Saying Goodbye, Euthanasia, or “putting a pet to sleep”, is one of the hardest decisions we ever have to make as pet owners. In the seemingly short time that they spend in our lives our pets become much loved and cherished companions; they are part of our family and for some people they are a best friend, so saying goodbye is always going to be a really hard thing to do.
Most of us fear the day when our pets just cannot go on any longer and we hope that when they do die, they will pass away peacefully in their sleep, in their own bed and in their own home, but sadly for many of us this does not happen and, in these cases, euthanasia is the kindest thing that we can do for our pet to prevent unnecessary suffering and pain.
When Is The Right Time?
Every cat, owner and situation is different. There is no hard and fast rule about when a cat may need to be euthanased because each circumstance is individual. The most important fact to take into consideration is your cat’s quality of life – is it good or not?
- Can my cat walk to the food/water bowl, to the litter tray or out into the garden without pain and/or lots of assistance?
- Can my cat eat and drink normally on his or her own?
- Can my cat pass urine and faeces normally?
- Is my cat in pain or does he or she have a debilitating condition that is not going to get better?
- Can I cope with my cat’s problems and needs?
Many of us just don’t know when to make the decision or we just can’t accept that it is time, especially when we have a cat that goes back and forth between having really bad, painful days where they look depressed and can’t get around, to having relatively OK and happy days. To help you be objective in this situation
- Ask your vet for advice about your cat’s health, condition and pain levels. Your vet cannot make the decision for you, but they can advise you of how much pain your cat is in and what, if anything, can be done.
- Get advice from a relative or friend who is not as emotionally involved with your cat as you are. Sometimes we are too close to our pets to see or admit to what is really going on and someone else may help make things clearer.
- Keep a daily diary about your cat as it will help to show you how many good days and bad days your cat is having. Examples of things to keep a note of include
- Behaviour – happy / grumpy / lethargic / lashing out / slept all day
- Eating – wolfed down the lot & asked for more / ate nothing / ate a bit when hand fed
- Drinking – increased / decreased / drank nothing / drank milk
- Pain levels – good / bad / can hardly move / jumped up onto the window sill
- Mobility – slow / managed a short walk / went in garden for 10 mins / couldn’t get up without assistance / fell over/ couldn’t get upstairs or onto the bed
If the quality of life for your cat is not acceptable and your vet is unable to help with treatment or medication, then it may be time for you to make your decision.
You can make an appointment with your vet to give your cat a check over and discuss your options and you can make an appointment with a veterinary nurse for a chat in person or over the phone and they can talk everything through with you, before you come in.
The Final Days
With the exception of a few sudden injuries and acute conditions, for most cat owners the decision to euthanase is not a sudden one. When you have made the difficult decision you will need to think about final arrangements.
You may find it a nice idea to give your cat a final few days of being spoilt rotten with love, toys and favourite foods. It is also an opportunity for any family members and close friends to come to terms and say their goodbyes. Some owners also like to take a nice photo of the cat on his or her own or with the family, keep a lock of their cat’s hair, or even make a paw print or cast to remember their cat by.
Where Can Euthanasia Be Carried Out?
It is usually possible for a vet and nurse to visit your cat at home and many owners prefer this because their cat is happier in his or her home environment. A home visit will need to be arranged in advance and will usually be late morning or early afternoon on a weekday as these are generally quieter times for the veterinary practice.
Euthanasia is still most commonly carried out at the veterinary surgery, rather than at home. Some practices will have a ‘quiet’ or non-clinical room, which can be much less stressful for your cat. A good practice will also make sure that you are not rushed and can spend as much time as you wish with your cat after euthanasia to say goodbye.
Should I Stay With My Cat?
This is entirely up to you and everyone handles the situation differently. For some people, the procedure is too upsetting and they would prefer to remember their cat the way he or she was, so they opt to leave their cat in the capable hands of the veterinary staff (you can always go back in after the procedure if you want too). Please don’t feel embarrassed or guilty if you don’t feel able to stay with your pet, remember that the vets and nurses know exactly what you are going through.
Other owners prefer to stay so they can talk to, stroke and/or cuddle their cat during the procedure. If this is what you would prefer to do don’t feel embarrassed to show your emotions.
What Happens During Euthanasia?
