On Euthanasia: What to Expect

Previously in this series on euthanasia, we’ve discussed making the decision and scheduling an appointment to euthanize your dog. Today I’d like to discuss the procedure itself. Knowing what to expect may make it easier for you to prepare yourself. I understand that this topic is very sensitive and may be upsetting to some people, but strongly feel that knowledge is power. It can be very comforting to have a solid understanding of what will happen and what your dog will feel during his or her final moments.

Photo by Kelvin Andow

Photo by Kelvin Andow

When your vet euthanizes your dog, they will inject an overdose of a powerful sedative directly into your dog’s vein. This drug will cause the nerves in your dog’s body to stop sending signals (including pain signals) and will slow your dog’s breathing and heart until they eventually stop. Many dogs take a final, deep breath as they pass away. Sometimes dogs will urinate or defecate when they are euthanized due to the total relaxation that happens. If this happens to your dog, it will do so when your dog is no longer aware of what is happening. Euthanasia does not hurt. Afterwards, your dog’s eyes may be open (although the vet can close them if you wish) and his tongue might hang out of his mouth. If your dog’s body is moved, he may appear to burp or sigh as air escapes the lungs.

In many cases, your veterinarian may choose to sedate your dog prior to euthanasia. You can ask your vet to do this if you think it will make the process easier for you or your dog. Sedatives can be given orally by mixing them with your dog’s favorite foods or can be administered via injection into your dog’s leg or back muscles. The sedatives given via injection are more powerful than oral sedatives and will provide more complete relaxation.

In Dobby’s case, we sought advice from his veterinary behaviorist on the best drugs to make the process as easy as possible. I wish that I could tell you that he went peacefully, but to be honest his euthanasia was very difficult. Most dogs who are old or sick pass on quite quietly, but in cases like Dobby where there is a behavioral component to the euthanasia, it is not uncommon for them to overcome all of the sedatives in their system.

Dobby was given a double dose of his anxiety medication, trazodone, the night before his appointment. Three hours before his appointment, he was given another very large dose of this drug – four times the amount he would usually take. In most cases, this would have made him too sleepy to walk, but Dobby was still walking around and carrying his ball when the vet arrived, even though he was quite sleepy. He growled and barked at the vet and was on high alert.

When he was given another sedative via injection into his leg (because he was responding too aggressively for the vet to have a clear shot at his vein), Dobby started to show a lot of seizure activity in the form of head swinging. He also became very sensitive to noises and startled every time I sniffled (not an uncommon side effect of his seizures). At that point he was no longer aware of what was going on around him, so the vet gently injected the euthanasia solution into his vein. I held him close and whispered how much I loved him, telling him he was a good dog and that he didn’t ever have to be scared again, until I felt his body relax. The vet listened to his heart with a stethoscope and confirmed that he was gone.

If you’re preparing to euthanize your dog, remember that you have options. Dobby’s response to the process was extreme, and most dogs do not respond that way. You can choose whether you’d like to be present during the actual euthanasia or not. I personally wanted to be there for Dobby because I knew that my presence would help him feel less afraid. However, if you do not feel like you can be there for your dog that is also okay. Consider talking to your vet about sedation and staying with your pet until he or she is sedated, then leaving the area during the euthanasia itself. You could also ask a friend or family member that your dog knows and likes to take your dog to their final appointment or to stay with your dog while you leave the room.

Again, this is a very personal topic, and everyone deals with death differently. Together, you and your vet can help to make your dog’s final moments as peaceful as possible. Remember that euthanasia does not hurt. In assisting with many euthanasias over my career, I’ve noticed that after a dog is gone there is often a beautiful expression of peace that settles over their face. The pain or stress they’ve been experiencing no longer hangs over them, and it’s those of us who are left behind who have to deal with grief.

If you’ve made this difficult decision, how did your dog’s final moments go? Did you or your vet choose to sedate your dog ahead of time? Please feel free to share your experiences below. I really appreciate the kind and supportive community of dog lovers that follow this blog. There’s a lot of healing going on in the comments after each of these posts, and it’s a wonderful salute to the dogs who’ve brought us here that so many of you have felt willing to share.

