by Kelsey Beth Carpenter
Euthanasia. The word itself makes all our stomachs drop. It is a gift to pets and a curse to owners – having the power to decide is something we are not comfortable with. However, when going through the euthanasia process with your own pets, you are in a position to make numerous decisions that can change the course of the overall process. As a Veterinary Technician, I witness euthanasias on a daily basis. Let me share from personal experience the 5 things I wish every pet owner knew.
1. It’s ok to cry.
People apologize to me all the time for crying over their pets. Whether it’s time to say goodbye, or you are simply having a hard time watching us draw blood on your dog, I wish you knew that I GET IT. Many of us who work in animal medicine (myself very much included) are totally neurotic, hypersensitive, and obsessive when it comes to our own pets. I may seem calm and collected while working with your cat, but that’s because it’s my job and I can’t afford to be any other way if I’m going to be good at it. You best believe that the second my dog so much as sneezes, I go into a total state of panic, lose all common sense, and forget everything I learned in tech school. So, when you are crying over the pet that you have loved for years, I assure you, I have nothing but respect for you. I respect how much you care. I respect your ability to make such difficult decisions. I respect your bravery. And please know that no matter how demonstrative you may be with your emotions, you are still keeping it together more than I would be in your shoes.
2. Be there, if you can.
I am lucky to work in a hospital where the vast majority of pet owners stay with their pets for the euthanasia process. However, this is not always the case. I urge you to stay with your pets, if you can, for multiple reasons. First, for my sake. One of the absolute most difficult things I do as a Veterinary Technician is take on the role of comforting and loving a pet as they pass on when their human is not there to do so. It is an incredible weight to try to act on your behalf, and it is emotionally exhausting in a way that I cannot even begin to describe. When you stay with your fur baby, I can focus on my own job, instead of doing both of ours. Second, for your pet’s sake. The vet can be a very scary place for animals – they don’t understand what all these noises and smells are, or why these strangers are poking and prodding them. Do you want them to experience that fear alone? And have it be their very last memory? Your pet doesn’t know what we are doing or why – they only know that you are there, that you said it’s ok, that you love them. I remember being a child, and how scary going to the doctor was, but how much more confident I felt with my mom there reassuring me. I imagine that is exactly how pets feel. If you can find the strength to be there, please do so. Please let your love, your touch, your presence be the last thing your pet experiences.
3. Keep the collar on.
One of the saddest things I witness during the euthanasia process is when humans take their pet’s collar off when they are still very much awake. To many pets, taking their collar off can have negative associations. For example, I know my own dog panics when I remove her collar as she knows it’s bath time! I want your pet to be as comfortable as possible, and that means not making any major changes immediately prior to euthanizing. Pets are much smarter than we give them credit for, and they pick up on the smallest of cues. The unknown is scary to your pet, so even if they don’t know what the cues mean, the idea that something is new and strange and out of the ordinary is enough to cause them some sense of anxiety. So, keep the collar on until your pet has passed. Let them go in the state that they always were.
4. Make it a celebration.
Bring treats. Tell stories. Laugh and cry at the same time. Surround yourselves with all his/her favorite toys and beds and blankets. It’s ok to cry, and it’s also ok to celebrate! I love when people tell me they took their dog to the beach or napped in the sun with their cat right before coming in to the hospital. This is going to be one of the hardest days of your life, but it doesn’t have to be for your pet. I promise that the more you celebrate your pet’s life, no matter how long or short, the easier it will be to continue to live your own once this is all said and done. It is ok to cry in front of your pet, to tell them how much you will miss them, to let them see you be absolutely beside yourself. I’m sure your pet has seen you at your worst before – I know mine has. But remember to celebrate, no matter how miserable you are. I promise it will make it easier for both you and your pet. What’s more, It will allow you to reflect on the euthanasia experience with positivity – you will remember that you celebrated and you will feel good about having done so.
I want this moment to be entirely about you and your pet. In order for that to be the case, several things must happen. First, you must understand the euthanasia process. If possible, talk to your Vet or Tech prior to coming into the hospital, or prior to starting the process – ask them to walk you through the steps of euthanasia so that you know exactly what to expect. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel comfortable with the process (or at least, as comfortable as you can be). Know what you’re walking into, so that your focus can be entirely on your pet. Second, take care of business ahead of time when possible. Sign any required paperwork. Pay the bill. Decide on after care. Even go so far as to prepare you next meal ahead of time, arrange a ride, rent a movie, invite friends over – whatever you think might help you cope when you return home from the hospital without your pet. The less you have to deal with during and after euthanasia, the better. I want you to be able to focus entirely on your pet during the euthanasia, and then entirely on yourself afterwards. Let’s do whatever we can to make that possible.
Every euthanasia is different. Some are planned, some are sudden. Some may happen in your home, some in the hospital. Regardless, they are difficult – to prepare for, to cope with, to experience. I hope these 5 things will help you to plan ahead and to make the process as beautiful as it can be for both you and your pet.
Kelsey Beth Carpenter is a Registered Veterinary Technician, singer/songwriter, and creator of the series “Things Heard at an Animal Hospital.”