If dogs talked, one of them would be president by now. Everybody loves dogs.
– Dean Koontz
If dogs talked, one of them would be president by now. Everybody loves dogs.
– Dean Koontz
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.
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.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
– JRR Tolkien
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.
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.
Last week we discussed making the decision to euthanize a dog. This is a highly personal choice, and once it’s made you will have many other decisions to make. My hope is that by writing about this painful process I can help others navigate through it more easily. Today, let’s discuss scheduling your dog’s euthanasia appointment.
Once I made the decision to euthanize Dobby, I called the veterinary clinic to schedule an appointment. I already knew that I wanted the veterinarian to perform a house call because Dobby was scared of the vet clinic. I wanted his final moments to be spent where he was most comfortable. I also knew that I wanted the appointment to happen over a week from the time I called instead of right away, because I wanted to spend that time saying goodbye to him.
You may not be able to control when you say goodbye, but if your dog’s pain can be managed through medication or environmental management, or if you simply need a little more time to grieve, you do not have to schedule the appointment right away. It’s okay to give yourself and your dog a little more time.
I will honestly say that I found the time between when I made the appointment and when Dobby was euthanized much more emotionally draining than the time after he was gone. Little things – watching him eat, hearing him prance around, seeing him playing or sleeping, feeling his soft fur snuggled against my skin – were absolutely devastating. I spent a lot of his last week fighting tears. That said, I’d do it all over again if I had the chance. He got to eat his favorite foods, play with his only dog friend (other than his housemates) Maisy, swim, and run off-leash. I took him on long walks under the stars late at night when we wouldn’t encounter anyone and he got to sniff as long as he wanted and choose which paths we took in the park. I let him sleep under the covers in my arms.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of time, you can make your dog’s final moments as happy as possible. Whether it’s going for a last, short walk, snuggling together, giving your dog a new or favorite toy, or feeding your dog his favorite foods and treats, spend your remaining time together pleasantly.
A friend of mine gave me great advice during this time. She acknowledged that the time between scheduling an appointment and the appointment itself could be the most difficult, and gave me permission to move Dobby’s appointment up if I needed to, either for myself or for Dobby. While I ended up keeping his appointment at the original time, knowing that it would be okay for me to change it was incredibly helpful.
Many people aren’t aware that you can also choose where you want to say goodbye. Most veterinarians will perform house calls, and if your dog doesn’t like the vet’s office, your vet can come to your home instead. If your vet doesn’t offer this service, they can likely recommend a veterinarian who does. One of my previous dogs, Paddy, didn’t mind the vet clinic but absolutely loved to be outside, so his euthanasia was performed on the lawn outside the vet clinic, with the sun on his fur and the soft grass under his paws. My veterinarian came to my parent’s house, where Dobby was always happy and relaxed, and his final moments were spent in their spacious, peaceful backyard.
Next week we’ll discuss the euthanasia appointment itself. In the meantime, if you’ve made this decision, where did you schedule your dog’s euthanasia? Did you give yourself time, or did it need to be done urgently? How did you fill your dog’s final moments? Please share in the comments below.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
– Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince
Euthanizing Dobby was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. While the support from friends, family, and the online community was absolutely amazing (and, to be honest, a bit overwhelming), I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a hole in my life that Dobby used to fill. There are still moments when I’m taken by surprise at his absence, times when I expect to turn around and see him lying on my bed or wriggling with joy in his crate with his ever-present squeaky ball in his mouth.
I’ve written before about coping with the loss of a friend. Obviously, I process best by writing, and others grieve in other ways. There’s no wrong way to grieve for your dog, and whatever you feel when you lose a beloved companion is entirely normal and okay. I’ve had to remind myself of this at times when something silly, like a song or an unexpected memory hits me like a punch in the gut and I feel tears well up once again. Grief is a healing process, and just like healing from a physical injury, it takes time for the wound to stop hurting.
There’s a distinct lack of information online about what to expect if you, like me, are put in the heartbreaking position of euthanizing a young dog for health or behavioral concerns. Personally, knowing what to expect during the euthanasia itself was incredibly helpful. Having assisted with and performed multiple euthanasias during my time as a veterinary technician and the head trainer at an animal shelter, I knew what the process would look like and what options were available to me. My hope is that by writing about my experiences, I can help others who are in similar situations. If you are considering euthanasia for your dog, whether your dog is sixteen years or sixteen months, whether your dog is physically healthy but emotionally hurting or simply ready to leave a body that can no longer keep up with his mind, my heart goes out to you.