32 responses to “On Euthanasia: What to Expect

  1. “I’ve noticed that after a dog is gone there is often a beautiful expression of peace that settles over their face. The pain or stress they’ve been experiencing no longer hangs over them, and it’s those of us who are left behind who have to deal with grief.”
    Having been in the world of dogs for many years (breeding, showing and now proudly rescue) I’ve had to make this decision numerous times. The anticipation of knowing what has to be done and then going forward to do what’s right for the animal is far worse than the actual act itself.
    With the exception of 2 rescued terrier crosses, the actual passing was very peaceful and smooth. And yes, there was an expression of calm and peace on the face of the dog.
    I choose to be there and hold my “kids” and tell them how much I love them.

    • I can’t tell you how much these blogs have helped me move forward. I had to put my 4 year old rescue down in July and still agonize weekly with haunting memories as my vet never prepared me for what happened. There was no peace. It was horror for 30 minutes as my fear aggressive dog seized and drooled and seemed in agony while the drug had no effect. Only now do I realize that not all goodbyes are peaceful. I’ll never forget what I witnessed and hope in time to forgive the hand I played in this end. I do know that my vet should’ve prepared me for the possibility of this scenario. I may have opted to start with euthanasia without the futile sleeping medicine or had more support with me that day. Certainly, I would’ve at least had transparency. As it is, I made the choice I had to make but can’t erase what I witnessed. I will change vets as I have lost trust in her practice. As a lawyer I know that every client must hear all possibilities and then prepare to accept a recommendation. I had no idea this would be so grueling. Thank you. Brutal honesty is better than terrible surprise.

  2. Thank you so, so much I have a 4 year old Lab x Beagle in his 5th week of a Lymphoma diagnosis. Things have gotten worse in the last few days, but he still has life in him yet. Your blogs on the topic are very helpful. This is a huge thing for me, we have been on a particularly emotional journey together and he is the reason I am now a proud +R Mum, groomer and budding trainer Thank you…

  3. I appreciate you writing a post like this – I think it’s good for people to know the realities of the situation. Our vet sedated our dog and it also caused him to go into a seizure, which was rather heartbreaking for me, but once he finally settled down and I held him he seemed okay. He was obviously very uncomfortable after the initial sedation which I feel badly for. I will say, something to add – the euthanasia is likely going to be harder on you than the dog. I remember the moment I felt him take his last breath, and I suddenly felt all the air go out of me, almost fainted, and had to be rushed to the restroom where I threw up. I didn’t expect that at all, it was a sudden, crushing feeling, like the culmination of all the sadness of the weeks before hitting me instantly. We are getting close to the point where we will have to euthanize our elderly JRT who has cancer, and I am glad I know a little more going into it this time. With her, I think it will be different, as she is not young and active like our old dog was, nor scared of the vet at all.

    • I’m sorry you had this experience. I’ve had it twice now, and it is horrible. Both times, the first sedative was the reason. Unless you have personally used that sedative on your dog before, I would tell the vet that only one shot should be used. Tell them – don’t ask (need to to have this conversation when you make the appointment). If you have an agitated dog, find a solution to this before hand (essential oils, benedryl, known sedative, etc), or find a vet with some real handling skills. They go more abruptly with the one shot, but it is so much better than the ‘bad reaction’. Heart wrenching

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It is very important to know that there are options and it does not have to be such a cold, impersonal experience as many of us had to experience. Each of us are different as to how we handle these situations, but at least choices now exist.

  5. My 13 1/2 year old was put to sleep due to osteosarcoma in February. I fed her treats while the vet put the medication in and she was eating them until the last one dropped out of her mouth and she was gone. I will always remember that treat falling out of her mouth. It’s hard to be present when they do it, but I always feel I owe it to my dogs to be there.

  6. The vet gave my Ted E. a sedative also before he administered the actual medicine. Once he administered the medicine, he left the room so I could be alone with Ted. When he came back (I’m not sure how much later), Ted E. still hadn’t passed and he had to administer more. It was very stressful.

