Though the subject of this post is very sad and is something that we, as pet owners, try to not think about, it is very important to know as much as possible about this option for saying goodbye to our beloved pets.
Over the span of a few years, I helped over 50 families say goodbye to their cats and dogs in the peace and quiet of their homes. This was both one of the best things I did as a veterinarian and was also one of the most challenging.
Because I had provided this particular service for others, I appreciated it so much more when it was time to say goodbye to my best friend, Chewy.
I'd like to try to answer some of the most common questions/concerns that clients ask about at-home euthanasias. Please know that I am acutely aware of how sad this process is. So aware, that it has taken me a year and a half to write about it after our own experience.
My thoughts are with you if you're reading this because the time is approaching for you to say goodbye to your beloved family member.
When is it the right time?
This has been, by far, the question I get asked the most. I truly believe that, as veterinarians, we cannot make this decision for you, but we CAN provide you with the foundation for coming to the right decision for your pet on your own.
Our position as veterinarians is to be the advocate for your animal and to help you make the best decision for your pet.
I say this professionally, but I also struggled with this tremendously personally.
At the end of his life, Chewy still had that "fight" in him. He had a voracious appetite, he barked at us incessantly for treats, and he was still very engaged and wanted to be with us.
Sadly, his body was not as strong as his will.
And the last few months of his life were a rollercoaster.
Day to day, his circumstances were different. Some days, he'd be trotting through the house and peeking his head around the corner when he thought we were making food for him in the kitchen. But other days, he struggled. He struggled on his walks, to get up, to stand up while he ate.
Those good days were few and far between at first, but then they became more frequent.
I always recommended for clients to come up with an end-of-life plan for their pet before the actual end of their pet's life because it is nearly impossible to think clearly when you are in the throes of grief. I would say this knowingly from the other side of the situation because I had seen how helpful preparedness could be. And I also said it without really knowing how it truly felt. Until the day that I had to practice what I preached.
Brian and I deliberated for weeks about timing and if Chewy was ready to go. We ultimately decided to plan our goodbye for a day in the future so we knew in advance and could plan to have the weekend before that Monday with our boy and the week after to mourn his loss.
The timing of saying goodbye to Chewy was, quite possibly, the most painful part. I will never forget sending that text to our wonderful friend and asking her if she could help us. My fingers felt like lead and I thought that I would never hit "send".
I still question this decision with my heart... not my head. The day that Chewy passed, he was so bright and happy and active... we had had an incredible weekend with him that included trips to the river, sitting in the back of the car at the park, visits from friends, and all the treats that he could ever want.
So, to look at him on the day we decided to say goodbye, broke my heart into a million pieces all over again. My heart told me that he wasn't a dog that was ready to say goodbye.
My brain knew the real story though. That this was a very well-thought-out decision that we had come to with so much love and by weighing all the facts. I knew that my brain should outweigh matters of the heart, even when it was my own dog.
Brian and I were so grateful and will forever be grateful that the person that helped us on one of the most painful days of our lives, our friend Carrie. Carrie walked in the back door that day and Chewy wagged his tail to greet her. He loved her and trusted her.
This made me realize how important it is for the families that are grieving to feel comfortable with the person that is filling the role of "Carrie" in their pet's passing.
For this reason, I would highly recommend meeting the veterinarian that you plan on using for this service prior to the actual day if at all possible. I realize that not everyone gets the chance to do this, but if you do have the opportunity, it's invaluable for you to meet such an important figure and also for your pet to meet them.
Sometimes, this person is a veterinarian that has been in your pet's life for a long time and this meeting them beforehand might not apply, but for those of you that might not have a veterinarian that offers at-home euthanasias, I would highly recommend reaching out well in advance.
Additionally, there are many veterinarians that are now trained in end of life services and/or hospice care that can come to the house and help you make an incredibly difficult decision a little more clear. They can also help to ensure that everything is being done to keep your pet as comfortable and happy in their home environment as possible as they near the end of their life.
What happens to my pet when they are euthanized?
The word euthanasia means "the good/easy death".
As veterinarians, our goal is to make euthanasias as easy, pain-free, peaceful, and loving as possible for you and your pet.
The actual procedure varies a lot from practitioner to practitioner, but generally speaking there is a form of sedation followed by the euthanasia.
Every practitioner is different, so if you have any questions about what will happen or why, don't hesitate to ask them beforehand. When you are in that moment of saying goodbye, the last thing that anyone wants is confusion or further upset.
Where should we perform the euthanasia?
Generally speaking, wherever your pet is the most comfortable. Things to consider that may affect your decision are that your vet would very much appreciate good lighting, there should be power available (in case they need to use clippers), and it should be in a spot where your vet can get good access to your pet. Another thing to consider is that your pet might void after their passing, so an area that has a clear pathway to the door and that is covered with puppy pads or another protective layer would be ideal.
Should I let my kids watch and my other pets?
Letting your kids watch and explaining death to your children is something that I believe is very personal. I would say, from my perspective though, there is nothing worse than a child witnessing something like this and not understanding it and being traumatized by the situation.
If there is any question of how your child will react, I would say that it would be best to have them say goodbye and then maybe have the pet alone with the adults to make sure that the environment is calm and peaceful and not disruptive for the animal as they pass.
If you have other pets in the house I always recommended at least allowing them to see/smell their housemate after they had passed so that they aren't left wondering where their housemate had gone and if they would be coming back.
