Understanding the Euthanasia Process

By Deb Haines

Veterinarians understand how sensitive of a time the euthanasia process of a loved pet can be and try to make it as easy as possible for the both pets and owners.

Regardless of how rehearsed and perfected a Euthanasia performance is, there are often challenges that arise beyond the veterinarians control.

Sedation… there are numerous protocols, Any protocol will require minor adjustments depending on the weight, body condition score , medical condition, and personality of the pet etc. These factors affect how quickly a pet will become sedated, how deeply sedated they will be, and how much medication is required to reach optimal effect.

Medical conditions – extremely painful or cardiopulmonary pets will require altered doses of sedation due to sympathetic overdrive.

Extremely painful patients –Your pet going to react differently to this medication that she normally would to a vaccine, and that is due to they are already being in a high level of discomfort.

Aggressive animals – will usually require larger doses

Most animals require only one injection; others may need more drug. It’s dose-dependent on weight and pathology of the pet.

Pets with heart and circulatory diseases may need more drugs depending on their status. Dogs with big, bleeding tumors may need more as well. ‘hyperactive’ or very stressed dogs take whole bottles of drugs. Most cases are relatively straightforward, and when things go poorly vets beat themselves up a lot because they don’t want to see any animal suffer, especially in their final hours.

Natural post-mortem changes in the body that may occur

Muscle twitching. “It is completely normal and usually happens in the first 5-10 minutes, generally on the muzzle or shoulder. Agonal breaths are seen more commonly in animals that are close to the natural dying process It is simply a spasm of the diaphragm. please be assured that it is not abnormal and that the pet is actually gone when that occurs.

Pet’s body is still warm after death. Body temperature decreases at only about 1.5 degrees F. per hour. this is normal to still feel warm.

Questions and Answers

  1. My dog moaned while being injected, is this normal ?

Dr. M …..Euthanasia solution is an overdose of anesthesia. There is always a brief excitement phase of anesthesia where voluntary motion is lost. This happens whether the pet is sedated or not. Most of my clients prefer to have their pet conscious so they can tell him or her goodbye at the time. If the pet is very nervous, sometimes I do sedate first but only very lightly. Of course, if the owner wants the pet sedated I certainly do it.

I always place an IV catheter (in the back, not in presence of owner) to prevent 1) patient from having to be stuck with a needle 2) ensure all the solution goes into the vein because the solution hurts if it goes out of the vein 3) allows the owners to hold the pet however they want with the exception of the one catheterized leg 4) doesn’t require a vet assistant to crowd up the room.

One of my dogs howled when being euthanized even though he was sedated and catheterized. It is just one of those things that unfortunately happens.

2)Is not sedating a pet first considered unethical in a veterinary practice?

Dr. Bridge ..it’s not unethical or even technically “wrong”. Other vets in my practice euthanize in a similar way. it goes smoothly 99.9% of the time.

3) Are difficult euthanasia’s common?

Dr. Klatt…No not common …A bad euthanasia is my worst nightmare…I work really hard to not have anything unplanned or psychologically traumatic (to the owner or me) happen but know that most vets have at least one story of an awful euthanasia that haunts them. I sedate, wait 5-10 min, give the euthanasia solution intravenous, check for a heart beat…I always give more euthanasia solution than needed… I use a catheter so I don’t lose the vein… I warn owners that sometimes there is a last breath, muscle twitch, voiding of urine, possibility of vocalization, etc. So far I’ve been lucky. Just know that sometimes the stars line up right and sometimes they don’t. We try our best.

Dr. Wild...Euthanasia is a challenge as we have to over-ride the natural fight or flight response. In addition, there is a phenomenon called wind up as a stage of anesthesia. The dog reacts to the SQ injection, adrenaline overrides the medication, and so on and so on with everyone getting more reactive. When it comes to anesthesia for surgery for example, premedicants are used to reduce wind up but you have time in order to achieve it. With euthanasia, we’re trying to force something that SHOULD take 30-40 minutes into a much shorter timeframe. Sadly, sometimes it doesn’t always go as planned since animals are individuals.

I can guarantee that the vet involved is absolutely mortified and likely HAS gone home and cried over this and posted something in the veterinary support forums commenting on “I’m a horrible vet…I had the worst thing happen”.

3) The vet couldn’t find a vein,is this normal ?

Dr. D…The euthanasia protocols will vary from Dr to Dr. There absolutely are oral sedatives your can give before the appointment at home. In addition some vets will give an injectable sedation under the skin or in the muscle before giving the final IV injection. Some Drs prefer to place an IV catheter so that no additional poking or searching for a vein is needed. I’m sorry you have had bad experiences. Those experiences feel terrible for us too. We know how hard the process is for our clients and want to make the process as peaceful as possible.

Dr. Amy ...When I graduates placing an IV catheter or sedating prior to euthanasia wasn’t done, over the last decade or so it certainly has become far more common. If you find yourself in that situation again there is nothing wrong with asking for sedatives or a catheter. If the clinic you use can’t accomodate that then you can always look at other clinics.
I’ve had a few euthanasia’s over the years that didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked and it’s not a pleasant experience for anyone.

4) Human to provide euthanasia at home. Is gunshot an acceptable way to euthanize small pets at home?

Dr. Appleton …Vet response- it depends how you define “acceptable” and whom you wish to deem it “acceptable”.
A farm dog trapped underneath machinery with the nearest vet 4 hours away euthanised with a shotgun by a skilled gunman- in my opinion, this is acceptable.
A cat/ dog/ rabbit that is within reasonable distance of a veterinary professional but the owner is trying to save money- unacceptable.

Dr. Klatt …I have nothing to add to that — only that while it is an acceptable, humane method of euthanasia with correct bullet placement, gunshot can be traumatic to the person performing the euthanasia. I’ve shot thousands of cows/calves, a few horses, the occasional cat and a dog, and I do hunt wildlife occasionally for meat….. I don’t loose any sleep over livestock, horses or big game, but I try really hard to avoid anything but chemical euthanasia for small animals. I’ve got a couple that haunt me. It’s instant for them but uncomfortable for me (and it is much harder to get good placement with a cat than a cow). You probably won’t find it as simple in reality as it is in theory.

**Euthanasia guidelines https://www.avma.org/…/Pages/Euthanasia-Guidelines.aspx

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