  7. The last time I had to euthanize a dog it required multiple tries to get a vein as she was 14 years old and had just suffered a stroke. Even with that, she passed smoothly as I feel she was very ready to go.

  8. I remeber when we put down Timber the first at 6 months old. she went very peacefully. I was holding her head whe she went and she just totally relaxed in my arms. was a very sad time but the right decision for her so her suffering was done.

  9. Love your post.
    I just put my twelve-year-old dog to sleep this summer. I’m a vet myself so I got to do it in my front porch, holding her in my arms. It was really hard for me, but she could not live that way anymore. She had terminal cardiac problems. I miss her so much, but I could give her a peaceful death and avoid the suffering cardiac disease gives. Rest in peace, little Tosca.

  10. I appreciate your stressing that it’s your choice and there is no right or wrong way to go about things. I’ve always chosen to be with my dogs, and there have been several that needed to be helped along the way at the end of their journey. But I do understand those who are unable to bear witness after they’ve made such a difficult decision. It’s never easy.

  11. I have never had to do this but thank you for your sensitive and sensible article. As you say, information is power.

  12. Pingback: On Euthanasia: What Happens After | Paws Abilities

  13. I have had to put two dogs to sleep. Both were old and sickly. The first went very quietly and quickly after the sedative. The most recent one was very relaxed until he got the sedative and then picked up. He eventually laid back down and seemed very relaxed. When the vet administered the fatal dose he picked his head up and started to howl as if he was in pain. It was very disturbing. The vet was surprised, although I have had several friends tell me that they had a similar experience.

  14. Lexi, my Shih tzu that I rescued approximately 15 years ago is being euthanasiaed (please forgive my spelling, I am not able to think) tomorrow. I have rescued multiple dogs. She is the first one I rescued of the original 5 that I kept and the last one I have to go.
    I have had to do this before, however not one of my dogs that gave more unconditional love than any human I have ever met, is the same. I have different feelings each time I have had to do this. Each one is unique.
    I am scared. I am 43 years old on disability with a master’s degree. I, like many, never thought I would be on disability. It has been approximately 5 years on disability. I am finding diverse options and help and am going to get better and work again.
    However I am feeling very bad and guilty for what I have put my animals through. I couldn’t afford a place of my own and someone I thought was an honest friend had an extra room. So myself and dogs moved in. What I was not told/was not aware of, was there was toxic black mold in this place. I am deathly allergic to it and became very sick. The doctors didn’t learn how to treat this where I live and just kept misdiagnosing me, regardless of what I said. I grew up at the time when the doctors did the right things (many natural things) for the right reasons and they personally took the time to listen and know their patients. So I trusted these doctors too long. I had already had a kidney and adrenal gland removed, so I needed to be cautious at times. Well with all the prescriptions the doctors toxicified me so bad I believe I almost died from that, much less the toxic mold. So I lived in a hotel room for 3 months, paid for by the person who did not tell me this information. However I was too sick to even take care of my animals so they had to stay at that home. At that time I didn’t know how it could affect animals much less how much it affected humans. I also had everyone around me telling me it was not true. Just do a simple internet search and you will find out how badly it affects people and pets. Then this supposed friend bought a different home and said it was tested. Well this time I got so sick I got down to 71 pounds with many other side effects. Again, I believed I almost died. Started singing “Jesus Take the Wheel”, called my brother to say goodbye and saw three (I believe) specific things flash in front of my eyes about my life. A friend took me to the hospital. Of course their first thought was an eating disorder. Then they tried to tell me I was crazy or something along those lines. Then they said my vitals were fine (they would not even give me saline liquid) and to go home.
    Part of the divorced family came to get me, not happy and not supportive, to bring me back to my dad and step moms house. My step mom does not like dogs, so again I had to leave my dogs in this terrible situation. So how do I not feel bad or guilty?
    Still trying to get better. Have no family support or contact. Didn’t want to bring anyone down anymore because of my health, so the extrovert I am, stopped most communication. I am now staying with a friend and her husband. I do pay rent and help with what I can. I want to be self sufficient, off disability and working again. However, here I sit the night before I have to take my Lexi to the veterinarian, not knowing what to do.
    Sorry this was so long. Thanks for caring and prayers. Love Lexi and Tina.

