contributed by:
Michael List, D.V.M.


As the art and science of veterinary medicine progress, many diagnostic and treatment options formerly offered only to human patients become available to pets. But one option that is denied human patients has always been there for veterinary patients and their families: when the time comes, a decision can be made to end a pet's life purposefully, humanely, and with dignity. This option, so often a great blessing, brings with it a great responsibility.

Friendships which have been so dear are terribly hard to let pass into cherished memory. We want our friends to live, but we also wish to spare them pain and indignity. We hope to time their passing wisely; to recognize the moment when prolonging their lives serves only to postpone the pain of losing them. We should not require them to suffer so obviously that our decision is made for us, sparing us the agonies of doubt and guilt.

Although many times the correct path is quite clear, it is often very difficult to decide when a life should be ended. In such a case the answers to the following questions may help clarify the issue.

  • What is the prognosis? How much improvement, if any, can be expected? How much pain and discomfort will accompany treatment? This must be balanced against the prognosis.

  • How rapidly can the condition be expected to progress? Can the patient return home for a time, during which leisurely goodbyes can be said?

  • Is the nursing care required at home within the household's capabilities? Many people find it very gratifying to nurse their pets through their final days, but this can also be difficult and stressful, causing frustration and guilt.

  • How much is the patient suffering? This can be extremely difficult to judge. To expect a pain-free existence is often not realistic--after all, few people over the age of thirty experience life with no pain whatsoever. The question is whether pain and distress exceed or eliminate the enjoyment of life. But pets are often very stoic and give little external evidence of suffering.
  • Here are some general guidelines we have found useful:

    The relative importance of these factors varies with each situation and each person's outlook, but asking these questions may help make your decision more clear. Please do not hesitate to ask us to assist you in making the decision that seems most right for you and your pet.
    If you and the doctor agree that the time has come to humanely end your pet's life, here is some information you should have:

  • For the sake of your privacy we like to make appointments for this service at the end of either the morning or afternoon block of office hours.

  • Making financial arrangements for this service in advance allows you to make a more comfortable exit. Please consult the receptionist when you check in.

  • You will be asked to fill out and sign a form granting your permission for the procedure and designating whether you wish your pet's remains to be returned to you. If you wish to take them home, please bring a suitable container. If the remains are left with us they will be sent to the animal shelter and incinerated. The ashes cannot be retrieved. Should you wish cremation with the ashes returned to you, that service is available elsewhere; we will be happy to give you the necessary information upon request.

  • Although we do not insist upon it, we do recommend that you stay with your pet until the end if you possibly can.

    The drug we use is a very strong barbiturate. In most cases it can be administered via two types of injection:

    With this method the drug takes effect very rapidly, but occasionally the pet struggles during the injection and may cry out, gasp, or thrash after it. These rare events are the body's final electrical and chemical activities. They do not indicate pain or distress, since mental activity has already ceased, but they can be unpleasant to observe.

    The drug is injected into the abdominal cavity. This rarely causes any significant discomfort and the pet simply falls asleep. Because the drug is absorbed through the lining of the abdomen this method is much slower than the intravenous method; ten minutes or more may pass before the patient loses consciousness, with the heart continuing to beat for several minutes more.

    In either case the doctor will listen to your pet's chest periodically until the heart has stopped and life has ended.

    It is not uncommon for anal and urinary sphincters to relax at the time of death, resulting in the release of urine and/or stool. With certain disease conditions or injuries there may also be drainage from other body openings. For this reason we will, unless you object, wrap your pet's remains in a large plastic bag for transport home.

    Finally, please accept our condolences. And please allow yourself to grieve. It is only natural to do so. We get so much love and pleasure from our pets, but we do have to pay a price, all at once, at the end. The pain is great now, but in time your grief will soften and you will be left only with the sweet memories of the love and companionship you and your friend had the great good fortune to share.