EUTHANASIA: Guidance For A Difficult Decision
Difficult though it may be to contemplate, there may come a time when, for humane or other reasons, you need to consider euthanasia for your animal. Choosing weather, or when, to end a beloved animal's life may be the hardest decision you ever have to make regarding your animals welfare. However, it may be one of the most responsible and compassionate things you can do for your animal.
The decision to euthanize, or induce a painless death, should never be made without careful consideration. The right choice is clearly the one that is in the best interest of the animal.
CONSIDER THE SITUATION
There is a wide range of circumstances under which euthanasia is a responsible choice. Among the most common are these:
- Incurable, progressive disease
- Incurable, transmissible disease
- Chronic, severe lameness
- Inoperable colic
- Newborns with serious defects
- Debilitation in old age
- Severe traumatic injury
- Dangerous behavior traits
- Undue financial burden of caring for a sick or incapacitated animal
- Undue suffering for any reason
Every case is unique. Even in similar situations, the decision to euthanize an animal is highly individual. For example, in the case of traumatic injury, such as a broken leg, the animal's psychological makeup can influence the outcome. Some animals may respond better to treatment than others; some are more co-operative than others; and some have a higher pain tolerance than others.
Euthanasia is often a highly emotional issue. Yet it is important to address the situation from a practical standpoint as well. Weather you are dealing with an emergency or a long-term illness, discuss the following questions with your veterinarian to help you decide what is right for your animal:
- What is the likelihood of recovery or at least a return to pasture soundness or some level of usefulness?
- Is the animal suffering?
- How long will the animal experience the current level of pain or debility?
- Does the animal continue to show an interest and desire to live, or has it become depressed or despondent?
- What kind of special care will the animal require, and can you meet its needs?
- Can you continue to provide for the animal financially?
- What are the alternatives?
THE VETERINARIAN'S ROLE
As the animal's owner, you ultimately have the responsibility for determining your animal's fate. Your veterinarian can provide you with medical information and help you fully understand the implications for the animals future. Your veterinarian can also explain the options, and offer comfort and support. But your veterinarian cannot make the decision for you. If you are in doubt about the prognosis or your options, get a second opinion. It is important for your peace of mind that you feel sure you are making the right decision.
In extreme emergencies a veterinarian may assume the responsibility for the decision, acting on an animal's behalf without consent. An example of such a situation is an animal that gets loose on a roadway and is struck by a vehicle and severely injured. In this situation, the attending veterinarian may decide to euthanize the animal immediately to end its suffering. But such cases are rare.
Veterinarians are frequently asked, "What would you do in this situation?" This question puts the veterinarian in a difficult position. No matter how compassionate and caring, your veterinarian is not attached to the animal as you are, nor will he/she have to assume the emotional or financial responsibility of caring for the animal. Some veterinarians will feel comfortable answering such a question; others will not.
Remember, too, that a veterinarian must follow his or her conscience. A veterinarian may refuse to euthanize an animal if euthanasia seems unnecessary or unjustified. Or the veterinarian may choose to discontinue treatment if an owner is inhumanely allowing an animal to suffer or is unduly prolonging its death.
PLANNING & PREPARATION
If you and your veterinarian agree that euthanasia is the best choice, it is important to prepare as best you can. If you are able to make the decision in advance rather than in an emergency situation, making prior arrangements will ease the process. These guidelines might help:
- Decide when and where the procedure will be best carried out, bearing in mind that arrangements must be made for removal of the body. Choose what is most comfortable and practical for you, your veterinarian and your animal.
- If you board your horse, inform the stable manager of the situation.
- Decide whether you wish to be present during the procedure. If you cannot or do not wish to be present,you may want to ask a friend to stand in for you. Decide what is right for you. (If you are unfamiliar with the procedure and are unsure what to expect, discuss it with your veterinarian.)
- Be aware that, for safety reasons, your veterinarian may not allow you to be touching or holding the animal during the procedure. You will however, be able to touch and be with your animal afterward.
- Make arrangements in advance for the prompt removal and disposal of the body. Many municipalities have ordinances prohibiting or restricting burial. Removal for an environmentally sound burial, a rendering facility or a pet crematory may be a better option.
- Explain to members of your family, especially children, in sensitive but honest terms, why the decision was made to euthanize the animal.
- Allow yourself to grieve. Finding a support person to talk with can help you work through this difficult period.
- If the animal is insured, notify the insurance company in advance so that there are no problems with claims. While the veterinarian will provide you with any required documentation, the notification, filing, follow-up, etc. is your responsibility.
A PEACEFUL END
As a caring owner, you want your animal to have a peaceful, painless end. Most commonly, euthanasia is achieved by injecting a barbiturate anesthetic in a dose sufficient to shut down the animal's central nervous system. The drug renders the animal unconscious, the animal's heart stops and the animal quits breathing. These drugs act quickly and effectively.
If you plan to be present when the lethal injection is given, keep in mind that not all animals respond in exactly the same way. Most animals simply drop and lay still, maybe taking one or two deep breaths before expiring. Some animals continue to take occasional breaths for a minute or so, and there may be some movement of the limbs, even though the animal is deeply unconscious and may no longer have a heart beat. Seeing these apparent signs of life can be upsetting. But remember that they do not indicate that the animal is conscious or has any sense of feeling; they are simply involuntary reflexes by the body in its final moments.
Some veterinarians prefer to use a gun or captive-bolt pistol to perform euthanasia. Many owners recoil at the idea of this method of euthanasia because of the perception of violence often associated with the use of guns. However, when properly carried out, this method of euthanasia is instantaneous and is as humane as lethal injection.
COPING WITH EMOTIONS
Given the affection we have for our animals, dealing with their deaths can be extremely difficult. But dealing with your emotions honestly and going through the grieving process is important for your emotional well-being.
To help you deal with your grief, there are local and national counceling organizations, such as the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine's Pet Loss Support Hotline, (530) 752-4200. Your veterinarian may also know of resources in your area that can help you, so don't bee afraid to ask.
If your animal is insured, become familiar with the regulations concerning your policy (including the fine print) before you act. Most insurance carriers require that they be kept fully informed fro m the beginning about the animal's medical condition, especially if death or euthanasia is a potential outcome. Even in an emergency, a responable attempt should be made to notify the insurance company. This notification is the owner's responsibility. If the animal can be stabilized, many policies require a second opinion before an animal is euthanized. However, under extreme circumstances, it is always up to the discretion of the owner and the veterinarian to act in the best interest of the animal. Being aware of your policy's guidelines can minimize any unpleasant surprises relating to your claim.
Death is an inevitable part of life. Your animal, like all living creatures, will not live forever. Ideally, your animal will remain healthy and happy into old age and will die a peaceful, natural death. However, itis wise to give some thought to other possibilities.
By thinking about what you would do in an emergency, or how you would act if your animal were to develop a painful or debilitating condition from which recovery is unlikely, you can be prepared for whatever happens. Be sure to share your thoughts and wishes on this issue with others, especially those who may be caring for your animal in your absence, such as your barn manager or neighbor, and your veterinarian. Doing so may spare your animal needless suffering if a severe illness or injury were to occur when you could not be contacted.
The above information is from EUTHANASIA Guidance For A Difficult Decision, provided by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and Bayer Corporation, Animal Health.