January 2015

Farewell to a Friend: Knowing How and When to Say Goodbye


To love and be loved by an animal is quite possibly one of life’s greatest joys. For many people, the bond they share with their pets is as powerful as any relationship they have known. If you are a pet owner who thinks of and refers to your fur baby as your child or best friend, you are not alone.

One of the most difficult questions you will face someday is how and when to say goodbye to your beloved pet. We all wish for our animal companions the same peaceful passing we hope for ourselves: to simply go to sleep and wake up in heaven. Unfortunately, for people and pets, the reality of aging, illness and death often paints a starkly different picture. So how do you know when it’s time to intervene?

Sometimes it’s clear that it’s time to let your friend go. You just know. He doesn’t eat or he can’t control his bodily functions. Maybe all he can do is lie there. And due to his illness or age, you know that none of this will get any better. It’s a heartbreaking situation, but it can make the decision easier or at least more straightforward.

But sometimes the signals are mixed. An animal that has severe arthritis can seem happy, even if his joints have given out and he can no longer walk. This is a gray area for a pet parent and must be pondered from a place of truth, love and compassion for the animal. It may also depend on how much time and energy you are willing to devote to making the pet comfortable and helping him get around.

According to Stacey Levin DVM, local veterinarian and owner of Mobile Pet Vet, the decision to end a pet’s life often comes down to a judgment call that only you can make. “It’s a quality of life issue, and it is subjective to each person,” she said. “The pet owner knows what the pet’s quality of life is. If there is an underlying disease that can be treated, we can get them feeling better, and there are many medications that can make the pet comfortable. But there comes a point when you don’t want them to suffer.”

Curtis Hennessy, DVM, owner of Plantation Animal Hospital on Hilton Head Island, says that it boils down to living vs. existing. Three considerations can help you determine where your pet’s quality of life stands. The first is the ability to do things that have always brought the animal pleasure and happiness, such as play ball, run in the yard, jump up on the bed… “That’s the first thing we sort of lose in our older pets,” he said. The second is the general enjoyment of nutrition—when the pet loses interest in food and treats or refuses to eat. Last is the enjoyment of affection—when the animal stops responding to being petted or being loved on.

“Once you’ve lost all three of those things, your pet is merely existing and not getting the benefit of being around,” Hennessey said, emphasizing the importance of routine healthcare and preventive measures.
“As important as knowing when [to euthanize] is knowing what to do to hold that off as long as possible and to make their life comfortable, which means uncovering the disease before it’s obvious,” Hennessey said. “Nobody escapes the grim reaper, but we can hold him at bay for a while.”

Eventually, however, you may reach a point when treatments are no longer effective and there are simply no other remedies to try. At this stage, the stress of continued medical intervention may actually be more damaging to your pet’s quality of life than no treatment at all. This is when you, as a loving, responsible pet owner, must make a gut-wrenching decision.

It can be tempting, at this stage, to postpone the decision and “let nature take its course.” Before choosing that path, remember that you have altered the course of nature since the beginning by ensuring that your pet has food and shelter and is protected from predators. And by providing medical treatment, you have prolonged his life far beyond what could have been expected otherwise. Even if you choose to allow the pet to die on its own in the comfort of your home, nature doesn’t guarantee an easy passing.

According to Levin, she will not dictate the timing or urge a client to put the pet to sleep. “I consult with people, but I leave it up to the owner. If I can see that the pet is really ill and not going to get better, I can agree with them. I will say, ‘I think you’re doing the right thing.’”

Levin provides mobile pet services, so she performs euthanasia in the client’s home. “At home in the pet’s own environment is a calmer, nicer way to do it. They are not afraid. They kind of know that I’m there to help them instead of going into a cold clinic with a table,” she said.

According to Hennessey, he and most area vets will also perform at-home euthanasia. “For most clients, it is the preferred way to go—send him to the other side without any inconvenience on the animal’s part.”

While euthanasia is a common task for veterinarians, they say it’s never easy. “Unfortunately, one thing that we never address in our education is grief. When I went to school, it was just something you were expected to handle,” Hennessey said. “It’s one thing that we are all guaranteed to experience, but we are never taught what to expect. [As a veterinarian] you have to know math and science, but it’s important to know something about grief since you’re going to encounter that.”

“It can be difficult,” Levin agreed. “Sometimes it’s really emotional, especially if I’ve known the pet for a long time or if the owners are extremely upset. But I do so much of it, I feel like I’m helping the animals and the people. I deal with it by writing stories about pets and people on my blog [thelowcountryveterinarian.com]. That helps. And sometimes we have little ceremonies, and it’s kind of nice to participate in that with the client.”

“I try to focus on the positives of that animal’s life and how fortunate that animal was to be loved by somebody,” Hennessey said. “This is actually the last kind act that we can do, and there’s a lot to be said for being with your best friend when he leaves the earth. It’s an unpleasant thing that we have to do, but I want to make it as pleasant as possible. I know that my patients are feeling really, really good on their way out of town.”

The term euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms “eu,” meaning good and “thanatos,” meaning death. A good death is one that occurs without pain or distress. Making the decision to euthanize your pet is an enormous act of selfless love, and you can rest assured that, while painful for you, the actual process is painless and peaceful for your pet.

Most veterinarians will administer an initial tranquilizer or sedative to relax your pet. You can spend time with your friend, petting, soothing, and saying goodbye as the pet goes into a state of unconsciousness, much like the effects of anesthesia. The second injection stops the heart quickly—usually within 10 seconds. The animal’s eyes remain open and it may urinate or defecate following death. Some gasp or twitch. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, these are normal, mechanical responses—reflexes that do not indicate pain or distress.

Whether you euthanize at the veterinarian’s office or at home, you will have the option of cremation or burial. If you bury your pet, make sure that you are within the local law and any land ordinances or neighborhood covenants that may apply.

If cremation is your choice, you can opt for private or mass cremation. In private cremation, the cremation facility only incinerates one pet at a time. Mass cremations, on the other hand, involve the cremation of several animals. In case of mass or communal pet cremation, more often than not, the ashes are not returned to the owner or you may receive mixed cremains of multiple animals.

Area residents who prefer private cremation can arrange to have The Island Funeral Home & Crematory pick up the animal from your home or veterinarian’s office. The cost is $275, which includes a certificate of cremation and an urn which may be used for burial. For more information, call (843) 681-4400 or visit theislandfuneralhome.com.

After the handling of your pet’s remains, you may also wish to have a small funeral or memorial service to honor the life you shared. You may also want to visit rainbowsbridge.com, a virtual memorial home and grief support community.

It is as natural and necessary to grieve for the loss of a pet as it is for any loved one who dies, and it is important to have compassion and support in your time of grief. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) provides numerous resources, including comfort and support at the time of euthanasia, help with grieving the loss, advice on dealing with children, the elderly or disabled individuals who are facing a death of a companion animal, advice for helping the surviving animals in the household to cope, and more. For information, visit aspca.org/pet-care/pet-loss or call the ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline at (877) GRIEF-10.

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