  15. I believe this is a good topic which is why I searched for similar experiences. Although the euthanasia process may not be traumatic in some cases, it may not necessarily be “peaceful” either. I’ve had two dogs put down. Both were seniors. Before the first, I had never experienced euthanasia of a pet before and fortunately I did my homework beforehand. I understood it was a 2-injection process (sedative and then IV solution). Based on this information I was prepared to stay with the first dog for at least the sedative and take it from there. When the vet asked if I wanted to be present I stated that I did and asked “It’s 2 shots, right”? He said, “No, it’s just one shot and I want to let you know that due to his age there may be some struggling”. I then declined being present and helped my beloved pet into the vets arms to take him off to another room. I still hold a sense of guilt over not being there for him and swore I’d stay to the end when the time came for the other. That time came 5 years later in January 2014. I promised to stay with him until the end no matter how hard it would be. I truly feel we owe it to them but understand those that may choose not to be present (or an alternative like having time alone with the pet after the procedure). Upon arriving this time, the vet (different one but same office) also asked if I wanted to be present. Of course I said that I did and asked “It’s just one shot, right” (based on the prior experience). She said “No, it’s two”. This put my mind at ease because I knew the first was a sedative but at the same time I was confused why the difference in procedure from the last. I held this dog in my arms (he was small) giving him his favorite neck scratch and ear massage while the sedative was injected. He let out a small squeak which somewhat bothered me as he never reacted to injections before but no big deal. The vet left the room but not before me asking “This is immediate, right”? She said “No, it will take about 4-5 minutes”. My dog then began shaking which I thought was odd because he was never uncomfortable at the vet. I could tell he felt my chest tighten as I started to cry. He knew. I could feel his breathing getting very heavy but then it turned to more of a gasping (just my opinion). A dear friend was with me and advised his tongue was hanging out. I know he meant no harm but it didn’t help the situation. I was not looking at my dogs face as I was holding him very closely in my chest while scratching his neck. He was blind and deaf. He then urinated on me (not a problem – can be anticipated) but this labored breathing/gasping became more pronounced and I semi-panicked and stood up to go get that vet to administer the next shot as I felt he was suffering (again just my opinion but not just “going to sleep”). I then calmed and she returned. We placed him on the table and she shaved a part of his tiny leg for the IV. In less than a minute she confirmed there was no heartbeat. I did not want to look his face as I knew his poor, tired, clouded eyes could be open and I tried not to but could see it out of my peripheral vision along with his tongue hanging out. Along with many beautiful memories, this image remains of my beloved pal of 18 years.

    I know this might be detailed and maybe a bit graphic and am aware death is a part of life but my point is to discuss the procedure and options thoroughly with your vet beforehand even if a special appointment has to be made. I still believe euthanasia is the best option in many cases but it may not necessarily be “peaceful” depending on your definition. Knowing at the last minute that it was a 2-shot procedure this time, I may have opted not to be present for the second shot and requested his eyes be closed while we shared a few minutes alone. I still find comfort that I was with him until the end however.

    • Just under a year ago, my old dog was put to sleep. It was a very different experience from yours. The vet put an IV in her leg, gave her the sedative and then the drug to finish it. My dog never struggled. I was feeding her treats and the last one fell out of her mouth and she was gone.

      • I read about your experience or another one similar to it and I think that’s great. The dog I stayed with didn’t “struggle” but it wasn’t necessarily “peaceful” either. The other dog I was more or less warned there “could be” struggling. My point is to discuss this procedure thoroughly with your vet beforehand. What to expect from beginning to end, what procedure do they use (1 injection or 2?) so you can make the right choices for yourself and your pet. I thought I was somewhat experienced in this after the first one but they changed the game on me. I was just communicating with someone who got in an argument with the vets cremation vendor in the parking lot as she went inside to retrieve the ashes and this vendor was angry as she was waiting in the parking lot for her (?!). This kind of stuff is deplorable especially during the grieving process.

