Chihuahuas and Euthanasia!

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You pick up that new kitten or puppy for the very first time. Involuntarily and with no conscious effort, the bond takes root. Despite the thrill of acquiring a new pet, though, your imagination races years ahead and uncomfortable, fleeting thoughts pass through your mind. "I hope this little rascal lives a long time" is a typical thought. Or you can't help hearing that inner voice whisper, "I can't imagine this cute little puppy as an old dog" or "Someday this little furry kitten will be old and unhealthy". But maybe you think far enough ahead and wonder, "Will I ever be able to 'put down' my pet? Is euthanasia the inevitable?

We always fear losing these pets that mean so much to us. Nevertheless, that time inevitably does come. So how do we pet owners face our pet's mortality? How do we face euthanasia?

Euthanasia literally means “gentle death.” Other terms you may hear are ”put to sleep,” “put down,” ”put out of its misery,” or, less kindly, ”destroy.” Veterinary staff may use the term ”humane destruction” which is simply a technical term for putting an animal to sleep.

The decision to end a life is never easy. It is a personal, loving decision to euthanize a pet for which the quality of life has deteriorated. It takes courage to assume this last duty and it is our last responsibility to a pet that has given us love and companionship. There is also no easy human comparison. The bond between dog and owner is a very special one. It is easy to become emotionally caught up in keeping your dog alive when you know that there is no hope of him regaining his health.

Many people who have had to put a cherished pet to sleep, even after thorough soul-searching and careful consideration of the reasons and timing, have had second thoughts about having their pet euthanized. It is very common to be plagued by remorse, doubt, and guilt about the decision to go ahead with the euthanasia process.

Please remember no amount of preparation will be enough to prevent those yearnings to have your special friend back with you again. You may wish you could undo what you have so carefully considered to be the correct course of action. In some cases, the self-doubt can become overwhelming... and even advance to obsession.

Modern drugs are extremely fast-acting and the end is very peaceful compared to the latter stages of a terminal illness or age-related illness. Your vet will administer an overdose of anesthetic by injection and the dog will simply fall into a painless and final sleep. If, during his life, your dog has been a cherished member of your family, this is the last, and often most compassionate, duty you can perform for him.

Making the decision

Your vet is an invaluable source of advice when you feel the time for euthanasia may be approaching. He or she cannot make the decision for you, but he can help you to decide when it is time to let go. You need to consider things from the dog's point of view.

Is your dog in incurable pain or continual discomfort which cannot be alleviated by drugs?

Is treatment of his condition no longer possible?

Has he suffered severe injuries from which he will never recover?

Does he have an age-related or illness-related condition that cannot be alleviated and which now causes misery, e.g. advanced senility or incontinence?

Is he suffering from a terminal illness that has now reduced his quality of life to such a point that he is no longer happy?

Has your dog had a puppy that has an inoperable deformity that will give him a poor quality of life?

The decision almost always causes much soul-searching, especially if you and your dog have been companions for several years. What matters to the dog is quality of life, not length of life, since a dog has little concept of future time. An illness may be treatable for a period of time, but there eventually comes a point when the dog no longer enjoys life. He may be in visible distress or withdrawn.

Having seen your dog when he is happy and healthy, most owners recognize the signs given by a dog that is miserable. Your vet will be able to tell you whether the dog has a treatable ailment or is approaching the end of his life.

Warning signs are:

Not eating or drinking

Withdrawn or lethargic

Neglecting himself


Signs of pain—he may cry out if touched

Cannot get comfortable

Unwilling to move about

Tumors and/or injuries

Unable to hold head up when at rest

Since some of these can also be symptoms of treatable illness, you need to discuss your dog's welfare with your vet. He will be able to advise you and help you to make the right decision for your dog, but he cannot make the decision for you.

Making the Appointment for the Euthanasia Procedure

Be sure to tell the receptionist that you would like to schedule the appointment at a time when the veterinarian is not in a hurry with other appointments or surgery. You might even request that your appointment be the last one of the day or the first one in the morning. Explain that you have never had to go through this experience before and would like to know what to expect regarding the euthanasia procedure.

