Pet euthanasia is a topic that I really didn’t know much about until recently. My own experiences have left me desperately wishing that there could have been a “better” way to say goodbye.
Saying goodbye to Bella
In 2012, a few days before Christmas, my husband and I euthanized our 13 1/2 year old cat, Bella. His health had been
declining for several months. Our veterinarian at the time reassured us that he wasn’t in pain. But after spoon feeding him food for over a week, he took a turn for the worse. His beautiful blue eyes kept imploring us to take his pain away.
Our pet clinic was very professional and kind, but I couldn’t help but feel like Bella deserved so much more than being put to sleep in a sterile room with stranger cats meowing and dogs barking around us. It is a moment that still brings my husband and I so much sadness when we reflect upon it.
Saying goodbye to Mushu
Last year, a friend of mine called me out of the blue one night. He was concerned about their family cat who was acting listless and was having trouble moving her back leg. They were catching a flight out of the country on a long-awaited vacation of a lifetime and did not feel comfortable waiting until their son arrived in the morning to house sit. So I headed over after picking up a mutual friend on the way. We thought perhaps Mushu was stung by a bee but everyone agreed it did not seem serious. Just to be safe, we immediately took her to Blue Pearl, the 24/7 emergency pet hospital which is across the street from Club Cat.
What happened next was shocking. Apparently, Mushu’s little heart was quickly failing. The prognosis was bleak. The veterinarian discussed options with them but our friends understandably didn’t want Mushu to go through unncessary suffering just to add a few weeks, maybe months, to her life. Amid copious tears, they made the very tough decision to euthanize their beloved, 7-year old cat.
Since they weren’t physically able to get there in time, we stayed and watched the veterinarian and her assistant put Mushu to sleep. Tears streamed down our faces. This wasn’t even my own kitty cat and the experience was just as gut-wrenching. Maybe more because Mushu deserved to have been with her family as she crossed Rainbow Bridge which just wasn’t possible. The veterinarian said to us, “I never get used to doing this. It is just as awful every single time.”
Saying goodbye to your pet can be done differently
She did not euthanize him in a pet clinic where it can often feel so sterile. But in the familiar, stress-free setting of her home. After reading her testimony, I was so sad that I hadn’t known about Home Pet Euthanasia when I had to have our beautiful Bella euthanized back in 2012. It would have made all the difference.
I recently contacted Dr. Annie Forslund, founder of Home Pet Euthanasia. I wanted to learn more about compassionate and caring end of life services as an alternative to saying goodbye to our pets in an impersonal, stressful, clinical setting.
Compassionate care professionals can make all the difference
CC: Many veterinarians say euthanizing pets is the worst part of their job. What led you to leave a fruitful career in veterinary medicine to focus on euthanizing pets at home?
AF: For that same reason. It is truly a very difficult part of a veterinarian’s job to euthanize pets in a hospital setting. I have done it many times over my 20 years of being a general practitioner and I have been saddened both by the family’s distress and by the fearful look in the pet’s eyes, particularly when the pet’s family was not able to stay for the euthanasia, emotionally. So I sought for a way to make it easier, less traumatic by having the pet in his/her own environment or even in a joyful place such as a park or beach. When it comes to cats, of course, they are more comfortable in their own bed, on “their” windowsill, or on the back of “their” couch… And as I did more and more home euthanasias, it became clear to me that this terrible moment that is ending a pet’s life, could, when done at home and done compassionately, become a positive experience for the family as well as for me. Knowing that we helped end the suffering, knowing that the pet could feel his family’s love and transition while hearing words of love and comfort.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather die at home surrounded by my family than in any hospital or care facility, even if it was the friendliest, and most wonderful hospital in the world.
CC: Can you describe what a perfect euthanasia experience should ideally look like? Meaning, what is a best-case scenario in a worst-case scenario?
AF: This is a good question…And not one for which there is only one right answer.
First, let’s consider the technical part of the question. A perfect euthanasia is one where there is no technical challenges. The pet does not have to be transported, he/she rests peacefully in his/her own environment. The euthanasia is done soon enough that the pet is not in distress, the family is not faced with a horrible crisis with the pet struggling to breathe and/or is not in an immense amount of pain.The pet doesn’t react to the injection, the veins are good and it is not difficult to place the IV catheter, the pet has no adverse reaction to any drugs used, falls asleep peacefully and there is no post mortem events such as agonal breathing, twitches, etc…
Worst case scenario: The family waited too long and is now faced with a crisis. The pet is in excruciating pain, they made no prior arrangements, the pet has to be rushed to the emergency hospital, they get there, the waiting room is crowded with anxious pet owners whose pets faces a life or death situation, they have to wait, the poor vet and staff do their very best to keep the pet as comfortable as possible, the pet is in a lot of pain, cries when the first injection is administered, no matter how gentle the doctor was; the veins are collapsed, the doctor has no choice but have to do an intra-cardiac injection. Although by the time that the IC injection is administered, the pet has received enough sedative/anesthetic that he does not feel the injection, the family is worried about this, blames themselves, blames the vet, the family feels guilty for waiting too long, for the “last car ride” for the visit to the hospital. And to add insult to injury, due to the fact that the pet was in respiratory distress and was struggling possibly for several hours prior to being released, the respiratory muscles are irritated and the pet has “post mortem” reactions such as agonal breathing, twitching, etc…which cannot be prevented and which distresses the family further despite the fact that by the time those reactions occur, the pet has already passed away and is not feeling those “nerve” reactions, they can nevertheless be disconcerting to watch.
