Dealing With the Death of Your Dog

As an owner, you must be ready to face the eventual death of your beloved pet. However much you think you have prepared yourself, when the time comes to say good-bye, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the intensity of your grief, even if it is not the first such loss you have sustained. People who have never owned a dog are often unable to understand what you are going through. However, feelings of acute loss are perfectly normal. Don't hide them away, but allow them to come to the surface.

A great number of pets do not die naturally, but by euthanasia — being put painlessly to sleep. Most dog owners and vets believe that this is an ethical and compassionate way to end the life of animal that is terminally ill, in continuous incurable pain, or has lost essential body functions and has no hope of resuming an active life. No vet likes to lose a patient, and treatment will be given as long as it is having positive effects. Sometimes an owner may refuse further treatment for his dog and request euthanasia. If the vet is reluctant to do this, owner and patient may be referred elsewhere.

A Peaceful Transition

Once the decision to euthanize the dog has been made, many owners feel that they cannot bear to watch the procedure. The veterinarian will always respect such feelings. However, the dog will feel happier and calmer if someone it knows is present. It will also help to alleviate the owner's later distress if he or she has seen for themselves just how peaceful the transition was.

While the dog is held gently in a sitting or lying position, his right foreleg is lifted for the vet to inject an overdose of anesthetic into the vein. The dog is normally completely at ease, as sitting and giving a paw is a familiar activity. A sedative may be given first if the dog is upset or if the procedure is awkward for the vet. Usually the dog is completely unaware of the injection and falls asleep in five to ten seconds. Breathing ceases within one or two minutes, and the heart stops shortly after this. The transition is smooth and without trauma, perhaps with an occasional spasmodic twitch. There can be no kinder way of bringing an end to your pet's suffering.

Your vet will be able to advise you about disposal of the body and may offer facilities for cremation and burial. Many owners choose to intern their dog in a pet cemetery, with an appropriate headstone, but others prefer a favorite spot of the backyard or garden. This can usually be arranged, but make sure you observe the legal and hygienic requirements.

Afterward, expect to grieve; it is only natural. If you have children, be honest with them about what has happened to the dog and explain why it was necessary. You may find it helpful to talk to sympathetic friends (especially other dog owners) or to the vet or animal nurse a few days later. Whatever you do, don't blame yourself for the dog's passing—if the decision was carefully considered under expert advice, you have made the correct choice. Don't rush to replace the lost pet unless you are certain that this is the right decision. On the other hand, don't resist having another dog because you think it would be a betrayal of the last one. It certainly won't be. Every dog is an individual and should be valued for his or her unique qualities.

Assessing Quality of Life

To decide whether euthanasia is necessary or not, your veterinarian, in discussion with you, will assess whether the basic needs of the dog are being fulfilled. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the dog have freedom from uncontrollable pain, distress, and discomfort? Is it able to walk and balance?
  • Can it eat and drink without pain or vomiting?
  • Is it free from painful inoperable tumors?
  • Can it breathe freely and without difficulty?
  • Can it urinate and defecate without difficulty or incontinence?
  • Is it able to see or hear?

If the answer to any of the above is “no,” and all possible treatment has been exhausted, then the dog is no longer capable of leading a normal life without suffering. Euthanasia should be gently carried out.

My 9-year-old Boxer, Ruffles, died three months ago. I still cry for him every day. My sister says I am being silly. What do you think?
Anyone who has ever owned a dog will understand how you feel — it is perfectly normal for you to be still grieving. A new puppy may help ease the process, but only if you feel ready for it. It won't mean you have forgotten your old friend.

Pigalle, my elderly Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, has heart disease. Her symptoms are getting worse, and friends tell me I should have her put to sleep, but I really hope she will die in her sleep one night. What should I do?
Overcome your fears and consult your vet. He or she may be able to help Pigalle, but if not, euthanasia is the kindest option. She can't enjoy quality of life, and death from heart failure is often painful.

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