You have a right to take your deceased pet home for personal burial. You may also choose to leave your deceased pet with the veterinarian for burial or cremation. And always ask what will be done with your deceased pet after it is euthanized, or "put to sleep"! If you don't, you will always wonder, and your imagination will not be kind to you.

Can I have my dog put to sleep at home?

If you are willing to pay a call-out fee, your vet might euthanize your dog in your own home. Both you and your dog may find this less traumatic than waiting at the vet’s office. However, locating your dog when the vet arrives may be a problem as he knows the best hiding places. Many dogs have been put to sleep enjoying a last meal of steak or cheese. In the case of a home visit where a veterinary nurse is not available, and the vet does not feel that you are able to restrain the dog, he may sedate the dog first and then inject into the kidney or heart. This is less distressing for all concerned than trying to restrain an agitated dog.

The Euthanasia Appointment … To Be There or Not To Be There

It is your personal choice whether or not to be present in the exam or surgery room when the veterinarian administers the euthanasia solution. Many people simply cannot bear to see the moment of their special friend's passing. Others wouldn't let a tidal wave interfere with their being present! It really is up to your personal preference. Some people choose to stay in the waiting room during the euthanasia procedure and then briefly view their pet after it has passed away, maybe then spending a few moments in private with their pet.

If you are not sure just what to do I will offer an observation I have made from feedback from my clients. There are a multitude of pet owners who have regretted NOT being there with their pet when the pet was being euthanized, and their feelings that they may have abandoned their pet at a crucial time has created a certain sense of guilt that simply will not go away.

So … think over very carefully how you will feel long after your pet has been "put to sleep". Will you have regrets if you do not stay with your pet?

No one is comfortable with death, especially your veterinarian and animal hospital staff who face death every day. Your discomfort with the event should not govern your decision whether or not to be present with your pet at the time of its passing. Many apprehensive clients, with a slightly surprised look, have queried after the pet has been euthanized, "Is that it? That was very quick and peaceful. Thank you, Doctor".

Let me be very clear about something: It is perfectly normal and acceptable to cry. I have often wondered why some people don't cry after their pet has been euthanized. This can be a very sad time and even though the animal hospital staff might have to go through this all too often, there really is no getting used to euthanizing a dog or cat. The animal hospital staff has often formed a strong connection with many of the pets in their care and often join in the crying; so you really have no need to pretend that you can handle it when inside you feel terrible.

You might choose to leave your pet in the car and go in first to see if there will be any delays prior to your scheduled time. As a veterinarian I have never been comfortable seeing a client sitting patiently in the waiting room with their pet for that final appointment. It is perfectly reasonable to ask the receptionist to let you know when the doctor is ready to see your pet... then bring your pet directly into the exam room. You should not have to be isolated in the exam room for a long period of time, either.

If you think your pet would be more comfortable and less apprehensive (not all pets relish coming to the animal hospital!) you may ask the veterinarian to provide your pet with some sedation prior to your visit. This can be administered at home at a directed time interval prior to the appointment or often sedation is given in the animal hospital via a painless injection under the pet's skin. After a short time the pet is relaxed and calm.

Do dogs know what is about to happen?

If you are agitated or upset, your dog will detect this and become upset himself. However, he will not know why you are upset and he will not know that this visit to the vet is any different from other visits, e.g. for vaccinations.

In order to administer the euthanasia solution your veterinarian must gain entry into a vein. The euthanasia solution is specially made to act quickly and painlessly but it must be administered intravenously. This requires that your pet be calm and confident. If the veterinarian requests your permission to sedate your pet, please understand that the request is made in order to humanely and peacefully accomplish the task at hand. If your pet is uncooperative, defensive, afraid or even fractious, your veterinarian and you will not be able to properly carry out the euthanasia procedure.

How Quickly Does It Happen After The Needle Has Been Inserted?

The answer is very quickly. The dog loses consciousness within seconds of the injection and death follows a few seconds later. If you are holding the dog, you will feel him exhale, relax and become heavier in your arms. Urine may trickle from his bladder as the muscles relax. The vet will check for a pulse or eyelid-flick reflex and if there is any chance at all that the dog is deeply unconscious, he will give a second injection into a kidney or the heart. Your dog will not be aware of a second injection if it is needed.

