Animal Health Matters: Euthanasia — When it’s time to say goodbye

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

Having cleaned up from the afternoon’s small chute job out in the country, it was time to settle into an office chair and look through the phone messages our secretary at the vet clinic had for me.

I dreaded returning the call at the top of the list. It was a long-time client whose dog I’d examined a couple days ago. Buddy, their 13-year-old black Lab had been steadily but rapidly declining over the past week. Cataracts were clouding his vision, and arthritis made it a struggle to get up after lying down. Now Buddy had lost control of his bowels and urination. The writing was on the wall, and we’d had a very sad and frank conversation about Buddy’s prospects. On the phone, Buddy’s owners confirmed my suspicions — they’d made the decision to euthanize Buddy.

As a special favor, our vet tech and I went out to the family farm to perform the procedure. After the barbiturate had gone through Buddy’s bloodstream and his body fell limp, tears flowed from every one of the family members present. Their decision was an excruciating one to come to, but all knew it was the right thing to do.

The Veterinarian’s Oath mandates that veterinarians use their skills and knowledge to, among other duties, “relieve animal suffering.” We use preventive medicine, medical treatments and surgery to accomplish this for our patients, but at the very end of life’s road lies possibly our most important procedure: that of euthanasia.

The word euthanasia translates to “good death.” When animals face irresolvable pain and suffering, it is the one last merciful action that we as humans can grant them — a “good death.” It’s a procedure unique to veterinary medicine and the part of a veterinarian’s job that gives students the most apprehension about entering the profession.

In offering this relief to patients, veterinarians shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that euthanasia is truly a “good death” — as peaceful and painless as possible. For companion animals we usually use heavy doses of barbiturate anesthetic to shut down the animal’s system. As far as we can tell, it is truly as peaceful as the animal going to sleep. For cattle and other large animals, barbiturates often aren’t options, since residues of that drug in the carcass make rendering impossible. Captive bolt and gunshot — performed properly — can be acceptable. Our veterinary association has an extensive set of guidelines regarding euthanasia of different species — all of them provide for the animal’s immediate unconsciousness prior to death. Anything less is not a “good death.” The last thing we want is for an animal to experience even more pain as we attempt to put it out of its misery.

The veterinary logistics surrounding euthanasia are relatively straightforward compared with making the actual decision. For farm animals, some guidelines exist. For example, swine veterinarians recommend euthanizing a pig when there is no response to treatment over a two-day period or if there otherwise is no prospect for recovery. One could probably apply this to other food animals as well.

But in the case of a long-time family companion such as a dog or cat, strict guidelines don’t exist. Sometimes the decision to euthanize is obvious: a catastrophic injury or rapid onset of a painful terminal illness. Most of the time, particularly with older pets, it’s much less clear. I’ve had some owners put off the decision while the animals probably suffered longer than they should have. Others maybe were a bit quick to come to the decision. It’s not a call I can make — the family has to come to peace with it on their own time. I provide the best input I can — mostly medical but sometimes philosophical. A veterinarian I know asks his clients to name three things the pet really enjoyed doing during their life. Maybe it was going out hunting the first day of pheasant season. Or jumping up in the pickup cab for a ride to town. Whatever that list is for that animal, the thought was, when they’re no longer able to do those things, it is time to consider euthanasia.

I don’t know any veterinarian who doesn’t dislike euthanizing animals, but I also don’t know any who aren’t grateful they have that ability to relieve an animal’s suffering in that manner.