be comfortable and in familiar surroundings. Some owners like to play music, 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.
- The owner doesn't have to wonder if they made the wrong decision by putting them to sleep too early.
Disadvantages of Natural Death
- If you decide to allow a natural death and then your pet suddenly starts suffering, you may regret your decision to not euthanize them. Nothing is worse than hoping for a peaceful death and then seeing them suffer and not being able to get a hold of a vet. Do your best to prevent this from happening.
- Dying is not pretty. In euthanasia, the pet seems to just drift into a deep sleep. Yes, they may still twitch, defecate and urinate, keep their eyes open, or even vocalize after dying, but these are reflexes the vet may make you aware of in advance. When an animal passes without medical intervention, the process of dying may take hours or days, and the owner may see labored breathing, anxiety, or seizures. Many find this hard to watch.
Determining If Your Cat or Dog Should Die at Home
- If they are struggling to breathe, it's probably best to put them to sleep. It's unfair to watch them gasp for air just so they can die at home.
- If the vet says they are in severe pain and there is no way to reduce it, it's time to say goodbye.
If your pet passes away during your vet's business hours, you can call them to let them know and ask for assistance depending on what you want to do next—maybe you want to have them cremated or buried. As difficult as it is to think about, you'll want to have a plan for what to do with your dog or cat's body after they have passed.
How Do I Know If My Dog or Cat Is Dying?
Regardless of if you choose to euthanize your pet or let them die at home, it's important to recognize the signs that they are dying so you can prepare and keep them as comfortable as possible. However, it's important to note that there is no standard timeline—each animal's dying process will be different.
- Respiratory problems: It's likely that as your dog or cat nears the end of their life, their breathing will slow down and become shallow. A dog's heart rate will drop from its normal 100 to 130 beats per minute to as low as 60 to 80 beats per minute, with a very weak pulse. A healthy cat's heart rate is between 140 and 220 beats per minute. A sick or weak cat's heart rate may drop to a fraction of the normal rate, indicating death could be near. Both types of animals may also hide in a dark corner in the house to try and seek comfort.
- Digestive issues: They will no longer show a desire to eat or drink anymore due to their organs shutting down. You may notice a sticky or dry mouth due to dehydration. A dog may also vomit bile (but this is not necessarily a sign that they are dying—it's worth taking them to the vet if they have been vomiting for a few days).
- Muscle loss: You may notice muscle twitching or spasms due to loss of glucose or a drop in body temperature. They may have trouble walking or lose coordination. They'll also lose muscle mass and become emaciated. However, it's important to note that loss of coordination may be due to something easily treatable, like an ear infection.
- More accidents: You might be surprised to find pee and poop around the house due to an uncontrollable bladder and anal sphincter control. Don't discipline your pet; they can't control it, no matter how well trained they are.
- Deteriorating skin: Their skin may be dry and not as elastic—meaning it will not return quickly to its original shape when pinched.
If your dog or cat is slowing down but is still eating and responding to your commands, it's likely that these are just signs of old age and that they aren't in any pain. But you'll still want to keep an eye out for any of the above signs or for any changes. It may be time to take them to the vet to be put down or to start to prepare for death. The last thing you want is for your dog to be in pain.
How Can I Keep Them Comfortable?
- As mentioned above, create a safe space for them—somewhere that is quiet and warm. You might want to put some of their favorite toys near their bed or blanket. If you have kids, let them know that the dog or cat isn't feeling great and needs some alone time.
- Don't force them to eat or drink.
- Spend time with them and reassure them that it's going to be okay. Dogs can pick up on emotions, so you want to make sure your presence is calming.
- If you're dealing with more indoor accidents, you can place a pee pad near their bed or even have them wear a diaper if that's easier. You might also want to ask your vet for anti-diarrheal medication. If you have a cat, you can take them to the litter box every few hours to see if they have to go.
- Ask your vet for any pain management tips or options.