Euthanasia is usually performed by the injection of a concentrated anaesthetic liquid into a vein in the cat’s front leg. In most cases it is performed via a needle and syringe and if you stay, you are encouraged to stroke and talk to your cat throughout. If you would prefer to hold and cuddle your cat, if there a few family members present (especially children) or if your cat is anxious, a catheter can be placed into the vein prior to the procedure; in this case a veterinary nurse may need to take your pet to another area to do this. It is then usually possible for you to continue to hold, cuddle and talk to your cat during their last moments.
Although your cat may feel the initial needle scratch (as with receiving any injection), the injection itself is not painful. Some cats may also get a little distressed by feeling sleepy from the injection or just because they are being held.
For some very anxious cats, the vet may opt to give them a little sedation before the procedure so that they are not getting bothered about what is going on around them; however, this may not be appropriate for all patients.
In rare cases, a cat may have very low blood pressure and it may not be possible for the vet to locate an appropriate vein for injection. In this case the injection may be given directly into a kidney. This does not cause pain to your cat, but may be distressing to witness if you are not forewarned.
Once the injection has been given, your cat will rapidly lose consciousness, stop breathing, and finally his or her heart will stop. This whole process usually takes a few seconds, but in older cats with poor blood pressure and circulation, the heart may continue beating for a minute or so.
After euthanasia, the muscles and limbs may tremble and your cat may gasp a few times this is perfectly normal and these are reflex actions of the body and not signs of life, but it can sometimes be upsetting to see. Your cat’s eyes will likely remain open after death and sometimes the bowel and bladder will empty. After the vet has examined your cat and confirmed his or her death, you should be able to stay with your cat and say your goodbyes if you want to, for as long as you need to.
What Happens To My Cat Afterwards?
It is a good idea to have a think in advance about what you would like to happen to your cat after he or she has passed away. If you can let the veterinary practice know this when you make the appointment, it can take away the need for you to make difficult decisions at the time of euthanasia when you are going to be very emotional. If you cannot bring yourself to make your decision in advance do not worry; if you need a day or two to decide the veterinary practice will be able to keep your cat safe for you while you decide on final arrangements.
This is by far the most popular choice for many cat owners as it means that your pet will be cremated and their ashes will be returned to you in a way of your choosing; examples include a casket or an urn to keep or bury, a pouch or container so that you can scatter your pets ashes at home or in a favourite place or a pretty memorial stone, wooden carving or photo frame containing your pets ashes. You can usually personalise any of the available options to whatever it is that you want, to help you remember a special pet in your own way
You veterinary practice will be able to recommend a local pet cremation company for you and arrange for your pet to be collected or you can take your pet to the crematorium yourself if you prefer.
‘Routine’ or Mass Cremation
Your cat will be cremated alongside other pets and no ashes will be returned. Rest assured that your cat will still be treated with the same dignity and respect as he or she would be if having an individual cremation.
This option is private, personal and less expensive than other alternatives; however, you must own the property and give thought to what might happen if you ever move away. Your cat’s grave will need to be at least 3-4 feet deep and away from walls and any watercourses for health reasons. It is worth checking for the local council rules in your area.
Burial at a Pet Cemetery
There are only a few places in the UK where it is possible to bury your cat at an official Pet Cemetery, you could contact the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria to find out where these places are.
It is entirely up to you which option you choose for your cat, so do what feels right for you and your family.
Coping With The Loss Of Your Cat
When a pet dies, it is a very difficult time for all the family, because of the strong bond that develops between people and animals as they interact with each other. The loss of a much-loved cat can be a very traumatic experience and it is natural to encounter a variety of emotions depending on how strong a bond you had and what your cat meant to you; you may experience emotions ranging from disbelief and denial to despair, anger and very often guilt, before you get to acceptance and the ability to grieve properly. Should you wish to talk to someone at any stage the Pet Bereavement Support Service has set up a telephone help line to help you through this difficult time.
Helping Children Cope With Pet Euthanasia
The relationship between children and their pets is unique and the loss of a pet can be very traumatic to a child and is sometimes the first time that they will properly understand that living creatures and people eventually die. It can be very hard for parents to deal properly with their child’s emotions, especially if they are feeling the same way about a much loved pet. Children need to know that it is ok to feel sad and that grief is a normal and necessary process, they may also need to be told that the pet did not die because of what they did or did not do.
Be open and honest with children – If your pet is ill or elderly and euthanasia is necessary or death is imminent, tell your children early on so they will hear it first from you and not from someone else. If possible (and age appropriate) involve your children in the discussion about your pet’s health and decision to euthanase.