Over the next month, we’ll discuss several aspects of euthanasia, including how to know when it’s time, scheduling the appointment, what to expect during the procedure itself, special considerations for if you have multiple pets, and thoughts for after it’s done. Today we’ll discuss how to know when it’s time to say goodbye.
One of the hardest questions I dealt with in Dobby’s final months was knowing when it was time. Logically, I knew that I had exhausted every option and that Dobby wasn’t going to suddenly get better. I knew that he was frequently scared, that I was exhausted from managing his environment to keep him and those around him safe, and that my other dogs were sometimes frightened of him. Emotionally, however, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I talked with him about it, and got a strong sense from him that he did not want to die.
The turning point for me happened one night when Dobby had a seizure. I had tried to trim his nails earlier that evening, something that he used to behave very well for. He would lie upside down, loose as a noodle, ball in his mouth, while I trimmed his toenails. About six months ago, this changed after a series of seizures left him touch sensitive and defensive. Toenail trims became very difficult, and even when I went very patiently and slowly, feeding him after each nail, Dobby would act frightened as soon as I touched his foot. He had never been quicked or had a bad nail-trim experience, but the way he processed tactile stimulation changed due to his seizures.
This particular evening, Dobby screamed and snapped at me with the first nail I trimmed, urinating in fear. I immediately stopped trying to trim his nails, but half an hour later he had a seizure. After his seizure he was scared and confused, and attacked my youngest dog when she bumped him as she jumped up next to him on the couch. When I intervened, he went after me, and it took all of my extensive handling experience to safely move him to a crate where he could sleep off the effects of the seizure in peace.
As I looked at him, curled up in a protective, frightened ball in his crate, I got a very strong sense that he was ready to go. I got the feeling that it was too hard for him to continue living in a body where small stresses could cause so much pain, and that he was exhausted from living this way. I made his euthanasia appointment the next day.
Your story will likely be different. In many cases, veterinarians tell owners that they will just know when it’s time, and sometimes, like with Dobby, that’s true. However, you may also not know. It’s okay if you feel doubtful or unsure. It’s a big decision to make, and I think doubt is an entirely normal response to making such a huge choice for your dog and your family.
Many of my clients who euthanize their dogs for behavioral reasons do so when they do not feel that they can keep others safe from their dog or when they feel that their dog’s quality of life is so poor that it is not fair to ask them to continue living. In Dobby’s case, I kept a journal where I tracked his good days, his bad days, and his seizures with the thought that when his bad days outnumbered his good days it might be time, but the journal was ultimately not the deciding factor. When I reviewed his final month, he had an equal number of good and bad days, and had an average of one seizure very 5-6 days.
Sometimes it can be helpful to think of factors that will help you make the decision ahead of time, way before you’re faced with the decision. Some people advise making a list of five of your dog’s favorite activities. When your dog is no longer interested in three of those five activities, that might be the appropriate time. I’ve decided that with Layla, it will be time to consider euthanasia when she’s no longer interested in eating, chewing on bones, going on walks, going places with me, or chasing critters.
Regardless of how you come to the decision, I can say that I have never heard anyone say that they wish they had waited. I have, however, heard many, many people say that they wish they had said goodbye sooner. If your dog is in pain (whether physical or emotional) and you cannot help them manage that pain, it may be a great kindness to say goodbye.
As hard as it was to euthanize Dobby, I regret waiting so long. Looking back, I feel like I made exactly the right decision – I personally needed to feel like I’d tried everything, and until the night of his seizure I got a strong sense from Dobby that he wasn’t ready to give up either. However, his final months were certainly much harder than the previous years, and he was often confused or disoriented due to the brain damage from his seizures. My other dogs also had a difficult few months, as Dobby could be unpredictable and aggressive. Making the decision sooner could have saved all of us from a lot of stress, but I find a lot of comfort in having exhausted all available options. There are no “what ifs” in my situation – they were all explored completely.
Regardless of your situation, knowing when to say goodbye is a very personal decision. If you’ve made this choice for a dog you cared for, how did you come to your conclusion? What did you consider, or did you just know when the time was right? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. – John Steinbeck