There comes a day when every pet parent has to come to terms with their pet’s passing. This unfortunately means making the difficult decision between a “natural death” or humane euthanasia. I imagine just about everyone would like their pet to comfortably crawl into their bed one night, drift off to sleep, and pass away peacefully while sleeping. While many people think this defines a “natural death,” that isn’t necessarily the case—and a natural death does not always guarantee a peaceful death.
To begin, it’s important to understand what animals experience near the end of their life. Many end-stage diseases can be extremely painful or full of anxiety for pets. Here are a few common illnesses and how they affect your pet:
Congestive heart failure is a common cause of death in companion animals. As the heart condition worsens, fluid starts to build up in the lungs. In end-stage heart failure, a pet actually drowns in their own lung fluid. Unfortunately for the animal, this is associated with an enormous amount of pain and anxiety. Just ask any asthmatic how painful it is not being able to breathe.
Kidney or liver failure is another very common ailment. The main function of these organs is to filter out toxins. As these toxins build up to poisonous levels in the bloodstream, pets become very sick, lose their appetite, and slowly die from starvation, dehydration, and complications from the toxin build-up.
Arthritis and mobility issues are the most common ailment of larger pets. As their joints begin to hurt, they move less, find it more difficult to get up from a prone position, and their leg muscles atrophy—making it even more difficult to move. Eventually, they lose mobility altogether and are unable to get up. This, however, will not end the pet’s life. It is usually from secondary complications like bedsores and infection.
When I consult with clients who desire a natural passing for their pet, I explain what their pet may experience during the process, depending on their ailment. I also ask why they want a natural passing for their pet. More often than not, I receive two answers:
Neither of which are true. That being said, I think it’s very important that people are educated on what veterinary euthanasia actually is.
First, pets take a small sedative to help them relax and get comfortable while their family says goodbye. If you have ever had surgery, they usually give you a small injectable sedative or pain reliever before the anesthesia. It just makes you feel good and relax!
The final medication is an over dose of a barbiturate given in the blood supply—this is an anesthetic. This makes the pet fall asleep and then stops brain function, followed by the heart and lungs. This anesthetic does not hurt at all and it’s just like when humans go under anesthesia for surgery. The pet is totally unconscious when they pass.
On rare occasions, some pets may vocalize. However this is a natural reflex in reaction to certain drugs. But this does not mean they are in any pain. Some dogs or cats also may be startled by the feeling of the liquid going thru their vein—again, very similar to humans feeling an odd sensation when we receive IV fluids and the fluid is not the same temperature as our blood. Still, this is not painful.
Another thing to keep in mind with a so-called “natural passing” is that it doesn’t always happen at night while they are in bed. It can happen when you run to the store, when you’re at work, when they are outside going to the bathroom, etc. More often than not, death doesn’t occur while your pet is asleep. They eventually do fall unconscious which people then perceive as having occurred while they were asleep.
A natural passing doesn’t always happen very quickly either. The pet might start having a seizure, they may start to choke or they may have difficulty breathing. This is not easy to watch or let your pet go through, and people need to be prepared for this. What happens if your pet is alone during this traumatic time? I wouldn’t want to be alone during my final moments, so families with pets that are near the end should have someone with them at all times to make sure they are not suffering.
It is never too late to call a veterinarian if the natural route is not going as planned. In fact, many families are amazed at how peaceful and respectful the process actually can be—even commenting that they wish they could pass that way.
For elderly people struggling with painful conditions, the constant infusion of medications like morphine or other sedatives ensures they do not feel the effects of body organ shut down and death. Although sad, this is the humane thing to do, but our pets are not normally given this type of care. Understandably, most wouldn’t want their pets fully sedated for weeks at a time.
There is really no down-side to humane euthanasia, aside from the cost to the owner. This varies by location and veterinarian.
There is no shame to providing a pet with a peaceful passing. Personally, I find it satisfying knowing that the pet’s final minutes were ones where they felt no pain (due to the effect of sedation and pain relief) versus their final minutes being ones of experiencing some degree of suffering, confusion, and anxiety. I think that you, as a pet owner, have “permission” to choose a pain free, peaceful, death for your pet. It can be your last gesture of love.
In addition to her role as a hospice veterinarian and Founder & CEO of Lap of Love, Dani McVety is a speaker, consultant, author, and host for PetCareTV. With a deep love for the human-animal bond, Dr. Dani enjoys just about anything that has to do with pets! After graduating from college, she practiced emergency medicine and gained a greater understanding of how to help families at a time in which they felt most helpless. This has become her greatest fulfillment in veterinary medicine: helping to ease the stress and fear of the people who love their animals.
As an accomplished entrepreneur before vet school graduation, Dr. Dani partnered with Dr. Mary Gardner about one year after founding Lap of Love. Through hard work and collaboration, they have grown the company into one of the most respected networks of doctors in the veterinary profession, setting the standard for end-of-life care higher than it has ever been before. Dr. Dani graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and is the youngest recipient of the college’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award (2013), the Florida Veterinary Medical Association’s President’s Award (2014), and most recently, the Pet Industry Woman of the Year (2017).