When the veterinarian is ready to administer the euthanasia solution the assistant will help hold your pet and put a slight amount of pressure on a vein, usually in the foreleg. This allows the veterinarian to see the vein better and aids in passing a fine needle into the vein. When it is certain that the needle is within the vein the veterinarian slowly injects the euthanasia solution.

Many pet owners choose to help hold their pet and if possible even have the pet in their arms at the time of euthanasia. Your veterinarian will try to accommodate your wishes, but remember that it is imperative that the solution be injected within the vein for the procedure to unfold properly.

Usually within six to twelve seconds after the solution is injected the pet will take a slightly deeper breath, then grow weak and finally lapse into what looks like a deep sleep. (This state gives rise to the questionable euphemism "to put to sleep".)

The pet, although completely unconscious, may continue to take a few more breaths before all movement ceases. I have found that the older and sicker the pet the longer this unconscious breathing state goes on.

Some pet owners will be more comfortable if they do not observe the pet's final moments and would rather be in the waiting room during the euthanasia injection. Then when their pet has passed away, the owner may wish to be with their pet privately for a few moments. If you do chose to visit with your pet after it has been euthanized, ask your veterinarian to be sure your pet's eyelids are closed; some pet owners have been saddened even further by looking into their deceased pet's eyes.

It is at this point when the veterinarian has completed the euthanasia procedure where great empathy and support for the pet owner is very important. I generally ask the owner if they would like to spend a few moments alone with the pet. Some people do and some people do not. If the client chooses to take the pet home, by pre-arrangement a container is at the ready to receive the pet.

The veterinarian usually will place the pet into the container and carry the deceased pet out to the car for the owner. If the pet owner chooses to have the pet cremated the veterinarian generally will make the arrangements through a cremation service and notify you when you can expect to have the ashes returned.

Generally, pet owners are surprised at the small quantity of ashes that are returned. Remember, most living creatures are about 95 percent water.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask "How do I know that the ashes that I receive will actually be those of my pet?" Everyone wonders about that.

Your veterinarian should be willing to provide you with the name and phone number of the cremation service. Don't be afraid to call up the cremation service and tell them your concerns about your pet.

You should get courteous and respectful answers to all your questions and if you don't, let your veterinarian know. In fact, it would be a good idea to call the cremation service long before that final day so that the last moments with your pet are as unstressful as possible.

It is not unusual nor unreasonable for pet owners to save a bit of their pet's fur as a physical remembrance of their special friend. Some people want their pet to be buried or cremated with a few photos, or a rose or even a personal letter or poem from the pet owner to their pet.

Just remember it is YOUR friend, YOUR pet, that is passing away and you can do anything you wish to ease your transition into the time of separation from that friend.

Here's another suggestion: You may want someone to be with you after the euthanasia appointment to drive you home. You may be surprised how difficult it can be to concentrate on driving after such an emotional event as what you just experienced.

How much does euthanasia cost?

The price will vary from area to area and vet to vet. It will be more expensive if there are other fees involved, e.g. for tests, operations or if the vet performs the euthanasia in your own home. Some vets will cremate your dog for you.

When do I pay?

This all depends on the vet, but vets usually understand that it is difficult to write checks when you are in a state of shock or grief. If you are a regular customer he may send you an invoice after a couple of days. Alternatively, you may be able to prepay when you arrive at the hospital—ask about this when you make the appointment and arrive a few minutes early. If you pay in advance or by invoice, you may be able to leave the hosptial by the back door rather than walk back through the waiting room.

How do I dispose of the body?

Just as with euthanasia, you need to decide how to deal with the dog’s body if he has died in a road traffic accident. If the body of a dog is not collected from a roadside after several hours, your local government has an agency that will usually collect it for incineration. If you find the sight of a body too distressing, a friend or neighbor may be able to help you or you could place a towel over it before moving it. If you cannot bury your dog, many vets will allow you to leave his body at the hospital where the body can be dealt with by the vet or be collected by a pet cemetery or pet crematorium if you make appropriate arrangements. The following will help you decide on a suitable course of action.

There are several options for disposal of your dog's mortal remains following death. In the case of a terminal illness or old age when euthanasia is not sudden or where death is expected, owners are encouraged to think about the disposal of the body in advance. This depends on where you live and on how much you wish to spend. Only in cases where the body poses a serious risk to human health will you be denied permission to deal with the remains as you wish.