  16. Good evening,My husband and I had our Rottwiller Xena put to sleep today,she had metatases in her lungs she was diagnosed with a carcinoma 3 weeks ago,she was 11.We took the decision this morning after a restless night when Xena seemed to be choking and I couldn’t bear the idea of her suffocating and suffering. it was my first experience of euthanasia but not my husbands and he was traumatised by his previous experiences which he refuses to talk about.Today the vet injected 1 drug and she immediately went to sleep,she just folded onto her side,I was able to tell her I loved her and the nurse closed her eyes. I know it was inevitable and if it wasn’t today it was tomorrow or the day after but it is still very painful.

  17. I have had 8 Goldens since 1975 – 6 are sadly gone now. My advice? Establish a relationship with your vet. My vet comes to the house to euthanize. The last was 2 years ago. It was quiet and peaceful, The vet and I sat on the floor with my Golden Alice. Alice was injected with a sedative. We all relaxed and then the final injection was given. We all sat together for awhile, because my vet believes that the soul takes a bit of time to leave the body. When Alive breathed her last breath, I was close to her and inhaled. I believe that her last breath is still somehow within me and will never leave. Alice was my heart dog.

  18. I had a haunting experience this week regarding euthanizing. My wonderful Buster (Parson Jack Russell) a rescue babe was deterioting quickly with ESRD. We had to make the decision over the weekend. Our vet wasn’t available over the weekend, so we made an appointment on that Monday. We were invited in to the exam room and was told about the procedure. They said I could stay for the first (sedation) shot it will relax him and that I might not want to be around for the euthanizing shot because there might be urinating, defecation and spasms.
    As they administered the sedation shot. I was consoling my Buster, in a matter of seconds he whimpered and his body relaxed. I could see his eyes stop moving, then he let it go by urinating and releasing bloody stool. He had labored breathing (sounded like gasping or suffocating) and twitching. I felt he had left just then. The vet ran in and said he was in labor breathing. They nicely took him out of my arms and administered the euthanizing drug and checked for a heartbeat.
    I was so upset that I didn’t ask if he passed away in my arms when they administered the sedative. Is it typical for dogs to “fall asleep” I mean leave this earth on the sedative and have those reactions? I am haunted by the experience, yet I am happy he had me in his arms to console him and love on him when he had to leave.

  19. I just had to put down my 4 year old rescue mix for aggression this week. Literally one of the most difficult ” right” decisions I have ever made. I had heard the process was peaceful and quick. Well it was neither. Apparently when you are already an overly protective, scaredy, aggressive big dog it takes a lot to make you sleep. Smash fought for 25 minutes and two shots before sleeping. It was so dang awful watching her seize panic and drool with wild eyes. I fear I will never forget how hard she I fought to stay and protect me until the end. She even growled through her muzzle at the vet. I pray for peace and I know I saved her hurting someone but nothing about this right decision was happy. It is important to know that it will hurt. I would never have left her alone during the process. Part of me will always feel I betrayed her. That’s my problem of course. Good luck.

    • Lisa, I would like you to know that I feel your pain having been in the exact same situation with a couple of the troubled dogs I have rescued over the years. It definitely is not peaceful and quick for some.
      One of my problems is getting the memories of the horrific fear and thrashing out of my head. I can’t, but it does get less hurtful as time goes on.
      There is no doubt you made the right decision before someone was hurt and just as important, you let Smash go to a peaceful place.
      Having been in the world of dogs for many years, the process is peaceful and quick but still painful for the caregiver.

  20. I just put my little yorkie down 2 days ago. I had similar experience. He kept fighting sedative and had seizured on second dose. It was so hard to see him fight but he did seem at peace after.

  21. michael mccullough

    My lord I put my baby Shelby down today. She was a 17 year old Pit Bull who was my heart and would- and will always be. She had arthritic joints and was deaf and going blind.

    The process- I brought Shelby’s dog bed in first, I refused to have her lay on a cold metal table. I laid Shelby down on her bed I took her head in my hands. The vet was having trouble trying to find a vein. Shelby wimpered and jumped a little as the needle was trying to find a vein.

