Time to Say Goodbye

*Trigger warning – this article discusses pet euthanasia and may be upsetting for some readers*

No two days are ever the same in the life of a small animal veterinary practice like ours. Yes, there are regular, routine things to be done but every animal and every owner is different so each consultation is completely unique. There are minor ailments to deal with, and of course, more serious ones or unforeseen emergency visits – accidents or illnesses that we do our utmost to help animals to recover from. There are operations, tests, treatments, results, follow up consultations … you name it, it’s all in a day’s work. But, I have to say, amongst all of that, the thing that I consider to be the most important service we offer and, in my mind, the most important thing I do as a vet, is when it’s time to say goodbye to a beloved pet with our home euthanasia service.

Your pet has the right to a happy life but there comes a point (whether it’s at the end of a long life, or sadly sometimes all too soon) when illness, injury or old age means there’s no hope of recovery and no enjoyment or quality of life either. When this happens, allowing pets the dignity to slip away peacefully is the kindest option. Making the decision that it’s time to say goodbye to a pet is a very difficult one, and it’s certainly not one that we’d expect you to make alone. We offer our professional guidance and support and will only ever suggest euthanasia after all other possible and reasonable options for treatment have been exhausted (ones that won’t cause any further pain or distress for the animal). Euthanasia is NEVER offered simply for convenience.

Once the decision has been made that the time has come to say goodbye to your pet, there are options of how we do this. Euthanasia can be carried out in the practice or our home euthanasia service is a popular choice as this allows you and your pet the privacy, dignity and sanctuary of your own home. This is often the best option for all as it allows your pet to remain in a relaxed, familiar environment and saves the stress of being transported to the practice.

Sometimes, if an injury or illness is too severe, we don’t have the luxury of time to schedule an appointment for euthanasia as prolonging it would cause unnecessary pain or distress to the pet but, where circumstances permit, we do schedule appointments (usually later the same day or the following day) to allow you and your family a little time to spend with your pet saying goodbye. This will always be dependent on the animal’s welfare and best interests. We’ll talk through the whole procedure with you before we commence and complete consent forms and any other necessary paperwork and admin beforehand so you don’t have to do any of that afterwards when you’re understandably very emotional. We’ll also help you decide what you’d like to do with your pet’s body (whether you’d like us to take it away for cremation or if you want to keep it at home for burial) so that, again, you’re not having to make those big decisions immediately afterwards.

Some people choose to stay with their pet as they’re gently put to sleep – you’ve been there throughout your pet’s life and being there at the end of their final chapter just feels right. However, others find this too much to bear. It can help with the grieving process for some, but if can be too upsetting for others. Some may want the whole family there but, again, others don’t. Whatever you choose, it’s entirely your decision and please be assured that you won’t be judged however you want to handle this incredibly difficult experience. What’s right for one isn’t necessarily right for another and we’re very sympathetic to this fact. If you do choose to stay with your pet, we would encourage you to try and stay as strong as you possibly can for them, remaining calm and reassuring during their final moments – it’s very hard, but animals can be very sensitive to their owners’ emotions. Sensing your distress can cause them to become stressed themselves.

Many people say they don’t know how I do it. And, while it never stops being tough or emotional, to me it’s so important to be able to offer animals a calm, gentle and dignified end to their life, freeing them from pain and discomfort. That’s why, from a professional perspective, as well as providing the right amount of empathy and support to owners and their families, I focus on doing a good job from a practical point of view, in order to give pets the best possible ending to their life. It’s certainly not the nicest part of my job, and it’s not one that’s surrounded by ‘glory’ (as saving a life or rescuing a limb during a difficult operation may be) but it’s nonetheless important. Sad as it is to lose a pet, I do get great satisfaction from knowing that something so difficult has been done well.

I make sure the patient isn’t stressed or in pain by providing just the right amount of pain relief and sedation. I use my practical skills and experience to administer the correct amount of sedative so as not to collapse their veins. Raising a vein and administering anaesthetic intravenously, often alone, is a difficult procedure in itself but at this most crucial time it is imperative that I conduct this procedure seamlessly. These are things that come with experience and, when emotions are high and a pet is reliant on me to provide them with a dignified release from pain and suffering, getting these practicalities exactly right is vitally important.

After you’ve said your final goodbyes, depending on your wishes, the pet’s body can then be transferred with care to the practice where we will deal will cremation and, if requested, return the ashes to you. We also follow up every euthanasia appointment with a hand-written condolence card – because this is so much more than a job.

Personally, as a vet, and as a practice we’re always here for you at this difficult time. Losing a pet is like losing a member of your family and you should never listen to anyone who belittles your grief or says it’s ‘just an animal’. Losing any animal of any size or breed can leave a hole in our lives and, no matter what pet you’re grieving for or how long or short a time they’ve been with you, your grief is real and valid. We can help with suggestions of ways to commemorate your pet or remember their life and there are charities that can help you to deal with the loss of a pet, including the Blue Cross’s free and confidential ‘Pet Bereavement Support Service’ and the Cats Protection’s ‘Paws to Listen’ grief support service (0800 0249494)

While all this can be upsetting to read, and not something that you necessarily want to think about, it is, nonetheless, incredibly important when the time comes. Until then, however, try not to dwell on it. Enjoy all the happy times with your pet and, although the time to say a sad goodbye will one day arrive, focus on the wonderful moments and memories in between. And, on that note, it seems apt to end with a quote from a well-known, very popular animal lover who has sadly been lost recently: “Taking any animal into your life will inevitably end in heart ache, but you don’t worry about the hangover when you’re at the party.” Paul O’Grady 1955 – 2023.