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What Happens During Euthanasia?

Paige Garnett, DVM

When a pet owner has made the very difficult decision to help his or her pet die, many questions arise regarding the actual process of euthanasia. What exactly occurs when a pet is euthanatized? Is the animal aware of what is happening? Is he in pain during the euthanasia process? What does the veterinarian use to help the pet die?

The term euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms "eu" meaning good and "thanatos" meaning death. A "good death" would be one that occurs without pain or distress. Euthanasia is the act of producing a humane death in an animal. In order to produce a humane death, the techniques employed should result in rapid unconsciousness followed by cardiac or respiratory arrest. Also, the technique should minimize any stress and anxiety experienced by the animal prior to unconsciousness.

If the animal appears anxious or distressed when presented for euthanasia, most veterinarians will administer a tranquilizer or sedative prior to the actual euthanasia injection. This ensures that the animal is restful and peaceful prior to the euthanasia. The tranquilizer may be given with a needle under the skin or in the muscle, or with pills which are taken orally. Generally it takes approximately 15 minutes for a tranquilizer to help the pet relax.

Most veterinarians use an injectable drug, most commonly pentobarbital, which is given in a vein. This barbiturate depresses the central nervous system beginning with the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that determines awareness. The pet will lapse into unconsciousness, and then progress to anesthesia (the absence of pain). With an overdose of pentobarbital, deep anesthesia is followed by the stopping of breathing and then by cardiac arrest.

The advantages of using a barbiturate are the speed of action and the very minimal discomfort to the animal (the only pain being associated with the needle puncture).

To inject the euthanasia solution, a vein is first prepared by painlessly clipping away the hair. A needle may be inserted directly into the vein and the euthanasia solution slowly injected, or a catheter (a small plastic tube) may be inserted in the vein and the injection given through it.

Most animals die quickly, within ten seconds. Their eyes remain open and some animals urinate and defecate following death. Some animals gasp after they have died and may even twitch. These normal, mechanical responses can be very disconcerting to pet owners who stay with their pets during euthanasia if the owners are not prepared in advance.

The decision for euthanasia is a difficult one, but the actual process is painless and very quick, granting our beloved pets a peaceful ending to their lives. Pet owners should feel free to discuss all questions concerning the euthanasia process with their veterinarians, so that they may be as comfortable as possible with their decisions.

This article is courtesy of the Pet Loss Support Group of the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society.