What you need to know about end of life care
The animals in our life bring us incomparable companionship. Whether a cat, dog, horse, or any other beloved pet, humans have developed incredible bonds with our non-human counterparts. An unfortunate downside to this blessing is the inevitable goodbye that comes when our dear friends' lifespans are far shorter than our own.
What is "Euthanasia"?
The word 'euthanasia' comes from the Greek term meaning "good death". It is difficult to associate the word 'good' with death, but as veterinarians, we see a clear distinction between gentle endings and prolonged or undue suffering. While there is nothing gleeful about saying goodbye to our furry (and scaled) friends, we can provide them with an exit from this world that is timely, painless, and peaceful. Veterinary medicine provides us with the ability - and duty - to provide our companions with this compassionate exit.
There is a common misperception that death is the definitive worst outcome. Psychologically, physically, and ethically speaking, this is not true. Prolonged suffering is far more cruel to inflict on animals and on ourselves than to bring a humane end to a low quality life. Medicine - both human and veterinary - has advanced to unthinkable levels, and what seemed impossible yesterday is becoming more common today. While these advancements are incredible, it is important to remember that every individual's situation is different. The best treatment options for one person or animal do not necessarily translate to another. That is, just because science "can" doesn't mean we "should".
Quality vs. Quantity
Animals are far stronger than humans give them credit for. They will walk on broken legs, eat with rotten mouths, and carry on with gaping wounds, fooling many into thinking they are not ill or injured. Unfortunately, this often results in owners mistakenly thinking their pet is not in pain or discomfort. The presence of the most basic bodily functions - breathing, pulse, food intake - is not on its own sufficient in determining quality of life.
Most veterinarians will tell you they believe in 'quality over quantity'. The number of years your pet lives is far less important than the quality of those years. There are many questions to ask ourselves when evaluating our animal's quality of life. Can he still play his favourite game? Can she get up the stairs without difficulty? Do I need to carry her outside to go to the bathroom? Is he showing interest in his surroundings?
The HHHHHMM Scale is a clinic tool that owners can use to more objectively assess their pet's quality of life. Using this scale over time can help monitor subtle changes in animals whose owner may be struggling with end-of-life decisions. The scale can be accessed through the following link:
What happens when I euthanize my pet?
Every situation is unique, but the general steps of euthanasia involve:
1) Sedation - Your pet is given an injection in the muscle that helps facilitate relaxation. The medications used do not 'knock out' the animal, but reduce anxiety and fear that may be associated with the procedure.
2) Catheterization - Once the sedation has taken effect and your pet is calm and comfortable, an IV catheter is placed, typically in a leg. This catheter gives the veterinarian direct access to the blood without any further needles being stuck, and an attached line allows the vet to stay somewhat back from the animal so that you, the owner, can be close while you say goodbye.
3) Discussion and any questions - The veterinarian will briefly explain the final steps of the procedure with those present, and address any questions or concerns you may have.
4) Injection - the medications for euthanasia are given through the placed catheter. These medications do not cause any pain, but slow the central body systems until the brain and heart are no longer functioning.
5) Confirmation of death - After a few minutes, the veterinarian will confirm that the animal has peacefully passed by assessing the major vital signs.
6) Aftercare - Owners may choose to bury their beloved pet at home (pending local bylaws), or they may elect for cremation. Cremation options include communal (the animal is cremated with other beloved pets, and no ashes are returned) or private (the animal is privately cremated and the ashes are returned to the owner). There are several memorial product options as well, including clay paw prints, urns, jewelry, and more.
You are not alone
If you are worried about your animal's quality of life or have questions for your veterinary team regarding euthanasia, please do not hesitate to reach out. We are here to support you, address your concerns, and assist in making a difficult process as peaceful as possible.
Written by Dr. Carleigh Cathcart