You’ve made the gut-wrenching decision that it’s time to say good-bye to your beloved dog or cat. You’ve scheduled the euthanasia appointment. This article is not intended to discuss making the decision, but what to expect during the euthanasia process once the decision is made. You’ll be emotional. You won’t hear much of what the vet is saying. What’s going on? Knowing what to expect makes the process that much more peaceful – this is not a time you want surprises.
Death in real life doesn’t look like it does in movies – good or bad! This might be a hard article to read, but it’s good to know exactly what to expect. Ideally, if you have a close friend or family member facing the loss of a pet, you can read this and have the knowledge to be a voice of reason and help your friend. The most frequent comment I get from people after a home euthanasia is “that was so peaceful!” And it is.
Nowadays, modern veterinarians almost always sedate animals prior to euthanasia, so that’s the process I am describing.
1 – Animals, including people, do not close their eyes when sedated, under anesthesia, or deceased.
OK, so some movies get this part right. Some pets will partially close their eyes, but it’s never really a complete closure. This bothers some people. I’ll often close them slightly to help, but it never goes all the way. With humans, funeral homes glue the eyelids shut. We vets do that from time to time when the owner is taking a pet home to bury and wants to look at it one last time – it makes a much more peaceful final memory.
2 – When an animal is sedated before the euthanasia, and after they pass, everything relaxes.
It takes a lot of energy to keep your tongue in your mouth, so some pets may have their tongue stick out a tiny bit. If your pet was a snorer, then snoring can be a big part of the experience while they are becoming more sedate. The back end tends to relax too. I see this most in the old, painful dogs who haven’t been able to walk well. They are holding their potty, and once they are sedated, or when they pass away, it all comes out. We’ll often have a towel or blanket under them to collect any urine or feces. And if your pet was having any gastrointestinal upset, the gas will be released!
3 – During the euthanasia process, breathing temporarily becomes slightly faster.
When the dog or cat is sedated, they are very relaxed. As the veterinarian gives the IV injection of the overdose of the anesthetic drug (the euthanasia solution), he or she is essentially putting the pet deeper under anesthesia. A normal part of an animal going deeper under anesthesia is an increase in respiration rate, or faster breathing. In a clinic when we are putting an animal under anesthesia for surgery, we’ll call this “huffing and puffing.” This can be a little disturbing when your pet has been sedated, seems peaceful, then starts taking deep breaths for a few seconds. Some animals really breathe deeply for a few breaths, and others more or less skip this phase. The breathing is a sign of deeper anesthesia, not that they are waking up, hurting, or feeling anything at all really.
4 – Death is not instantaneous.
After we’ve completed the IV injection, the veterinarian will listen to your pet’s chest with a stethoscope. The absence of a heartbeat confirms the pet has passed. However, it takes some time for the rest of the body to get the message – everything does not shut down at once. It is common to hear some intestinal gurgling for several minutes after the pet has passed. Some neurons can fire, leading to slight muscle twitching, usually seen in the legs. These are often subtle, but can be disturbing if you don’t know this is normal. Also, any air in the lungs must exit, which sometimes comes out rapidly, sounding like a breath! This does not happen all the time, but I warn everyone, just in case. And these can happen a couple minutes after the pet is deceased.
5 – You have some time before the pet gets “stiff”.
Some owners worry about rigor mortis setting in once the pet has passed, and they do not want to see that! I totally get it, and you have nothing to worry about. It takes a couple hours for the process to occur, so if you want to stay with your pet for several minutes after he or she is gone, that is perfectly OK.
I hope telling these things doesn’t make you not want to be with your pet during to euthanasia process. I strongly encourage all owners to be with their pet throughout the process. It is peaceful, and it’s the least you can do for a pet who has given you so many years of love!