The Moment of Death
Here are some signs your pet will exhibit once they have passed away.
- Their body might slightly deflate as the air leaves their lungs.
- There is a release of bowel and bladder muscles.
- Their eyes will be open, but there will be no movement.
If your dog or cat no longer has a heartbeat and is no longer breathing and has been this way for 30 minutes, your pet has moved on.
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 you can 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 or holistic treatments. However, it is also true that vets know the pet's condition best and are extremely knowledgeable about which diseases are prone to cause a very painful ending.
Dr. Gladstein says, "If your animal is in pain, then it becomes much more of an immediate issue, and letting them die naturally is really cruel and unusual punishment. We're really privileged in the animal community to be able to euthanize [and relieve animals of suffering]."
She says that if you determine that their pain can't be mitigated by any mild pain relievers, then the decision should be made to let the animal go.
Eliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States, grappled with his decision to put his sickly dog, Bentley, down. He feels guilty that he put to death his companion of 13 years. "I would estimate that Bentley had the intellect of a very intelligent two-year-old human, which is quite intelligent indeed. But, had Bentley been a two-year-old human instead of a dog, euthanasia would not have been a legal option."
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 terminal illnesses wish there was a humane way out as there is for pets.
Ultimately, it's important to realize that end-of-life decisions for pets are not a one-size-fits-all affair. An important consideration to keep in mind is that you may have no control over when your pet will die, but you can at least think about how you want them to go. Consulting with your vet and inquiring about how you can make your pet more comfortable is recommended. You can also call the dedicated hotline the ASPCA has for those dealing with the difficult decision of euthanizing a pet. You'll be able to talk to someone about the grief process and whether or not euthanasia might be the most humane thing to do in your case. You can reach the hotline at 1-877-GRIEF-10.
Can I Euthanize My Pet at Home?
Fortunately, there are now options to euthanize your dog at home by having a vet travel to you. Some people look for ways to put their dog or cat to sleep without vet due to cost or lack of access, but this isn't a good idea since you could cause harm to yourself, put your pet in even more pain, or have difficulty picking out the right medication. You should always let a vet handle euthanization.
If you decide to let your pet pass away naturally, make sure you contact your vet in advance and arrange a plan should they suddenly deteriorate after hours. It's a good idea to have several emergency numbers to keep on hand should your vet not be available for some reason. There's nothing worse than watching your beloved companion take a turn for the worse and not being able to find a vet to come to your home to allow your them to rest in peace.
Regardless of if your pet dies at home or is put to sleep, you're going to need time to grieve over the passing of your furry companion. You might be filled with guilt for euthanizing them or you might worry that they suffered in their final moments. The loneliness in the house is too much to bear. Be kind with yourself. Remember that there's no timeline when it comes to grief.
Natural death or euthanasia: What's best for our beloved pets?
Questions & Answers
My dog is dying. Is it okay to let him die naturally?
It's a personal choice. I would suggest consulting with a vet to make sure your dog is comfortable. There are vets now who specialize in hospice or geriatric care and can come to your home and discuss quality of life and help keep your dog comfortable.Helpful 2
My dog is suffering from liver failure. There is nothing they can do. Should I put him down, so he doesn't suffer?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Euthanasia of a pet is a personal decision. Your vet may be the best person to ask. Another option may be to get a second opinion from a different vet.
I have known some dogs with severe liver failure live for weeks and even several months. There are several types of liver failure and not all necessarily have a grim prognosis. It may be insightful determining what exactly is going on.
If finances permit, sometimes pursuing advanced diagnostics can help make a decision. Sometimes this may require advanced imaging such as an ultrasound and/or referral to a specialty practice with 24-hour critical care available.
If things look grim, there are little chances for recovery, and quality of life is poor, then euthanasia is the ultimate gift of love a dog owner can make. Hope this helps. So sorry your dog is going through this.Helpful 1
© 2013 Adrienne Janet Farricelli