Offer explanations and answer questions – you may need to explain what dead means for example ‘The body stops working completely’ and why euthanasia is necessary for example ‘Tiddles’ is in a lot of pain and her body has stopped working properly, sadly there is nothing anyone can do to make her get better and feel well’
Avoid using substitute terms – children can be easily confused by the terms we use to soften things, such as
- ‘Put to sleep’ – this could imply that the pet will wake up at some point or it may even trigger problems of sleep anxiety.
- ‘Passed away’ and ‘gone to another/better place’ – could imply that the pet has gone on a trip and may return.
- ‘Left us’ – could imply that the pet didn’t want to be with the family/child any more.
Should A Child Witness Euthanasia Of A Pet?
Only you as a parent can decide if this is appropriate for your particular child. Children do not necessarily need to be there for the actual procedure (it could lead to injection phobias in very young or sensitive children), but seeing their pet afterwards can help with closure. If you chose to let your child witness the procedure it will be important that you talk to them about exactly what will happen. Please also consider the effect it will have on your pet as a very upset child could distress your pet during the procedure.
Will Other Pets In The Household Grieve?
Unfortunately our pets cannot really tell us how they feel and we can only judge their mood by their behaviour, which is something we may overlook if we are grieving ourselves. There is much debate in the animal world about how much emotion pets show and perceive, but regardless of this it is well documented that the sudden loss of a companion of the same species can be difficult and cause some behavioural changes in remaining pets, it is also possible that the pets are perhaps picking up on the emotions of their owners.
You may notice that the remaining pet is not as keen on interacting and hides or wants to be alone (particularly in cats). A decrease in appetite, which can lead to weight loss may also occur. Some dogs may be restless or more vocal and may even seem like they are searching for their lost friend. However, don’t be alarmed if you notice the complete opposite of these things, such as the remaining pet suddenly seeming to have a new lease of life, being happier and more outgoing than before; this may be because the remaining pet is getting more one-to-one time with you or it is often seen in cats when the cat that has died was at the top of the pecking order.
To help your pet cope you can try to increase the time spent and activities you do together. This can be play time, walks, training sessions or grooming. You can also use pet pheromone diffusers such as Feliway for Cats or Adaptil for dogs as it will help them to feel more secure in the home.
Should You Let Your Pet See His Or Her Companion After Death?
There is no evidence to suggest it is either good or bad for the remaining pet, so we leave it up to you to decide. If you have your pet euthanased at home, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t let the other pets see, sniff and spend some time with your pet after death. However, if the procedure takes place at the veterinary surgery this may not be practical at all, especially for cats as it may distress the remaining cat further to have to visit the practice, again the decision is yours.
Should I get another companion for my pet?
Whether to get another pet to ‘fill the void’ is a difficult decision and should be thought through carefully. Just like people, pets will deal with their loss in their own way and will adjust in time. Many cats may actually be better off without a new companion, as it can take a lot of time and effort for them to adjust to a new cat (or dog) in the household and you will may find that they will never get on as well with the new addition.
If you do decide to introduce a new pet to the household, do it gradually and carefully over a period of a few weeks to ensure they get on well together.
Remembering Your Pet
Some owners like to plan a memorial for the ca and this may be a particularly good idea if you have children as it can provide them with an opportunity to say goodbye in their own way. Some nice ideas for pet memorials include
- Placing a memorial stone in the garden
- Visiting a favourite place that was special to you and your pet
- Scattering your pet’s ashes in a favourite place.
- Planting a tree or scattering wild flower seeds over a pet’s grave or just as a memory
- Keeping a picture of your pet
- Lighting a candle to remember them
- Children may like to draw or make pictures of their pet or keep a photo of them with their pet
- Many owners like to keep their pet’s collar, they may keep it somewhere safe or pass it on to their next pet.
Do what you feel is right for you and your family and don’t worry about what anybody else says or thinks.
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I am a qualified and registered Veterinary Nurse with over 20 years experience working with small animals.
i currently work for Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, which is a large, single center, small animal veterinary practice.
The recently rebuilt premises now includes a separate but integrated cat clinic, outstanding in-patient wards and operating theatres, spacious comfortable waiting areas, 9 consulting rooms for both veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse consultations, diagnostics room with x-ray, ultrasound and endoscopy equipment and a well equipped laboratory.