    I still was looking straight into her eyes telling her (crying to her) how much I loved her, how she was a great puppy, etc. I was looking into her eyes when the needle hit home. Her pupils slammed tight, then diolated all the way out then shrank down to tiny little pupils. Her tounge was sticking out a little, and her eyes were still open. The vet administered one shot (I’m thankful, due to what I’ve read in the forum about the sedative). My puppy was ready and she had passed within 10 seconds at the most. Myself and my boys (18-19) stayed with her for an additional 15 minutes.

    I know what needed to be done. To be honest this killed my heart and soul. I’m thankful that she went so peaceful. I would like to give everyone a tip. Please have a friend or family member take food bowls, dog bed, toys etc. Out of the house while you are at the vets. We didn’t do this, and as soon as I came home and in the house I saw her things. I just absolutely lost it. You may or may not choose to do this, but damn it just about killed me.

    • Sounds like Shelby lived a fantastic life full of love and died in peace among her best friends. It gets no better than that. She is frolicking somewhere. Maybe you will welcome another dog into your warm home someday. Never to take her place but to give all that love you have to!

  22. I am so glad I found this. My parents just had my dog euthanized today. We rescued her from the SPCA on my 8th birthday. She was 20 years old, and we had her for 17 years. She aged really well, but over that past few years she slowed down, which is to be expected, but she was still healthy and happy. Suddenly in the last 6 months or so, she started wasting away, and this past week we believe she had a stroke. Her back legs were no longer functioning, she could hardly keep any water or food down. She got even thinner. My mom stayed up with her every night over this past week, giving her sponge baths when she had an accident and holding her while she convulsed. We decided it was time. We couldn’t get into the vet until Monday (4 days) and we knew we didn’t want her to suffer. We called a ‘farm vet’ that’s well known around here. He deals primarily with horses, but makes house calls as a favor to put down beloved pets. I worried about this, worried he was a quack and she would be in pain in the end. There was no sedation, and because she was so thin and dehydrated, he injected the medication directly into her heart. It was brutal. She was kicking violently, howling, and even bit the vets wife who was trying to console her as we watched in horror. He said she died instantly and that it was normal, and I believe him. Her eyes were vacant. This lasted maybe 20 seconds or so and she relaxed. She didn’t stop breathing for about 5 minutes. I can’t get the image out of my mind. I grew up with her and she gave us so much happiness, I just pray she wasn’t in pain in her last minutes on this earth. Rest in peace, my sweet baby girl.

    • If you are like me that image will stay with you. So breathe, focus on the good, and know that her pain and anxiety are over. I feel for all off you. But what a fortunate dog to be loved by such good people for so long.

      • My 12 year old collie Dave was put to sleep on 30 June. He’d had a stroke on 10 June but had started to show improvement until the day before he died.I didn’t want him euthanized but my son thought it was kindest thing. It has haunted ne ever since. The vet came to my house and Dave, who had hated vets since age 3 when he had treatment for lymphoma, wagged his tail at her. She didn’t give a sedative but two injections one after other. On second injection Dave lifted his head and growled before his head, which i was holding, grew heavier and dropped. His eyes would not close. I am heartbroken and still not happy about his death. Why couldn’t the vet close his eyes? Why did she ignore my thoughts and let mt son sign? I blame myself for not being heard but it was such a terrible time.

  23. My experience with this was absolutely horrifying. I would never wish it on anyone. I knew that we would be recieving the 2 shot process and was briefed on what would happen. As it turns out…it was a very brief amount. I was told he would be given a sedative that would relax him which could take anywhere from 5-15 minutes and then the actual solution. The woman who put our dog down had zero patience. After a few minutes of my dog fighting the sedative and shaking because he just wanted to walk around, she gave him more. Which then led to him having a full blown seizure where he had to be layed on top of to control him. So instead of yet again waiting until he fell asleep from the sedative the vet then shaved his leg and administered the 2nd shot. I didnt get to say goodbye while he was asleep because he never made it to that stage. Needless to say it was horrifying. I will never go back to the same place. What happened to us is NOT how it was supposed to happen. It was close to closing time and I feel she rushed everything so she could just go home.
    For a company with such strong animal values…I would have thought PETA would have done a better job. I apparently made a huge mistake by chosing them.

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