Your vet can dispose of the body for you. The body will be stored in a veterinary deep freeze (for hygiene purposes) and collected for incineration by a firm licensed to incinerate animal remains, or ”medical waste.” Some vets can provide individual cremation; it is best to ask about this in advance if possible so that you know what options are available to you.

You can arrange for a pet cemetery or pet crematorium to collect the body from your vet. The body will be labeled with your name and the dog's name, and stored in the veterinary deep freeze until collected. If the euthanasia was expected, you may be able to take the body to the pet cemetery or crematorium yourself.

Pet cemeteries and crematoria offer several services: individual cremation where the ashes are either returned to you or buried at the crematorium; cremation with other animals with the ashes scattered in the garden of rest; or individual burial in a cemetery plot. Pet cemeteries have no legal protection so check that it is not likely to be bought up for redevelopment. If it is your wish, cremation or burial may often be accompanied by a short memorial service. Look in the Yellow Pages or for leaflets at the vet hospital for details of pet cemeteries and pet crematoria and their prices.

You can bury the dog in your own garden (or friend's yard) unless local bylaws forbid this. The grave must be at least three feet deep to deter scavengers. It is a sensible precaution to place a paving slab or heavy object on top of the grave until the ground settles as added protection from scavengers. Later on you may wish to plant a rosebush or place a memorial on the grave.

If you take your dog home for burial, he must be buried as soon as possible (within hours) otherwise putrefaction (decay) will set in. If you cannot take your dog's body home immediately, your vet may be able to store it in the veterinary deep freeze for a day or two. It is not advisable to store the body in your domestic deep freeze. If you do not collect the body on the arranged day, it will be collected for incineration.

Burial, cremation and incineration are the normal means of disposing of your dog's mortal remains. Some owners arrange to donate their dog's remains to a nearby veterinary school in the same way that people donate their bodies to medical science. A few arrange for taxidermy although the results are often disappointing.

Will My Other Dogs Mourn?

It is impossible to say exactly what emotions dogs feel, but if you have any other dogs they will certainly be aware that someone is missing from their lives. It is unlikely that they mourn in the human sense of the word, but there will be some behavioral changes as they adjust to the gap in their lives.

If the dogs were sociable, the surviving dogs may search, cry out or even pine. If they were unsociable or indifferent to each other, the survivors might simply rearrange themselves into a new hierarchy, dividing up their former companion's territory between them. Sometimes the surviving dog(s) blossom if they were previously bottom of the pecking order.

Should I show my other dogs the body?

If there is no danger of infection then this is a personal choice. Some owners say that the surviving dogs do not search for a companion, having seen the body. Others say that veterinary smells on the body disturbed their other dogs. They may sniff around the body, lick him and maybe try to wake him up before concluding that their friend has gone. We cannot know what dogs understand about death, but they probably have some awareness that a dead animal does not return to life. If there is no danger of infection and you believe that it will help your other dogs come to terms with the loss of a companion, then by all means allow them to see and smell the body.

How soon should I get another dog?

If your dog was put to sleep as the result of an infectious illness, then your vet may advise you to let a period of time elapse before getting another dog. This is to reduce the risk of infection remaining in your home.

Apart from this, it is a personal decision. Some people cannot live without K-9 companionship and get another dog almost immediately, sometimes within hours. Others would consider this to be indecent haste. Many owners need a period of time to come to terms with the loss of a pet; how long this takes varies from person to person. Some feel that getting another dog too quickly would be disrespectful to their former companion. A few owners take on another dog before their pet goes into terminal decline; this is only possible if the dog is sociable and there is no risk of infection

Important: Do not get a new dog if you are emotionally upset. Your new dog will not know you just lost a friend, will not know you are mourning; it will simply read your emotions as weakness, and it will instinctually feel the need to be YOUR pack leader. If you do not feel mentally strong, do not bring another dog into the house until you do.

Remember that the new dog will not replace the one you have lost. He will commemorate your previous dog, but will have a personality all his own. If you try to replace your dog with an exact duplicate, you are likely to be disappointed as all dogs are individuals.