Senior Pets Veterinary Care

Fear Free Euthanasia: How to Say Goodbye Peacefully

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You’ll remember your pet’s euthanasia for the rest of your life, and if your pet is agitated or anxious, you’ll remember that, too. Taking these few simple steps to plan ahead will make help make the experience easier for your pet and your family.

When you make the difficult decision to euthanize your pet, there are many other smaller decisions you’ll have to make, like when to schedule and whether you or your children should be present. Among these details that should be considered is how you can lower your pet’s fear, anxiety, and stress during their final moments. 

We’ve all seen how sensitive our pets can be to our emotional distress, and pets who observe their grieving owners often become upset themselves. When pets who fear veterinary visits are brought in for euthanasia, their stress levels can escalate even further. There are also certain procedures that often take place before euthanasia that can be scary or painful, such as being restrained by a veterinary staff member while the front leg is shaved and an IV catheter placed. While this usually occurs away from the owner, it’s often stressful enough that the difference is noticeable when the pet is returned to the exam room.

If you’ve never had a housecall for your pet, I urge you to consider it for their euthanasia. Even if pets don’t have a strong fear of the veterinary clinic, they will never be as relaxed at the vet as they will in their home, with their familiar bed and environment. You can even have classical music playing quietly in the background to help create a calming environment.

No matter where you live, there is likely at least one housecall veterinarian who services your area, and there are even housecall companies that specialize in euthanasia. If you prefer to have your pet euthanized by their regular vet, it’s worth asking if they would be willing to do a housecall. I’ve euthanized several pets in their homes, and in every instance I felt that the experiences of the pet and their family members were better than they would have been in the clinic environment.

Even if you don’t routinely use anti-anxiety medications for your pet, consider them when making plans for euthanasia. Many pet parents have concerns about their sedating effects, but this is one instance where it truly doesn’t matter–sedation will only help their euthanasia go more smoothly. Pick them up from your veterinarian at least a few days ahead of time to ensure that you’re able to give a test dose before the day of their euthanasia.

You’ll know the medication is working if your pet seems to calm down a few hours after it is given. If there’s no change in your pet’s behavior or if they seem agitated, talk to your vet. Some anti-anxiety medications such as gabapentin also help to reduce pain, so they can decrease discomfort to procedures such as IV catheter placement prior to euthanasia.

For needle-sensitive pets, you can rub a lidocaine numbing cream such as Supernumb on the tops of your pet’s forelegs several hours prior to euthanasia to further reduce pain from the IV catheter if one is placed.

You’ve probably seen your Fear Free veterinary staff use treats with your pet during routine visits, and we can use them with euthanasia, too. Providing a smorgasbord of vanilla ice cream, lunch meat, cheese chunks, Churu, peanut butter, or whipped cream will allow you to continue bonding with your pet while lowering their stress. Take care to avoid giving really greasy foods like burgers–while tempting to offer as a last meal, they can cause nausea and gastrointestinal upset.

Pets deserve to have a Fear Free death as much as they deserve to have a Fear Free life. By considering your pet’s emotional health during their final days, you’ll help make their passing as compassionate as possible.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Julie Liu, DVM, CVA (Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist) is a small-animal veterinarian who practices in Austin, Texas. In addition to advocating for Fear Free handling of pets, she is passionate about feline medicine and senior pet care.

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