Understanding The Death of a Pet: Before, During, and After
Just as the beginning of life and birth story is unique to each individual, so is the journey at the end of life. The progression, transition, and accompanying signs often vary.October 09, 2023
As pet owners, we often avoid contemplating the death of our beloved furry family members, but it’s an inevitable aspect of life that we are eventually confronted with. We must continue moving through the difficulty and sadness before we are able to reach acceptance. You are not alone in struggling to comprehend how to determine “when is the right time.” However, it is important to recognize that there is no exact time that is “right” with any other time being “wrong.” Veterinarians often think in terms of windows in which euthanasia is a viable option rather than a specific point in time. On one end of the spectrum the pet may experience some suffering that can be managed but the disease will progress, on the other end you may have a pet that needs persistently high levels of pain medications to provide palliative care. In either case, euthanasia may be an appropriate choice. It’s important to speak with your vet about your pet’s situation and your own view of when euthanasia may be appropriate. Each and every pet and family is unique, but learning how other families approach the decision to euthanize can also be helpful.
There are signs that may indicate a pet is transitioning toward death. It can be helpful to watch for these signs, however, some may also indicate other illnesses or conditions which can be managed. Only a veterinarian can look at the whole clinical picture and diagnose your pet. Therefore, it is important to consult with your family veterinarian when you observe new or changing signs, as your vet can provide guidance and support for you and your pet. Even when a natural death is planned, pets should be given medical assistance in the form of palliative or hospice care to ease the transition.
- Loss of coordination: The pet may be ataxic, meaning they have difficulty maintaining balance and coordination, this can lead to stumbling or falling.
- Uncharacteristic desire to be close or desire to be alone: The pet may exhibit an uncharacteristic need for closeness or, conversely, may prefer solitude and isolation when they usually would enjoy being social.
- Inability to get comfortable: The pet may have difficulty finding a comfortable position and may frequently change positions, vocalize, or display other signs of restlessness.
- Loss of appetite: The pet may show a decreased interest in food and may eat significantly less, only eat when coaxed with favorite treats, or stop eating altogether.
- No longer drinking water: Similar to the loss of appetite, the pet may show a decreased desire to drink water. Once dehydrated, pets cannot live long without fluid administration. Therefore, not drinking can be an urgent sign requiring medical attention.
- Lack of desire to move or enjoy activities: The pet may become less active and no longer engage in activities they once enjoyed. Some pet parents describe feeling a sense that their pet is “ready” or “done fighting.”
- Extreme fatigue: The pet may appear lethargic and excessively tired, spending most of their time resting or sleeping. Here it’s important to keep in mind your own pet’s level of activity throughout their life as compared to recent changes.
- Muscle twitching: Muscle twitches or tremors may occur; true twitches are due to neurons firing and may be due to reflexes or neurologic conditions. Conscious movements of muscles may be mistaken for twitching and can stem from discomfort, pain, or anxiety.
- Confusion: The pet may appear disoriented or exhibit signs of confusion, such as getting lost in familiar surroundings, forgetting where food and water bowls are located, or dogs may bark at familiar people.
- Slowed respiration: The pet's breathing may become slower and more shallow, disorganized, or labored even while at rest. Difficulty breathing represents an emergent issue and requires medical attention.
- Loss of consciousness: In the final stages, the pet may slip into unconsciousness or be unresponsive. This would also be an emergent situation.
Just as the beginning of life and birth story is unique to each individual, so is the journey at the end of life. The progression, transition, and accompanying signs often vary, and are more evident and marked in an unpalliated or unassisted death.
In an assisted death by euthanasia, veterinarians commonly use a multi-step approach first administering sedative or anesthetic agents before giving an injection of concentrated barbiturates which work by inducing deep anesthesia, quickly leading to unconsciousness and cessation of vital functions, including respiration, and the beating of the heart. The specific protocol, dosages, and routes of administration vary depending on the size, temperament, and species of the animal, as well as the pet’s medical condition. The veterinarian will determine the appropriate dosage based on their professional judgment and the needs of the pet.
It's important to note that pet euthanasia should only be performed by trained veterinary professionals to ensure the procedure is carried out properly and without undue suffering. As of the time of this writing, in-home euthanasia may only be performed by licensed veterinarians or, in some states, by a licensed veterinary technician under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.
Pet euthanasia through CodaPet is only performed by veterinarians. We believe euthanasia is truly a gift and take seriously the responsibility and honor of easing the transition between life and death for beloved pets.
What comes next? Prior to the euthanasia process your veterinarian will discuss the options for post-euthanaisa body care. Your options may vary regionally, however, prior to the euthanasia process your veterinarian will discuss the options and confirm your decision. The two main options are cremation and burial:
- Cremation: Your veterinarian can facilitate the transport of your pet to the crematorium. Where your wishes will be carried out regarding cremation with or without ashes returned to you (often discussed using language such as group or communal cremation versus individual or private). Cremation services vary in price based on your choice, size of the pet, and any personalized memorial items.
- Burial: Assuming it is allowed by state and local ordinances, you can choose to bury your pet on your private property. Pet cemeteries are also an option for burial in many locations; however, arrangements must be made in advance so a burial plot can be purchased and prepared.
Cremation services are more commonly selected as they remove the burden of compliance and preparation, as well as easing the emotional burden some feel at performing the burial task themselves.
How to approach Quality of Life Questions. The term “Quality of Life” is often heard as disease processes progress or advancing age deprives our senior pets of faculty and function. But it can be difficult to pin down when quality of life (QOL) is present and when it is lacking. There are many tools and assessments available to help approach this topic. The important thing is to find one that works for you and use it as often as needed. Repeated and regular assessments allow early identification of declining well-being which can lead to earlier interventions: whether treatment, palliation, or euthanasia, as appropriate. As you strive to process the information you garner from QOL tools and questionnaires it can be helpful to hear from other families how they process their own pet’s scores.
Don’t walk this road alone. Grief comes in all shapes and sizes, and can occur even before a loss takes place. Please remember that grief exists where deep love first existed and that you are not alone. There are professionals as well as support groups, and resources surrounding the subject of pet loss. You do not have to process your pain on your own.