2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Sarah Probst
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
"When owners find out they have a terminally ill pet, their biggest question for the veterinarian is 'How much longer does my pet have?' And that is something that we really can't answer," says Dr. Jo Ann Eurell, veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. "Your veterinarian can give an approximate estimate of the time left, but it may be longer or shorter."
Dr. Eurell believes that owners need to give some thought to euthanasia before being faced with the fact that their pet is terminally ill. "If they spend time thinking and talking about it with family members, they will be better prepared to make difficult decisions later."
Although the grief process is different for everyone, when anticipating the loss of a companion animal, it is common for you to go through a range of emotions. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined several associated with grief. While in denial, you might not believe it is happening to you or your pet. In the anger stage, you may be angry at yourself, your veterinarian, the disease, or even your family. Later, you may bargain with yourself or your veterinarian, trying to get more time for your pet. When you realize that more time may be impossible, depression can set in. You may cry a lot, not want to eat, or feel lethargic. Eventually, acceptance comes. You realize your pet will die and face the decision to euthanize or let the disease take its course.
"Owners know their pets better than anyone else. They will know when it is time to euthanize their pet," emphasizes Dr. Eurell. "Changes in the quality of life of the animal will indicate to them that it's time." These signs differ with the owner's and animal's personalities and needs. They might include a lack of appetite, inactivity, a glazed look. Diseases sometimes cause pets a lot of pain, which distracts pets from doing what they love.
The euthanasia procedure varies. Some veterinarians give you the option to euthanize your pet at home, in a garden, or in a place where you've spent a lot of time with the animal. Others do euthanasia only in the clinic. "It is important when you decide to euthanize to communicate your wishes about the euthanasia and learn about the process for your own peace of mind," says Dr. Eurell.
"The typical euthanasia is an overdose of anesthesia that suppresses brain activity and stops the heart so that the animal doesn't feel any pain. Once the heart and breathing stop, death follows shortly. It generally happens in less than a minute," explains Dr. Eurell. "It is possible that there might be a physiologic reaction that can cause some concern for an owner observing the death. The pet might go into an excitatory phase where there might be muscular movement. Also, the sphincters may relax and the pet might urinate or defecate." In addition, animals may not close their eyes at the time of death. These activities are not indications that your pet has suffered pain.
Some owners opt to be with their pet until the end. Other owners don't want to be in the room. Dr. Eurell comments, "The decision to be present is a very personal one that needs to be talked about with your veterinarian. If you want to be present, you should be present."
When people die, autopsies are done to confirm cause of death. Your veterinarian may ask you if you want a necropsy-a pet autopsy. "If your animal is dying of an undetermined illness, it may be comforting to request a necropsy. Not knowing the cause of death can be a painful, emotional issue for pet owners," says Dr. Eurell.
Whether or not you request a necropsy, you need to tell your veterinarian what you would like done with the body of your pet. If you decide to bury your pet, you need to find a spot that complies with city ordinances. Many communities do not allow pet burials in yards. If you live in the city, a pet cemetery may be an option. Cremation is a choice for many owners. "Cremation involves a couple of options-cremation with other animals or the more costly option of cremation alone," says Dr. Eurell. "And then owners need to decide what to do with the ashes. Do they want to scatter, bury, or keep the ashes in an urn?"
After your pet is gone, your grief will continue. "Some people will get over it quickly, and other people may take longer. They might miss their pet more intensely and go through the same stages discussed with anticipatory grief. Owners should know that there are a wide variety of normal reactions to the loss of this extremely important part of their life." Unfortunately, not everyone is going to understand the loss of a pet. However, there is a high chance that your veterinarian has dealt personally with the loss of a pet.
Dr. Eurell has had to deal with euthanizing a companion animal she was very close to. "It is a very upsetting event. The loss was a strong emotional point for me," she explains. "Most veterinarians have experienced loss of a personal pet and really understand what a client is going through and would like to help as best as they can." Her own loss inspired her to work with the pet loss helpline at the College.
The C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Helpline
was developed to provide a supportive outlet for people experiencing
disruption in or the loss of the bond they share with their cherished
companion animal. The Helpline is staffed by veterinary students
who understand the importance of this bond and the emotions involved
when that bond is threatened or broken. The students have received
training by professional grief counselors and receive ongoing
supervision by a licensed psychologist. If you or someone you
know would like support in dealing with the loss of a pet, please
call (217) 244-CARE.