The process of euthanasia

Euthanasia should be a quick, peaceful and virtually pain-free procedure for your pet, regardless of where it is performed. The standard euthanasia process for adult dogs and cats is as follows:

1. Your pet is made as comfortable as possible, for example lying on a soft bed.

2. A nurse or other suitable assistant will usually help to hold your pet; if you are present for the euthanasia (see Should I be present?) it is usually possible for you to continue to stroke, talk to and comfort your pet.

3. The veterinarian will clip a patch of fur on one of your pet’s legs – usually a front leg – over the site of a blood vessel (vein).

4. The veterinarian may then place an intravenous catheter (cannula) into the vein and check that it is working fine by flushing some saline solution through the catheter.

Rather than placing an intravenous catheter, your veterinarian may instead elect to inject the euthanasia solution directly from a syringe via a needle into the vein ('off the needle'). The use of an intravenous catheter is recommended in the majority of cases as it ensures that the euthanasia solution does not leak out of the vein which can be painful. In addition, once the catheter is placed, it is usually then possible to relax the restraint on your pet and allow you more access to him/her while euthanasia is performed. However using an intravenous catheter may not be the best option for a small proportion of pets where it can prove more distressing than the 'off the needle' method. You should feel free to discuss the options with your vet; please note that some practices will charge a small additional fee for the use of an intravenous catheter and you may need to clarify this.

In some cases a sedative is administered to relax your pet and allow the intravenous catheter to be placed with minimum distress, or once the intravenous catheter has been placed to ensure euthanasia goes smoothly. However this is not done in all cases and it depends for example on the behaviour and demeanour of your pet and other circumstances related to the euthanasia. It is advisable to discuss this beforehand with your practice and clarify your wishes in advance; where there is any doubt, the use of a sedative is recommended.

5. The next step is for the vet to administer the euthanasia solution via the intravenous catheter. The euthanasia solution contains a drug called pentobarbital that used to be used as a general anaesthetic drug; the current solutions used are often coloured blue, yellow or pink. Euthanasia is essentially achieved by administering an overdose of this anaesthetic drug and your pet will therefore be unconscious at the time of death; he/she will experience no awareness of the end of their life. The drug works very quickly, typically within seconds, and causes your pet’s muscles to relax, breathing to cease, and finally heart to stop beating. The vet will check your pet’s heart has stopped beating and confirm to you that ‘he/she has gone’.

Note that in some cases the animal may void urine or stools or for example gasp or twitch. It is essential to realise that these are reflexes that can occur despite the lack of a heart beat and you should not interpret these reflexes as a sign that your pet is still alive.

It is also important to realise that when animals die their eyes typically remain open.

Following euthanasia, you can if you want spend a few moments alone with your pet saying goodbye depending on the aftercare arrangements. Some people like to take a tuft of fur or a whisker or the pet tag/collar as a memento.

Please note that the above euthanasia process applies to the euthanasia of adult dogs and cats and the process may vary with other species or for puppies/kittens although the same euthanasia solution is used. For example, with rabbits a leg vein may be used as for dogs/cats but sometimes a vein in the ear is used depending on the rabbit’s size. Rodents and small furries are often anaesthetised in an anaesthetic induction gas chamber before the euthanasia solution is applied into the abdominal cavity (around the liver). You should discuss the euthanasia process for your particular pet with your practice beforehand.