On Euthanasia: What Happens After

Up to this point, we’ve discussed many aspects of euthanizing a beloved dog. To review, we’ve talked about making the decision, scheduling the appointment, and what will happen during the process itself. Today I’d like to discuss another important consideration: what happens after your dog is gone, including considerations for those of you with multiple pets.

Photo by Kelvin Andow

Photo by Kelvin Andow

After your pet is euthanized, you can choose to spend some time with the body if you would like. No vet should ever rush you after your pet has been euthanized, and you can take as long as you need to say goodbye. I spent a few moments sitting with Dobby, then brought my other two dogs out to see his body. If you have other pets, you can decide whether to let them see the body or not.

Remember that animals don’t grieve in the same way we do, so your pets may not appear to notice the body or may not respond to it in a way that looks sad.

Layla took a brief look at Dobby’s body, then flirted with her vet. Since I have done multiple compassion holds (where an unadoptable dog spends their final days or weeks in my home), Layla is very familiar with the process and I believe she understands euthanasia. In the weeks after Dobby was gone, Layla was visibly brighter and more playful – a response I didn’t expect. She appeared to feel a sense of relief that he was gone, which makes sense when we consider that she’d been in essence walking on eggshells around him for the past year so as not to provoke him. Layla started playing with toys again, something she hadn’t done for over a year, and was wiggly and snuggly.

Mischief was very excited and waggy when she came outside. She sniffed all around on the ground and sniffed Dobby’s body, tail wagging. She paused for a brief moment and stiffened up when she got to his face, which she sniffed once with a still tail, then she moved away and started sniffing the ground with her tail wagging again. While this may not have looked very much like grief to us, her behavior in the days following Dobby’s euthanasia was very depressed and she needed a lot of extra reassurance. I do think that she was aware of what had happened. She slept a lot for several weeks after Dobby’s death and asked for a lot of extra snuggles. She seemed especially lost at night, when she would pace and wander. She had previously slept curled up with Dobby, and really seemed to miss her snuggle buddy. Dobby also used to groom her regularly, licking her face and the insides of her ears and nibbling on her neck and shoulders. I invited Mischief to sleep with me, and she would crawl under the covers and curl up by my belly gratefully.

Every dog responds to loss differently, and your dog may show relief like Layla, depression like Mischief, or no change at all. Just like people are very individual in how we cope with grief, so too are dogs. During this time, stick to your dog’s routine as closely as possible and let your dog’s behavior drive your response.

You will get to choose what happens to your euthanized dog’s body. You can keep the body to bury personally, have it buried at a pet cemetery, or choose cremation (either individually or with a group of animals, and with or without the ashes returned to you). I chose to have Dobby’s body cremated individually and will get his ashes back. It can be helpful to think about this decision well in advance.

Remember to take care of yourself afterwards. Allow yourself time to grieve. I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend and a best friend who each took a day off work to spend with me so that I wouldn’t have to be alone afterwards. If you do not have family or friends who are supportive of the grieving process, the ASPCA offers a free pet grief hotline that you can call. Many animal shelters and humane societies also offer pet loss support groups that you could go to.

One topic that often goes unaddressed when a pet dies is the sense of relief you may feel afterwards. I know many pet owners who have felt guilty when they experienced this, especially in the case of a behavioral euthanasia, and want to address it.

While I feel very sad about Dobby’s euthanasia, lonely without his special presence in my life, and a little guilty that his final moments could not be more peaceful, I also feel relieved that it’s over. I would do it again – all of it – in a heartbeat for the chance to be with him again, but I also have to admit that daily life is simply easier without the constant management and care that Dobby required. In his case, the management happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize how very much I was doing to keep him and others safe until I no longer needed to do it. Simple tasks like letting my dogs outside and getting ready to leave for the day are no longer fraught with a list of checks and double-checks that I had to take as a precaution. I no longer have to worry about little things that could cause Dobby to become stressed and therefore have a seizure. I feel like I can breathe easier with him gone, even though at times each breath hurts because I miss him so much.

Feeling this relief doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person or that I didn’t love him like crazy, and if you find yourself feeling this way there’s nothing wrong with you either. Sometimes it’s just as hard to live with our beloved dogs as it is to live without them, and acknowledging this doesn’t make the love we feel for them any less real.

In the end, euthanasia can be one of the kindest things we can do for the dogs we love. I hope that this series has helped you to better understand and prepare for the process with your own beloved companions, or has brought you peace if you have already been through it with a pet. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t ever get easier. Please feel free to share your own experiences with our community in the comments section below. Sharing can be healing, and there’s been a lot of love in the comments this past month.

