Paws for Thought

The Circle of Life:

Over The Rainbow Bridge
by Janice Mitchell

In this beautiful month of spring with new cycles of life around us, the following article may seem a little sad and ironic, for which I apologize. I am talking in particular about end of life decisions for our pets and hope to not only inform but clear up some misconceptions.

The euthanasia decision for a beloved pet may be one of the most difficult choices you must face. It is hard to make a life-ending determination like this for someone who cannot tell you what his/her wishes are, and yet a judgement call must be made. The decision process is arduous as a range of emotions (guilt, grief, uncertainty) and philosophies may be involved.

How do you know when it is the right time? Some pets become debilitated by age or disease to a point when their life quality deteriorates to an unacceptable level. Sometimes, some medical issues can be surprisingly easy to palliate or even solve and it’s always important to seek counselling from your vet to see if amelioration is possible. Despite our best efforts however, there is a point where all the love, attention, therapies, and special foods are not enough.

MYTH No 1. “You simply just know when it is time.” This idea is not really fair; determining someone else’s life quality is not completely intuitive. This is when I literally advise to separate your heart from your head, and look at life through your pet’s eyes. To keep it simple, there are three things your pet needs for quality of life: one, food; two, freedom; and three, you. If your dog, cat, rabbit or even hedgehog cannot eat, cannot move without pain, or doesn’t enjoy your company anymore, then their quality of living is definitely deteriorated. Also, if the bad days start to outweigh the good days, a decision needs to be made. Having a quality of life inventory is helpful in seeing your pet’s situation in an objective light.

MYTH No 2. “Euthanasia is painful.” Nothing is further from the truth. Euthanasia is, in my opinion, an unselfish act that you can provide as it is a gift of dignity and release of suffering for many. Leaving an animal to die a ‘natural death’ can sometimes be very cruel…just watch BBC Earth Nature programs. The actual act of euthanasia involves injecting a potent anesthetic directly into the vein, often via an intravenous catheter. It is an overdose of a barbiturate and is extremely fast acting as it stops the heart and breathing in a matter of seconds. Our pets truly drift off into a gentle, permanent sleep.

Should I be present? This is a very personal decision, and there is no wrong answer. It is best to decide in advance which family members, if any, wish to be there. It is good to know exactly what will happen so that an informed decision can be made. Once at the veterinary facility, a family member will need to sign a consent form. All efforts are made to proceed in a quiet, calm and private manner. Sometimes the pet is administered a sedative to help ease any anxiety it may feel and to help with the ease of placing an intravenous catheter. Once the catheter is placed, the euthanasia solution is administered and death comes peacefully in a matter of seconds. Some of the upsetting visuals that can occur are that our pets do not close their eyes, there may be a final twitch or gasp, and often they will urinate or release other body fluids as they relax. Owners may stay as long with their pet as they need, and after the last goodbyes and caresses are completed, the owner simply exits the room when ready and the hospital staff takes over.

After the procedure is over, there are some options regarding your pet’s remains: home burial or cremation. If home burial, please ensure to bury at least 5-6 feet deep to ensure wild animals do not disturb the remains and perhaps plant a memorial tree or plant. If cremation is selected, you can choose between a group or an individual one. A group cremation will not allow you to collect the ashes. An individual one will cost more but you will have your pet’sashes.

Finally, if I may offer a glimmer of light, the “circle of life’ refers to the fact that death is not really the end but the seed of some other life. After all, science states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it merely changes form. And who are we to argue with that?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian at Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Services.