Euthanasia for behavior, part three: what to expect

This post is the third in a series discussing euthanasia for behavior. Find more posts here.

Making the decision to euthanize your dog for behavior is incredibly difficult. It’s a decision that only you can make – but you don’t have to make it alone. This post includes information on what to expect if you euthanize your dog as well as resources for those who make the decision to do so.

Special note for the COVID-19 crisis.

Many of us are facing a variety of new struggles. Stuck at home 24/7 and seeing the true severity or increase in severity of a behavior; new lack of resources; decrease in mental health and support. For many people who may not have considered euthanasia in the past, this has become a real consideration. If you are facing this decision at this time of hardship and uncertainty, know that you are not opting for “an easy way out.” As our situations changes, what’s best for our dogs also changes. If you have questions or want to discuss this situation specifically, please reach out via the email address at the end of this post.

You are not a failure.

Please read that sentence over again, maybe a few dozen times. You are not a failure. Choosing the wellbeing and safety of yourself and your family is not a failure. Giving peace to a dog who has lived in a constant state of fear, anxiety, or stress is not a failure. Relieving someone you love of their pain is not a failure.

It might take a long time to believe it, but I promise that it’s true.

What happens when a dog is euthanized?

For many people, euthanasia is a bit mysterious. How is it done? What exactly happens? Will it hurt? The unknown can make the decision harder.

I took a course last year to become a Certified Euthanasia Technician in the state of Michigan. I’ve never actually physically euthanized a dog myself, though I’ve held enough in my arms to be familiar with the process. Even so, understanding exactly what is happening brought me some peace. If you’ve never experienced a euthanasia, knowing ahead of time what is going to happen can make the experience a little easier.

This section includes basic descriptions of the euthanasia process. If you don’t think that reading this is going to help you, skip this section.

What is the process for euthanasia?

While there are a variety of methods that are considered humane, the vast majority of euthanasias for pet dogs are performed by an injection of Sodium Pentobarbital, a general anesthetic which, in high doses, is fatal. While the injection can be done in the abdominal cavity or heart, in most cases, it will be done intravenously (into a vein). In a general practice setting, the dog will first be issued a sedative. The technician will verify that the dog is fully unconscious before injecting the Sodium Pentobarbital, then will use a stethoscope to verify that the dog’s heart has stopped beating.

At a general practice clinic or during an at-home euthanasia, the vet or technician will typically check the dog’s vitals first. This ensures that the dog is not experiencing cardiac distress, which effects the dosage of Sodium Pentobarbital needed to be effective. They may insert an IV catheter into the dog’s leg to make the injection process less stressful. They’ll give you some time to sit with your dog, then administer the sedative when you are ready. In many cases, they will then give you awhile longer to sit with your dog, if you wish; the sedative is typically effective for about 20-40 minutes. When you are ready, the Sodium Pentobarbital will be injected, stopping the heart. You will also be given time to sit with your dog after the process is complete, if you wish.

If your dog is unable to be handled by a stranger or you believe that any part of this process will be difficult for your dog, a sedative may be provided for you to give before the vet arrives or the dog is brought into the office. This may not render the dog completely unconscious, but will work well enough that the vet can administer a full sedative. They may be able to send a prescription into a pharmacy so that you can give the sedative to your dog before you even leave home. When choosing a location (more details on this below), it may be beneficial to call and ask if they provide this option.

Will it be painful?

The injection of Sodium Pentobarbital is not painful. Once the dog is sedated and is unconscious, he has no awareness of what is happening. On some occasions, the dog may shudder or appear to struggle to breathe once the Sodium Pentobarbital has been injected. While this can be pretty traumatic for the humans involved, the dog is no longer aware of any pain or discomfort.

In some cases, the sedative may be given intramuscularly (in the muscle), which can result in a burning sensation. The dog may whine, pant, or pace before the sedative takes effect. This is typically done when the effects of sedation need to happen quickly or it is either too difficult or too risky to give the sedative intravenously.

What happens after euthanasia?

Once the process is complete, many people will opt for cremation. Most clinics will transport the remains for you, then call you when the cremains are ready for pick up. You may also have a local facility at which you can drop off the remains yourself. There’s typically a range of price levels, from group cremation (the least expensive option) to private cremation, and including a choice of memento, which may include an urn or a paw print ornament.

The regulations for burying deceased animals varies by location. If you’d prefer burial to cremation, be sure to check your local regulations. The burial site may need to be a certain distance from structures or water, or may only be permitted on approved land. Some areas may have a pet cemetery at which you can purchase a plot.

What are the location options for euthanasia?

You have several options for locations for euthanasia, which vary in price and stress level for you and your dog.

At your general vet or veterinary behaviorist’s office.

Any standard practice facility will perform euthanasia. The price can vary widely, but in general, it is the mid-range option. For a dog who is comfortable at the vet, this can be a lower stress option, especially if they are familiar with the staff.