I’m incredibly grateful that I had the chance to know and love Dobby, my sweet, earnest, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I’m also grateful for the chance to get to know your special dogs through your comments. Thanks for the love.

6 responses to “On Euthanasia: What Happens After

  1. I lost two of my Dogs with in a three week time frame. Odie just got really sick one day they think it was from a tick bite he spent the nite at the vet’s office ( I work there) the next morning I came to work a little early to check on him,he passed away sometime that nite.A few weeks latter Dottie was having trouble walking come to find out she had a build up of fluid on her heart and was starting to go in to her abdomen tried meds but it was a little to late I had to make the choice do I let her suffer or give her peace. This was the first time I ever stayed with a dog when they were sent to Heaven it was so peaceful.I miss them both so much. But it did open the door for a new family member Teri a three old terrier mix who was welcomed by my fourteen year old lab Jodie.

  2. Thank you for this series. While not easy to read, having just gone through it for the first time as an adult with my two 14 year old dogs, who I lost within 10 days of each other, I think it is important to know what to expect and what all the options are. I was able to let both my girls go in our own home, and their cast paw prints are such a treasure to me now. As Eileen above said, I opened my home to another dog right away.

  3. Melissa McPherson

    I recently had to have my 17 year old papillion euthanized. I good friend had experienced this many times and recommended that when the time came, to ask the vet to request an impression of my dogs paw print. The vet can request that the cremation service do this. In my grief, I forgot to ask and thought of it late that night. The next morning I called the crematory and they were glad to provide my dogs paw print, either on paper with ink, or in clay. I now tell anyone going through the same experience to ask for this.

  4. Thank you for this well-written post, and the whole series on euthanasia. I have never read anything about the sense of post-euthanasia relief that you mention, but I’ve experienced it with several pets. My pets were euthanized for health rather than behavioral reasons, but still, caring for them had become very stressful and time-consuming as they became older and more ill. In May, I said goodbye to my first dog, who was about 13 years old and suffered from Cushings and worsening arthritis in her hips. The Cushings was under control, but even with several different medications, the arthritis was causing her to fall down and have difficulty getting up. On top of that, she was sleeping very poorly at night (probably partly from physical discomfort and partly from dementia). I couldn’t leave her home alone very long, and I wasn’t getting much sleep, and I felt guilty that euthanizing her would be to make my life easier rather than free her from suffering. Making the decision to euthanize her was heartbreaking, but there is no question that removing the stress of worrying and caring for her was a big relief for me and my family, even though I loved her and miss her.

  5. Thank you for this. We lost our boy very suddenly in March – a normal morning routine but he started throwing up. Thought it was an upset tummy. Ten hours later ER visit turns up hemangioma sarcoma, a large mass on his lungs and pericardial effusion. Triple whammy and no options but letting him go (he was 8). We did bring his body home for our other dog to see, sniff, etc. She smelled him, sat next to him and started shaking. She slept in the living room with him that night. She was definitely more quiet, less interested in going into the yard and to this day, won’t sleep in our bed where he used to sleep (although when he was still with us, she liked to sneak in his spot until he came back to bed). It took her a couple months to get active in the yard again – and I think there are still moments she looks for him, or just catches a smell of him on something. I’m so sorry for you loss, and appreciate your blog. I hope we can find another buddy for her – but not rushing it. She just had a stage 2 mast cell tumor removed in September – just getting our ducks in a row – maybe the new year.

  6. Thank you for discussing the sense of relief you can feel after you have euthanized your pet. My dog had cancer and I chose to try chemo to hopefully cure him or give him a longer life. When the chemo stopped working we began a period of time where we kept him comfortable and happy. However, his cancer had caused him to become incontinent (he wore a pad and belt so he could stay in the house) and anorexic and he had to take meds to control his pain. I don’t regret any of the things I had to do to let him have the extra 8 months of life we gained. The day that I realized he was beginning to have constant pain I made the decision that he had fought long enough. It was very difficult as he looked happy, was eating well and only showed signs of pain when he was alone and didn’t know he was being observed. My vet (a close friend) agreed that he was carrying on for me and that he was probably in much more pain than he showed. He was euthanized surrounded by his friends a family. After it was over I felt an enormous sense of relief that the decision was over. I also realized how physically exhausted I was. I had been getting up with him multiple times during the night for months and laying awake worrying about how he was doing. I also felt an irrational fear that I had made a mistake euthenizing him. Thank goodness I was surrounded by dog friends that had been through this with me.

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