Geriatric Medicine: euthanasia


It would be nice if all old pets who died did so peacefully in their sleep with no previous signs of illness. This doesn’t always happen, though, and sometimes you must decide whether to end your cat’s life or allow a progressive disease to continue. This is never an easy decision. A mutually close and trusting relationship with a veterinarian established when your cat is still young may help if you ever have to face this problem.

A veterinarian familiar with your cat’s medical history can tell you when a condition is irreversible and progressive and give you an opinion as to when that condition is truly a burden for your cat.

It is unfair to you, your cat, and the veterinarian to take an animal to a new veterinarian and request euthanasia. A veterinarian who does not know your cat may perform euthanasia because you requested it when the condition was actually treatable. A veterinarian unfamiliar with you may refuse to carry out this heartrending act because your cat seems healthy, not knowing that continuing to live with the cat is an extreme burden on you.

Most veterinarians enter the profession to make animals well, not kill them.

Many people react emotionally without knowing the facts and insist that their pet be “put to sleep” for a condition that can be treated and with which their cat can live happily. In other cases euthanasia is requested because buying a new pet is less expensive than treatment. For most people the joy of life outweighs minor discomforts, and this is probably true for most pets.

The monetary value of a pet’s life, of course, depends on each individual’s point of view. If you decide you just don’t want an unhealthy animal anymore, give the cat to a friend who does want it or take the cat to a shelter or pound where humane euthanasia is performed only after all other avenues for adoption are explored.

When you and your veterinarian are in agreement about ending the life of a pet, you need not worry about discomfort. Euthanasia in veterinary hospitals is performed by the intravenous injection of an overdose of an anesthetic drug. Death is both rapid and painless.

It’s a good idea to approach the subject of euthanasia with your veterinarian soon after the possible need for it enters your mind. Your veterinarian should be willing to discuss the procedures used and to explain all the options available for disposal of the remains. Local laws prescribe whether dead pets may be buried. Veterinary hospitals and humane organizations often offer cremation services with or without return of the cat’s ashes.

Many veterinarians allow an owner to remain with the pet at the time of euthanasia. A request for this service should not be considered unusual at any small animal hospital. Again, a discussion regarding its pros and cons is important to you and your cat’s well-being at such an emotional time.

A useful book that explores the subject of euthanasia and grief more extensively is When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope with Your Feelings, by Jamie Quackenbush and Denise Gravine, Pocket Books, New York, 1985.

Also, many veterinary associations and veterinary schools sponsor pet loss support for grieving owners. Feel free to ask your veterinarian for a referral to an appropriate group.