What to Expect When It’s Time to Put Your Pet to Sleep

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People with sick or elderly pets often wonder, “How will I know it’s time?” From my years of experience, both as a pet parent and an animal welfare professional, I find myself telling them that they’ll just know. If you're asking yourself these tough questions, it’s probably not time yet. Look for the signs that your pet is ready to find peace. Sometimes their situation deteriorates rapidly while others have more good days than bad for a period of time. Because you know your pet best, you’ll likely see when their quality of life has diminished to the point that the compassionate choice is to euthanize them.

When It's Time

When your pet is no longer able to move comfortably, eat, have normal bowel or bladder function, or seems to be in chronic pain, it’s time to contact a veterinarian to discuss euthanasia. You may discuss a timeline for the appointment, having emergency care in extreme cases, or deciding to schedule it for a few days out to say your goodbyes. Take this opportunity to spoil them, give them special treats, take them on an extra-long car ride to a quiet park. While you’re likely to struggle during this time, it can ease the grief a bit later on. On my Rottweiler’s last morning with us, I made her peanut butter and banana sandwiches and we sat quietly on the porch together. Despite her confusion and decline, spending those private moments together gave me a chance to come to terms with what was happening.

Where to Go

Most vets perform euthanasia in their office. Some do it in treatment rooms, while I’ve seen others that have dedicated rooms for euthanasia, complete with couches and a fireplace, so you can spend as long as you need with your pet, and it can accommodate many people if needed. Ask your vet’s office about what accommodations will be available. There are more vets offering in-home euthanasia today. Imagine the peace that could come, allowing your pet to pass in their grassy yard or in their comfy bed, avoiding the car trip or waiting in the office. If this is a service that interests you, call your vet’s office and ask if they have recommendations for this comfort care.

Making Arrangements

When you meet with your vet, you’ll likely discuss arrangements first. They’ll let you know the cost of the procedure, which is generally based on the weight of the pet. Then they’ll provide you with options for the body, burial vs. cremation, and you may have a day or two to decide how to handle the aftercare. Most clinics partner with crematoriums that have the following services:

Group cremation: Your pet’s body will be cremated along with the bodies of other pets collected from other clinics or animal shelters. You will not receive any ashes (or cremains). The cost usually starts around $25 and goes up depending on weight.

Private cremation and disposal: Your pet will be cremated alone and the ashes will be returned to you in about a week. The ashes are usually sealed in a small bag and contained in a simple box or canister. You can choose a different urn or receptacle at a later date. Cost for private cremation starts around $125 and goes up depending on weight.

Burial: If you do not wish to have your pet cremated, you may also look into burial options. While home burial is an option for some, other locales have laws against it – your provider can advise you of these restrictions. There may be pet cemeteries near you that your vet’s office can put you in touch with.

Saying Goodbye

The act of euthanasia is a quick medical procedure, where the animal is given a quick injection of phenobarbital. This medication causes the animal to fall asleep and generally stops the heart in a few minutes. Most pet parents feel positively about being present for this, though it can be too hard for some. The process of waiting and watching can vary from pet to pet. With my Rottweiler she was gone before the injection was finished. With my shepherd mix, additional doses were needed, though this is uncommon. Your pet may fall asleep, snore, snort, or just seem woozy while the medication works, though it can have a rapid effect. Generally, a pet that is sick or uncomfortable will not resist or feel discomfort during any of the process. You’ll be permitted to stay in the room with your pet to say your final goodbyes once they’ve passed on.

Once you’re ready to head home, your pet will remain with the clinic staff or be picked up by the service that is handling your chosen method of aftercare. With cremation, you’ll likely get that call about 7-10 days after your pet has passed, letting you know that it’s time to pick up the ashes. For many, seeing the pet in that small container, maybe with their name on it, can be a harsh reality, realizing that the pet is gone.

No matter the cause or the timing, saying goodbye to your pet can be one of the saddest moments in a pet parent’s life. Tears will be shed and hearts will be broken. But any animal caregiver will tell you that you’ve done a selfless and compassionate thing by providing your pet with an end to their suffering and a peaceful death. As brutal as that choice can be, your pet’s care team will be there to support you and help you to help your pet in their final moments.