Pet Euthanasia During the Pandemic

Aiming for “as good as possible,” but probably not perfect.

Posted Apr 08, 2020

On top of all the other challenges of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, some pet owners are facing the additional strain of having a companion dog or cat who is nearing the end of life. Figuring out how to navigate end of life decisions for an animal, especially the decision to hasten death through compassionate euthanasia, is hard under normal circumstances. With normal circumstances out the door, what do you do?  

I want to be clear up front that I am not a veterinarian, and this is not meant to serve as veterinary advice. I’m a bioethicist and have been working on ethical issues in end of life care for companion animals for over a decade. I’ve been concerned about how COVID-19 is impacting the delivery of veterinary services to animals, and how pet parents are coping with the loss or impending loss of a beloved animal.

To this end, I want to share some things I learned from a webinar given on April 5th by Dr. Kathleen Cooney, Education Director for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy. Although the webinar was intended for vets, I was there to see what I could learn that might be of help or comfort to pet parents.

Euthanasia is considered an essential veterinary service. It is not like a dental cleaning or wellness check. Although you may have to do some looking around to find the best location or best person, many veterinarians are still providing this service. Hospitals and clinics are still open and many mobile/in-home euthanasia providers are also continuing to work during the crisis.

That said, the protocols for providing care may be different, just as they are in human medicine. These are going to vary from one place to another. The best thing you can do is make some calls ahead of time, find out what you can and can't do, and know what to expect. 

Here are a few things to think about:

1. Being present for the euthanasia.

Although some pet parents choose not to be present, many consider it a sacred duty to see their companion through to the very end. The idea of not being able, during the COVID-19 crisis, to be present with their pet at the final moment will fill some people with dread.

Many veterinary hospitals and clinics are asking people to stay outside while their animal is brought inside for treatment. This may be fine for an ear infection check or simple injection, but for euthanasia, it is not ideal for pet parents who want to be present for the final moments of their animal’s life.

If a veterinary clinic has a strict “no owners in the building” policy, you could ask if they would perform euthanasia in your car. This isn’t ideal, because social distancing is a bit hard, but it could be workable with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Alternatively, they may be willing to prescribe an oral sedative that could be given to a dog or cat ahead of time.*

Another protective measure being employed by some veterinary hospitals and clinics is to allow only one person inside the building to be with the animal. If you find out your options ahead of time, you can think about who should be present, if an animal has extended family.

Many mobile euthanasia services remain open during this crisis because they recognize that companion animals don’t get to choose when they are going to be suffering unrelenting pain or illness, and they are committed to maintaining the human-animal bond, even through death. A mobile vet may be able to accommodate a desire to remain with your animal at the end. The best-case scenario is that euthanasia can be performed outside in a yard; otherwise, the vet may choose a large room, where social distancing is more feasible.

Although there is no evidence at this time that our pets can carry the coronavirus, their fur is covered with our germs, especially if we are petting and hold and crying over our animals. Vets may limit how much they touch your animal—but this isn’t because they lack empathy. They are trying to keep everyone safe.  

2. Be prepared for challenges your animal may experience.

Whether you have a mobile vet come to your home or you take your animal to a clinic, the veterinarian and any staff will be wearing PPE: they will have on a mask, gloves, perhaps also goggles and an apron. You will likely also be asked to wear a mask and gloves.

For some animals, a stranger wearing weird stuff over his or her face may be frightening. The last thing a veterinarian wants to do is scare an animal, especially right before death. There isn’t really a good way around this problem, though an oral sedative given by the pet parent prior to the vet’s arrival is one possibility.

Under normal circumstances, a euthanasia vet will move slowly and take each step only when everyone is ready; under our not-at-all normal circumstances, vets may be moving more quickly, both to quickly achieve sedation for the animal and to reduce the exposure time for all the people present.

3. Limit contact time.

Some other things you and your veterinarian can to do limit contact time: talk on the phone ahead of time to talk through what the visit will look like; get any questions answered; handle all the necessary paperwork; talk through and make decisions about aftercare; say goodbye to your animal ahead of time and be prepared for things to move quickly.

4. Be compassionate.

Among the few things we can control right now are the emotions we put out into the world. Know that veterinarians are anxious about the work they are doing right now—they are taking risks to make themselves available to provide a peaceful death for our companions. They have great compassion for our animals, and we can be compassionate in turn. We also need, perhaps above all else, to be compassionate toward ourselves. Making the decision to euthanize an animal is one of the hardest choices you will ever make, and it carries intense and often complicated emotional weight.

5. Memorialize.

The grieving process involves celebrating and memorializing the life of a beloved animal after they have passed. These ceremonies don’t have to stop, but we may have to get creative. For those who use social media, a virtual honoring ceremony can be a nice way to gather friends and invite reflections and stories about an animal’s life. For those who have a yard, a flowering bush or tree could be planted in honor of the animal. Waiting for a post-COVID honoring ceremony is another great option.

Facing the death of an animal is excruciating even in the best of times. In these challenging times, I send you extra strength and courage and long-distance support.

*Under normal circumstances, veterinarians would not be able to prescribe oral sedatives over the phone, without having established a face-to-face veterinary-patient relationship. Some states have relaxed these rules during the pandemic. Ask your vet if this is an option.