If you have had a pet euthanased before you will have an awareness of what will happen during this procedure. If you have not, it is a good idea to read this section, so that you are aware of what will happen. This will help to make the process easier for you. Note that you do not have to stay with your pet while they are euthanased. It’s a very personal decision for you. Make sure you share any particular requests you have or circumstances which would make this difficult time a little easier for you with your vet before or at the time you make your appointment. Your vet will want to make this experience the best possible for you and minimise your upset as much as possible.
Who will be in the room
The vet will often require the help of a veterinary nurse or assistant to carry out the euthanasia procedure. This assistant will normally help to raise the vein for the euthanasia injection if this is to be given into your pet’s leg. They will also help the vet get everything ready. If you have a favourite nurse at the clinic, you can ask if it’s possible for them to be there.
If you haven’t already signed a euthanasia consent form before coming into the room, you will be asked to do this.
To enable the euthanasia process to be as peaceful as possible, often the vet will recommend that a sedative injection is given first. You can request one if this is not offered initially. This allows your pet to gently fall asleep and prevents any distress from the noise of clippers, or being held by anyone other than you for the euthanasia injection. This sedation is termed 'The Blessed Sleep' by pet loss experts, as it allows the pet to fully relax, and for the pet owner to be able to touch and hold their pet for their euthanasia injection. Pre-sedating the pet before the euthanasia injection is an approach which Compassion Understood endorses, though your vet might recommend that your pet isn't sedated for clinical or other reasons. Don't be afraid to discuss this with your vet in advance and make them aware of any wishes you may have. The sedative injection is usually given painlessly into a muscle in the back leg or as an injection under the skin.
Clipping and cannulas
If your pet is to have a euthanasia injection into the leg, an intravenous cannula is often used. Sometimes your pet might be taken into another room for this to be placed, but you can request that they stay with you and this will give them comfort. Giving them a sedation injection before the placement of their cannula can help them to relax.The nursing assistant will hold your pet so that an area on your pet’s leg (this may be the front or back leg - the latter is recommended so that you can hold your pet's head during the final euthanasia inejction if you wish) can be shaved with clippers. This makes the vein into which the euthanasia solution is injected easier for the vet to see or feel. If your pet has been receiving treatment recently this may already have been shaved. Shaving is normally done with electric clippers although your vet may use some curved scissors if they want to avoid making noise, which helps some pets, particularly cats. Sedation will also help to minimise any noise distress.
Once the area has been shaved, it is cleaned with a cotton wool swab and an intravenous cannula (a tube which is inserted into the vein and secured using skin tape) is put in to allow a secure channel for injection. A small amount of liquid (heparin) is injected through the cannula to check that the vein isn’t blocked and a port fitted over the end ready for when the injection is given. Sometimes the vet will give the injection directly into the vein with a needle on the syringe. He or she will make the judgement as to what is best for your pet.
If you prefer to have sedation and a cannula, don’t be afraid to mention this before the euthanasia is carried out, and ideally in advance of your appointment. Many practices will use sedation and a cannula as a matter of course.
If your pet is smaller, this preparation will usually be carried out on the consultation room table. As with any pet, you may wish to bring along a blanket for them to sit on, or a favourite bed. Most vets will find a soft bed if you haven’t remembered one. Larger pets such as bigger dogs, will often stay on the floor for the euthanasia procedure, and the vet will come down to their level, to prevent any distress from being lifted up.
Sedation and placement of cannulas are also appropriate for other pets such as rabbits, although cannula placements in little pets such as guinea pigs, hamsters or mice isn't usually done because of the difficulty in accessing such small veins.
The euthanasia injection
The euthanasia solution is called pentobarbital which is a barbiturate anaesthetic. This is usually a coloured solution, such as yellow, pink or blue, so it is easily distinguishable. The pet will be given a concentrated overdose of the anaesthetic so that they peacefully fall asleep and then pass away. This usually happens quite quickly, often in less than a minute, and many owners are surprised by this. The injection is not painful. If your vet hasn’t already placed a cannula then there may be a short sharp scratch of the needle – the same as when we have blood taken ourselves at the hospital or have an intravenous injection. If your pet has been sedated in advance, then they are usually not aware of anything.
Before the vet gives the injection, they will usually ask you if you are ready, and then if you wish to, you can usually hold your pet’s head, paw or body in the final moments as he or she passes away.
For cats, it is becoming increasingly common for vets to give the injection into one of your cat’s kidneys. This is painless and immediate and if your cat has already had a sedative injection they will not be aware of anything. An injection into the kidney means that your cat doesn’t have to be restrained for a cannula or injection into a leg. It also allows you to hold your cat in your arms once the injection has been given if this is what you prefer. Loss of consciousness comes quickly, and your pet will pass away.
After your pet has passed, your vet will check your pet’s heart with a stethoscope and confirm to you that the heart has stopped and your pet has died.
Smaller pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, rats, hamsters, reptiles & birds
Whenever possible rabbits, small furries, birds and exotic pets should be kept in familiar surroundings such as a home cage, a travel cage with their own bedding material to hide in or their own aquarium. Again, it is ideal to give a sedative first to smaller pets as these animals are even more unaccustomed to being away from home than larger pets, so are often more difficult to handle and give injections to.
As many of these smaller pets are often children’s pets, the vet will try their hardest to make the procedure as peaceful as possible - this is often a child's first experience of death. Giving a sedation first, which is an injection with a very tiny needle into the side of your pet's body will help them gently pass into sleep while being held by you or your child, on your lap or in your hands. There may or may not be a need for a final injection with these small animals.
Sometimes if your pet is not accustomed to being handled much, your vet may advise the use of gaseous anaesthetic to sedate your small pet first. This can be gently done in a small box or by placing some anaesthetic solution on a piece of cotton gently held against the airways. This will usually depend on your pet’s personality and where your appointment is taking place (at the clinic or at home).
As with other animals, small pets can also make little noises or gasps when they are injected or handled especially as they may not be feeling very well at that time. They may also have small muscular twitches after they have passed but the vet will check that the heart has stopped or look for other sure signs that confirm that your pet has died.
After the injection
It’s best to be prepared that very often, after your pet has passed away, the body can have various muscular contractions. These are post-death reflexes, but if you are not prepared for them, it can seem as if your pet is alive. Your pet may appear to gasp or suddenly have a deep breath. Sometimes this may carry on for several breaths. This is a wholly-natural bodily reflex. Your pet will already have died and is not aware of any of this. Sometimes the pet’s bladder and/or bowel can empty at the same time.
Most owners wish to see their pet’s eyes close but this doesn’t happen in animals; eyes remain open even after they have passed away.
Spending time with your pet afterwards is usually possible, but will depend on the individual veterinary practice and the availability of their consulting rooms. Usually 5 minutes or so is allowed within the appointment time, but if you feel that you would like to spend longer then it’s best to let the practice know in advance and they can arrange this to be possible. Some practices have a specific bereavement room for this reason so that you are not rushed into leaving.
Following your pet’s death you may wish to take a lock of hair as a memento. Don’t be afraid to ask for the vet to do this for you - it’s a very common request. You may also wish to take away your pet’s collar with you if you are leaving your pet with the practice for cremation.
Do not feel obliged to stay with your pet after they have passed. Some people prefer to leave as soon as possible, and that’s entirely normal too. You can sometimes leave by a different door out of the consulting room if one is available, so you can avoid having to go through the reception or waiting area. Many practices will offer the facility to pay in advance: see our section on Costs and Payments for more information on this.
If you have chosen to have your pet cremated, your vet will usually be able to arrange this for you. Read more on After-Life Care to help you plan and prepare for this. They will gently wrap your pet’s body up to be taken into cold storage. You do not have to stay at this point, and most owners will leave when their pet is at peace.
If you have chosen to bury your pet at home, it is advisable to arrange the body into a curled position soon after death. This is because rigor mortis (stiffening of the joints and muscles of a body after death) will start within 3 hours and can last up to 72 hours, potentially making burial difficult and necessitating a larger grave to be dug. Read more on burial in After-Life Care.