And, of course, there can be all kinds of in between gradients from perfect euthanasia to worst case scenario.
Now, on the non-technical side of things, only the family can decide what is a perfect euthanasia. Most families feel like a visit to the vet is traumatic for their pet. This is no fault of the vet’s. Veterinarians are very special people, dedicated to the well being of their patients and have their patients’ best interests at heart. However, I would say that for most (but not all), a home euthanasia is ideal. The pet is comfortable. Doesn’t have to be moved. Can be wherever he/she is happiest. For some families, they want this done quickly. The vet comes in, out, done. Other families would find this same “A to B” approach cold and impersonal and want a more relaxed, lengthier visit. Some want incense and candles, a ceremony, prayers, etc…Some other families abhor such ceremonies and want to remain cool and collected. Some want only the pet’s closest pet parent present. Some will invite extended family, friends, and a whole support network.
So, on the non-technical aspect of such an event, there is no “right” answer. It is whatever YOU feel is right for your pet, your family and yourself. The beauty of a home euthanasia, is that you can create it to be whatever you feel is the ideal scenario. You can plan, you can prepare, you can do it early enough that your baby’s condition does not deteriorate into a crisis, you can educate yourself on the procedure, and prepare for any eventuality. Our website has a wealth of information on all aspects of euthanasia, from what to expect, to whether or not you want children present, other pets present, the aftercare choices, what death looks like, we have videos, articles, help on assessing Quality of Life, pain, photos, tons of families telling their special stories, etc… we demystify the procedure, in other words, we “tame the beast” for you.
CC: None of us want to see our pets suffer. But many of us wait longer than we should to euthanize our beloved pet because we just don’t want to goodbye. How do you help pet parents know when it “too soon” or “too late” to euthanize a pet?
AF: This is a loaded question. There is SOOO much to consider and you are right, everybody worries about doing it too soon or too late. We have an entire section on our website addressing issues related to Assessing Quality of Life and Pain. Many pet owners have no clue about how much pain their pet is in and feel that if the pet is not crying, he is fine. This is far from true. Pets don’t like to display signs of weakness or pain as it goes against their own survival and the survival of the “pack”. They know that if they display pain, they will be preyed upon and they will endanger the pack as well. So…they suffer in silence. Fortunately, it is possible to see past the stoic nature of our pets. But you have to know what to look for. Again, our website is rich in educational material and also contains several “home tests” you can do to help you keep track with the progress of the condition so you can catch it early enough not to push your pet beyond a reasonable point. Additionally, we offer Quality of Life home visits where one of our doctors will come examine your pet and help you determine if it is time or not.
CC: Please tell us more about Home Pet Euthanasia and the services you offer.
AF: I started Home Pet Euthanasia about 12 years ago. At that time, there was no known veterinary service dedicated wholly to at home Pet End of Life care. I basically had to “invent the wheel”. Now, we have an entire team of dedicated people, ready to help you in the best way possible in one of the most difficult times of your life. We offer a compassionate, caring and gentle pet euthanasia service done in the comfort of your own home so that your beloved pet doesn’t have to be put in a stressful situation, having to be lifted into the car, going into a noisy, busy veterinary hospital to spend the last few moments of his or her life on a cold stainless steel table. The euthanasia will be done gently and peacefully. You will be able to hold and comfort your best friend the whole time. After your pet has passed away, we also take care of the “aftercare” and cremation. We will take your pet’s remains with us and make arrangements for the cremation whether you want the ashes back or prefer a communal cremation. We also offer beautiful paw prints as a memorial item.
We have a wonderful team who will answer all your questions prior to the visit and who will take care of you and listen to your needs. Our doctors were each chosen for their very special desire to help families in their time of loss. They are compassionate and loving souls. You could not have a better person to take care of you and your baby in such a time.
CC: Pet care is deemed an essential business. Euthanasia is such a personal experience. How has current Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted your services?
AF: It sure has been a challenge. Not that we have not been busy. We are providing service during the pandemic and we continue helping families in such a difficult time. However, our service is about love, compassion, warmth. We love the families we help and we want to hug them and hold them and comfort them. Unfortunately, with this pandemic and the social distancing we all have to abide by, we are limited to “distance hugs,” and “distance hand shakes,” we cannot permit the pet owners to touch us or to hold their pet while the doctor inserts the IV as we have to maintain social distancing. It has definitely been an emotional challenge… however, we do the best we can and we provide as much “distance comfort” as we can… and besides, compassion, caring and love are about more than hugging and touching. And our doctor’s compassion and caring shines through regardless of the limitations imposed on all of us.