The loss of a pet is hard. It is often made worse when we're faced with the decision to euthanize.

For me, one of the most challenging things about being a pet owner is the almost inevitable decision about when to euthanize the pet. We recently faced that very decision about one of our cats. She was a few short months shy of her 24th birthday; so, it was not a decision that took us by surprise. But, even as prepared as we thought we were, it was very difficult.

How will I know when it’s time?

This question haunts most pet owners. And, my best advice is to have a set of criteria for each pet species you have that reflects the minimum standards for an acceptable quality of life. For instance, you might expect your cat to be interested in eating, make it pretty consistently to the litter box, get around on its own, and seek out attention and purr when petted. In fact, those were our exact criteria for Chantal. For a horse, dog, or parrot, your criteria may be different. Each criterion should reflect some measurable aspect of welfare (comfort, adequate nourishment and hydration, acceptable hygiene, etc.).

Choose your criteria when your pet is young and healthy, so that you will not be tempted to ignore changes to “protect” an ailing pet.

Once you have set the criteria, any consistent drop below the standard in a given category will raise a red flag. For us, Chantal starting missing the litter box daily and began to be ataxic (stumbling) while walking around; both problems may have been due to worsening arthritis, a failing nervous system, systemic weakness, or some other process. In any event, we knew we had reached a decision point.

What will I do when it’s time?

When your pet reaches a quality of life you can no longer pretend is adequate, it is likely time to say goodbye. The most responsible plan of action is to schedule a “euthanasia consultation” with your vet; during this consult, your veterinarian will examine your pet, offer you any possible treatments for the problems you have noted, and, if nothing can (or should) be done, euthanize your pet. Relevant family members should attend this appointment in the event that it does, in fact, become an actual euthanasia. On the other hand, I have had a few clients book these appointments, braced for grief, only to leave with some antibiotics or fluid therapy for their very-much-alive pet.

What is euthanasia like and who should be there?

If you’ve never been present for the euthanasia of a pet and think you would like to be present for the next one, it’s a good idea to know what to expect.

When you arrive for the appointment, there will be a release form to sign and a discussion about what you would like done with your pet’s remains. Options generally include private cremation and group cremation; other options, like home burial, may be available in your municipality. You may take care of the payment in advance so that you will not be bothered with it after the pet is gone.

You and your pet will be taken into an exam room or a special room designated for euthanasia. A technician or the vet will get a weight and may do a brief exam. Following any discussion about whether continued treatments are possible or advisable, the staff may prepare for the euthanasia. Some clinics require a catheter to be placed in a leg vein to facilitate the process; others may not. Depending on how nervous your pet appears, staff may elect to give a sedative and give you a few minutes alone with your pet for the medication to take effect.

The actual euthanasia is performed using a strong sedative given in an amount that stops body functions. The veterinarian will have pre-measured the amount to be given based on your pet’s weight. He or she will give the drug slowly while you hold or pet the animal. During this process, your pet may make sudden movements, lose control of his bladder or bowels, or simply go limp. Even if unexpected movements do occur, the pet is not experiencing any discomfort. This is procedure is far more painful for the human participants than for the pet, who drifts gently away.

As for the question of who should be present: that depends on you, your family, and your support system. If your kids are old enough that they can understand what is happening and not be traumatized by the event, they may want to be there. If you have developed special relationships with clinic staff, you may wish to ask them to join you (in fact, if your pet has become a frequent patient, many of the staff may ask to be there with/for you). If you know you will be grieving extensively, you may wish to have a friend with you for the ride home.

What if I can’t bring myself to be present?

That’s fine. Your pet will pass just as smoothly without you. And, if you are someone who would be tortured by the memories of the event, he would rather not put you through that, anyway.

How will I react to my loss?

Depending on your personality, you may respond with anything from a little sadness to acute grief when your pet has gone. For pets that required extensive amounts of care, you may experience some relief at their passing; this is normal.

If you had a very intense attachment to the pet or are someone who naturally grieves deeply, the loss may be very difficult for you. There are pet loss support groups available to help you through your grief, if friends and family are not sufficient. The reality is that you may continue to experience and process your grief for months or even several years. If, at any time, you feel despondent, please seek professional help.

How we move on

As my husband likes to point out, “It all ends badly.” So how do you pick up the pieces and commit to yet another pet, knowing that this, too, will end badly? Again, we each approach it differently. Some people decide they’d rather not invest emotionally in another pet. Others are looking for a new furry friend right away. Then, there are those of us in the middle – knowing we’re a little worse for wear but also knowing that some other wonderful pet will find its way into our lives and hearts when the time is right.

Whatever type of person you are, one of the single most important things to keep in mind about euthanasia is that it is something we elect to do because we love our pets and want what’s best for them. Some people worry that they are rushing into an irreversible decision, when, in fact, our love for our pets and reluctance to lose them causes us to wait far longer than we should. One look at Chantal on her last day would have shown you what I mean.