An emergency vet.

In most cases, this option is intended more for medical euthanasia than behavioral, but may be an option in urgent situations. It is often on the higher end price wise, and may be more stressful, especially if the dog is not familiar with the facility.

At home.

There are vets who exclusively perform at-home euthanasias. This is typically the least stressful option for the dog, but is also one of the most expensive.

At a shelter or low-cost clinic.

This is typically the most economical option – in many cases, your local municipal shelter will perform euthanasia for free. The trade-off is that it is typically a higher-stress environment, and you may not be permitted to stay with your dog throughout the process (this is for the wellbeing of the staff involved as well as the safety of all involved; many guardians are quite distraught when they bring their dog in, which makes it difficult for staff that is not trained in human grief to perform the euthanasia humanely, safely, and effectively).

How much will it cost?

Prices differ based on things like location, size and type of population, the dog’s size, any medical issues or complications, and brand of drugs used.

Which option is best?

Like every other part of this process, there are multiple factors to consider, and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. What will be less stressful for both you and your dog? Are your resources limited? What is easily accessible, and how quickly do you need to make an appointment? Choose the option that makes the most sense for you.

What will life be like after my dog is gone?

It may be difficult to imagine what life will be like on the other side. The grieving process looks different for everyone. For some, the process will be long and difficult; some may feel intense guilt, anger, or depression. Others may mostly feel a sense of relief (we talk about this in the first post in this series). There is no “right” way to feel or grieve.

There are aspects of the process that most everyone will have to deal with, like people in their life asking questions. Thankfully, there are some existing resources for dealing with these things, some of which we will review below.

Will everyone hate me?

No. You will probably be surprised by how many people are kind and understanding. Unfortunately, though, you may have to deal with people who don’t get it or are very set in their opinions with no willingness to change. It’s easy for me to say to you, “don’t let those people get you down!” but honestly, some of them will probably effect you, especially if they are people who are close to you. It’s hard to not let them.

Try to remember that the vast majority of people who “don’t get it” are people that have never had much exposure to euthanasia – and likely little exposure to dogs with behavior problems. Some people strongly feel that we have an obligation to save every single dog, no matter what. I personally believe that we do have an obligation to do right by every dog, but in some cases, humane euthanasia is doing right by those dogs (we’ll talk about this more in the next post). You may believe something different. None of us are fully “right” or “wrong,” and it definitely goes a lot farther to show each other (and ourselves) compassion even if we disagree.

There will be people who want to tell you about how they had the worst dog ever with seven other pets and six kids at home, and they made it work! We probably have different ideas about what “making it work” looks like, but maybe they did make it work. That’s great! That doesn’t mean that you would have ever been able to “make it work” in your specific situation with your specific dog.

Ultimately, arguing with someone who has their mind set isn’t going to go anywhere. We all have the right to our own opinions and beliefs, and we all have to come to those beliefs on our own (I can say that my beliefs have made pretty much a complete 180 in the past decade, and it came with experience). What we can do, though, is share our stories. We can be honest, open, and vulnerable. Maybe we aren’t magically going to change anyone’s mind about euthanasia for behavior, but we can plant a little seed that may grow over time. It’s much harder for someone to think that all people who choose euthanasia are evil or didn’t try hard enough when someone that they know loved their dog and tried very hard ultimately chose euthanasia.

Will I feel guilty?

You might. This is another thing that we talk about this in a lot more detail in the first post of this series, but it’s definitely worth mentioning again. It’s normal to feel guilty; it’s also normal to feel a sense of relief. We all get caught up in those ‘what-if’ and ‘I should have…’ thoughts sometimes, but we can’t change the past, and beating ourselves up isn’t going to help. Remember to take care of yourself, to feel your feelings, but also to take the time to process them and move forward.

Finding people who do ‘get it.’

You are not alone, even if it may feel like it right now. Thousands of people have made the choice to euthanize for behavior; chances are, someone you know has made the decision at some point, too, but may have been afraid to talk about it. Sharing your own story will almost certainly bring those people out of the woodwork.

If you aren’t ready to share your story publicly, though, there are resources out there to find people who understand what you are going through. There are a variety of support groups available on facebook, like the guardian support group, which was created specifically for people who have made the decision to euthanize for behavior. You can find a list of pet loss hotlines here through which you can speak to trained volunteers and professionals who specialize in pet loss. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement also hosts daily chat rooms for those who have lost or anticipate the loss of a pet; they also have a list of counselors for those who prefer in-person or one-on-one support.

No matter what you choose to do, whatever you feel is right for you and your dog, remember this: you know yourself, your dog, and your situation best. You will make the decision that is right for everyone, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.

Our next post will focus on euthanasia for behavior in a shelter/rescue environment, which includes its own set of unique challenges. Find all of the posts in this series here. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or need support.

Margo Butler, CPDT-KA



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