More often than not, people would expect their surviving pets to go directly to their housemate after they had passed to smell them and know that they were gone, but I observed many times that the surviving pets knew well before that their friend was gone.
Pets are incredibly intuitive and their noses "know" well before their eyes. It was upsetting for many people to think that their surviving pet didn't want to go up to their friend to say goodbye, but I think that they already had in most cases.
Why is it so expensive to euthanize my pet at home?
There is nothing in the world that is worse than presenting a client with a bill during this incredibly difficult time. I truly think that most veterinarians would perform this service free of charge if they could. But they can't.
Providing this service is incredibly costly. I will break it down here not in an effort to be cold but in an effort to shed light on why the prices for this service are so vastly different at home versus in the clinic.
1) Drugs: the drugs that are used to sedate and perform euthanasias are not cheap and veterinarians that carry these drugs have to have a DEA license that is very expensive to maintain. Keeping these drugs requires special handling and they need to be kept current.
2) Equipment: I used to have a special bag for euthanasias that included a stethoscope, puppy pads, syringes and needles, consent forms, cremation bags, etc. All of these supplies are integral to a smooth and seamless procedure and are rolled into the cost of the procedure.
3) Time: this is one of the most costly parts of at-home euthanasias. There is travel time to the client's house, time to take the pet to the cremation facility, and the time spent performing the procedure. I used to block off at least 3 hours for these appointments. I never wanted to make a client feel rushed in this very difficult time, so these appointments could take a good deal of time.
Also, these are 3 hours of completely devoted time by your veterinarian versus bringing them into your clinic where the veterinarian is there with you for the actual euthanasia, but their support staff is doing a lot of the time-consuming work.
4) Assistance: every vet does this a little bit differently, but I always liked to have an assistant with me during euthanasias. This would allow for the clients to really focus on their pet and not worry about helping me in any way. And if there was a big dog, for example, I could take them out of the house without asking the owner to help me.
5) Hours: unfortunately, a lot of times, people would come home from work to find their animal in distress and in need of my services after hours and on the weekends. Through no fault of their own, this creates a situation where, as the veterinarian, you are expected to work after hours. Yes, this is an important part of the service, but having a veterinarian and an assistant on call all the time is very expensive.
This list is by no means exhaustive and it is absolutely not meant to upset anyone. It is only meant to help clients understand pricing and the background of how much we need to charge in order to continue providing a service.
What are my options after my pet has passed?
There are typically three options for owners: cremation, burial, or a pet cemetery.
Crematories generally offer group cremations where the ashes are not returned to you and private cremations where the ashes ARE returned to you.
Leading up to his passing, I wasn't sure that I wanted Chewy's ashes back, but I am so glad that Brian and I decided to have him returned to us. We now have a shelf in our house with Chewy's collar and his ashes so we can have him with us at home. And I wear a necklace that is a teardrop urn that lies close to my heart always. I love that Chewy is always with me.
As some of you know, Brian and I had the very special opportunity to take some of Chewy's ashes back to Grenada, to the beach where he and I met 16 years ago and release him back to the beautiful place that he was born.
If having your pet cremated isn't right for you, you can bury your pet on your property, or you can have them buried in a pet cemetery. If you choose to bury your pet yourself, be sure to check with your local ordinances to make sure that it is permitted.
Dealing with an empty House
Brian and I said goodbye to Chewy on a Monday afternoon in August. Carrie drove away with him and our world would never be the same. We went for a long walk through the neighborhood because I couldn't bear to be in the house and then we cried ourselves to sleep.
I woke up several times that night expecting to see Chewy there next to the bed. We had moved our bed downstairs into the hallway so that we could sleep next to him and help take him out in the middle of the night if he needed to go. Waking up the next day was exquisitely painful. We decided to leave the house for a few days and were lucky enough to have a place to escape.
Our dear friends offered to pick up Chewy's things while we were gone, but that was something that I needed to do. We gave away many of his belongings to friends that could use them and we spent the next few months trying to stay busy and out of the house as much as possible.
There are many ways to deal with grief, including grief counselors. I would recommend counseling to anyone that has lost a beloved pet. Some people benefit from getting another companion and others can't bring themselves to. There is no right way to grieve. This was both Brian and my first time dealing with the grief process and to be honest, we continue to grieve.
Brian and I always knew that we would get another dog, we just didn't know when.
And then one day, our friend Carrie, told me that she wanted to donate to the GSPCA in Chewy's honor and that she didn't know how to send the money. I told her I would look into it and that was the moment that I saw the face of Bentley St George... He had a way about him that drew me in and it felt very much like he was meant to be our dog.
When I got home that day, I immediately ran into Brian's office and showed him the video and picture of that sweet, little pup. He said, "if it's a boy, we're in trouble"... and, he was... and in our exchanges with the GSPCA we saw a pic of their mom, Lola, who resembled Chewy in many ways. And then we found out that Bentley's birthday was the same day that we said goodbye to Chewy and it seemed that the decision to adopt Bentley was made for us.
Brian and I flew down to Grenada without telling any family or friends and we said goodbye to Chewy with a beautiful ceremony on Grand Anse beach. And then, a few hours later, we drove our rental jeep through the winding streets of Grenada to the GSPCA and adopted our wild man, Bentley St George with 100% certainty that Chewy would have wanted us to save the life of another incredible Pothound.
Adopting another pet seemed like it was too soon, but I believe in my heart that Chewy sent us Bentley to help heal our shattered hearts.
This quote resonated with me and has helped me through this painful time.
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose; All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller