Monday, July 30, 2012

Pet Euthanasia Gone Bad

[Reviewed and updated October 7, 2023]

A reader writes: We put down our 14-year-old huskie at the vet today. She had bad arthitis in her hips and knees and a skin infection we couldn't clear up, but the big thing was she had anal gland cancer. They showed it to us a month ago, and said it was aggressive. We kept her home on meds for pain and infection, and watched it. She still had a great appetite and drank up until yesterday. It just seemed like it was harder and harder for her to get up and down and walk, and that thing on her bottom had to hurt. Anyway, we took her and I don't think I'll be able to get over it if I live to 100.
The vet gave her a "sedative" shot under the skin on her back and said she would lay down and be sleepy in 3-5 minutes. She left the room for us to be with her. After ten minutes she was still pacing, staggering around . . . The vet finally came in  with a blanket and the four of us picked her up and laid her down, but she was still wanting to get up. She was bleeding from her bottom, shaking like a leaf, her heart was racing (we could feel it), and I had her muzzle laying in my hand and she was breathing so fast and hard like hyperventilating. She was so scared! The vet had to give her two more sedative shots but said the veins kept rolling and blowing so I had to see her stick and re-stick and re-stick my poor sweet wonderful dog about 7-8 times while she was still conscious. Down on the floor, drooling and breathing so hard, but concious. She finally said, "I have to give her a small amout of the final shot, I know that will put her under. So she did, and it did. But the whole thing from when she gave her the shot under the skin until my dog passed was 25 minutes. My husband was beside himself with pain and anger and I am still in shock and can't understand how I will ever get those last 20 mintues out of my head. Our sweet dog who trusted us completely and we would never harm a hair on her head and we take her in to be "tortured" before death. How can we live with it? Our vet did call to apologize and said that had never happened to her before. I know she was very upset too, but it was so horrifying, I don't ever want to put an animal to sleep again. I feel her dying with the cancer might not have been that bad. Or maybe we just should have shot her in the head. That would be more humane than what we saw. I have seven cats left--I don't know now that when their time comes, I'll be able to make the choice for them. Please tell me if this has happened before and the reasons you were given and a way to prevent it. Can I find a vet that will let me insist I get a sedation pill to give them before we even get to the vet? I don't know...I'm ready to have a breakdown. I don't have kids and my pets are my heart. All I can feel is my dog trusted me competely and I made a choice to let her suffer. Help.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the terrible experience you had with the euthanasia of your beloved dog, especially when it was your intention to ease her suffering and provide for her a peaceful death. I waited to respond to your message until I was first able to consult with one of the excellent (experienced and compassionate) veterinarians with whom I have worked, to get her perspective on your story. This veterinarian specializes in providing at-home euthanasia for those animal guardians who request it, so she's had a great deal of experience in this aspect of veterinary medical care. Here is the response I received from her via e-mail:

Hi Marty. I read the message. I don't feel this experience is all that unusual. When I do a sedative and euthanasia the process normally does take 20-30 minutes so I don't feel the time of this euthanasia was too long. I have had dogs, especially huskies, that do not respond to sedation. I've done shot after shot of sedation. In one particular case, I didn't feel the dog was suffering so we waited probably 45 minutes before even doing the euthanasia to see if the drugs would finally set in! And that dog was a husky!

The panting and hyperventilating could be from stress from being in the vet office, bleeding from the tumor or even just secondary to drugs and changes in blood pressure. In the last case, the animal could be totally comfortable lying down, but she is panting with a pounding heart because her body is trying to compensate for the drug changes. This can happen under anesthesia as well.

I definitely do not feel this woman's experience was worse than, say, letting the animal die slowly or definitely not if she had tried to shoot it!! It's not uncommon after several doses of sedative for the blood pressure to change so much that it is difficult to get a vein. I think the vet did the right thing when he/she stopped trying to get the dog sedated and went right to euthanasia for a quicker end to the process.

I understand the situation was stressful for the pet parent. I hope this does not impair her ability to make sound decisions for the rest of her pets in the future. A pill would be less effective than a shot, but she certainly can ask for sedation pills prior to the visit and then at the time of the visit a shot of sedation can also be given. If she knows her pets are stressed at the clinic then doing it at home could make a big difference.

In the end, I feel she ended the dog's suffering and should not see this as causing more suffering. I hope that helps!!

I too hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. I must say that I wish your veterinarian (or someone assigned to do so) would have stayed in the room with you to assist you with your dog's reaction and to explain what was happening and why. Under the circumstances, it sounds to me as if you did the very best you could for your beloved companion.

I am reminded of a lovely letter I received a while ago from another pet parent whose experience was similar to yours. I share it with you in hopes that her words will bring you some small measure of comfort:

I had a bad, late-stage-of-life and put-to-sleep experience with my first dog. For a year, I went through the "coulda shoulda's" until I felt his voice telling me to stop replaying that part of his life over and over because it was keeping him stuck there in that hospital cage and he wanted to move on and be free and happy. 

When my sweet Willy's time came I swore I wouldn't put him to sleep, but the heartbreaking last night and what he went through made me suck it up and step in as his mommy and take him to be put to sleep. Thankfully this time it went smoothly and peacefully. 

The thing is, we don't know what fate could have befallen our baby had we waited. I've read horror stories online about people kicking themselves for not putting a pet to sleep. I see many people (myself included) kick themselves for end-of-life decisions they make for loved ones in their care. I know firsthand the agony of these feelings. Let me tell you, it's impossible not to make mistakes under such dire circumstances when split second decisions need to be made under pressure. I learned this after beating myself up with every single pet I lost. With Willy, though, I learned to accept that there would be decisions I made in that final stage of life that hurt rather than helped him--and there were many. But at the time doing nothing wasn't an option either. 

There are no hollywood endings and dying itself really sucks, if you ask me. I don't know why the end assumes such grandiose importance to those of us still living, but unfortunately it does. But I tried to remember that 25 minutes is a small fraction of the 14 years we had together. And I firmly believe that what awaits us after death is a wonderful feeling, because the best place is always the "next place."

Three things I have done to really help me since I lost Willy 2 months ago - and we were so close we were practically conjoined, since he was ill most of his 15 years: 

First, I put his ashes in a soft plushy huggable urn  because having that relationship suddenly severed was just too painful for me. Being able to hold him inside his "new dog suit" helps me "communicate" with him and know our relationship lives on even though he is now a "level 3 player" while I'm still stuck on "level 2." 

Second, I honor his feelings not to stay stuck in those difficult last days by doing my best to stop myself every time I think of them, for his sake. 

And third, all his life, I pre-grieved his passing. Now I can look forward to the wonderful day when I can graduate from a Level 2 player to Level 3, and we can be together again in the same dimension. I've learned that I don't have to let my dog's death be my last experience with him. Just as it would hurt us not to be loved when we're no longer young or beautiful, I believe those "spirits" want us to accept and love them for whoever they are now, rather than mourn the loss of who they were in life. It would be like crying every time I see my older dog because he's no longer a puppy.

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