When that agonizing time comes and you and your veterinarian have decided that euthanasia is necessary for your beloved animal, should you remain with your friend throughout the process? Or should you say goodbye beforehand?
It can be exceedingly painful even to contemplate the death of our animal friends, but I encourage you to think about it ahead of time and, as much as possible, have a plan for how you would like to see things go, including whether you plan to remain with your companion during the final moments.
There are many possible scenarios of “leaving” an animal at the end. Unfortunately, some very old or very ill animals are simply abandoned by their guardians. But more often, people take responsibility for their animal’s final moments yet still “leave” in some form. People sometimes drop an animal off at the veterinary clinic, say farewell and give a kiss on the nose, pay the bill, and don’t look back. Others remain with their animal through the initial sedation (used to induce a state of deep sleep), step out briefly during the injection of sodium pentobarbital and the cessation of heartbeat, and then come back in to pay final respects and attend to the body.
The alternative, of course, is to stay. Staying means being present with the animal throughout the entire process.
How many people choose to stay and how many choose to go? And based on what considerations? A study conducted recently by Julie Ann Luiz Adrian and Alexander Stitt, entitled "There for You: Attending Pet Euthanasia and Whether this Relates to Complicated Grief and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," found that 34% of survey respondents chose to be present with their animal while 50% opted not to be present (16% didn’t respond).
There is no right or wrong answer to how we should care for our animal companions at the end of life. Admittedly, my first reaction to reading that half of people surveyed did not remain with their animal during euthanasia was quite negative. How, I thought, can someone abandon their dog or cat at this crucial time? But people often agonize over the decision about whether to be present for the actual euthanasia and have well-considered reasons for choosing to step away.
Here are some of the reasons people choose to leave, along with my commentary:
1. People aren’t sure whether they are permitted to stay. Perhaps their veterinarian has even encouraged them not to be present.
You have every right to be present when a veterinarian examines or treats your companion animal, and this includes euthanasia. A veterinarian should never ask you to leave or tell you that you can’t be there for the entire process.
Admittedly, it can be easier for a veterinarian when a pet owner is not there during the euthanasia procedure, because the veterinarian doesn’t have to move slowly, doesn’t need to allow a pet guardian time to say goodbye, or time to prepare him or herself for the moment of loss, or to pray or perform ceremonies. The veterinarian doesn’t have to witness or deal with a grieving client. Nor does the vet have to worry as much about the technical precision of his or her work, such as missing a vein on the first try. But more and more, veterinarians are well-trained in grief-facilitation and bereavement and will encourage pet guardians to remain.
2. People are afraid of what they might see.
Being present for the death of an animal can be a beautiful experience. When performed by a compassionate and well-trained veterinarian, the euthanasia procedure is peaceful and painless for the animal.
3. People are afraid of breaking down in front of the veterinarian or veterinary staff and feel embarrassed by their intense emotions.
This is a real fear, but veterinarians and their staff understand how painful the death of an animal companion can be. Hopefully, they can provide a private space for people to say goodbye to their companions.
4. People worry that their own intense feelings of anxiety and grief will upset their animal and they want the last few moments of their animal’s life to be peaceful.
This is also a real concern. In rare cases, it may be in the best interests of the animal for a guardian to step out briefly, if the guardian’s anxiety is upsetting to the animal.
5. People worry that if they will be traumatized if they witness the euthanasia of their beloved animal companion.
Adrian and Stitt found that being present for the euthanasia did not lead to complicated grieving or trauma and, in fact, seemed to be correlated with a greater sense of acceptance of the animal’s death and, in turn, may have provided the ground for a healthy grieving process. Their findings may indicate that “pet euthanasia serves as an active form of grief facilitation for those who attend.” (p. 710) In other words, attending the death of an animal, all the way through the process, can help people begin to process their loss. Guardians who were not present reported more feelings of regret than those who decided to be present.
Whether to remain present is a very personal decision. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many people say that they regret not having stayed with their animal. I’ve never had anyone tell me they regretted being present, although sometimes the euthanasia procedure is handled poorly by veterinary staff and this can lead to feelings of distress (but not regret about being present for the animal).
Our companion animals have given their lives to us, and we can show them our loyalty by fully supporting them throughout the dying process, whether this happens in our home or in the veterinary office, and whether death comes through active intervention or through hospice-assisted natural death.
Julie Ann Luiz Adrian & Alexander Stitt (2019) There for You: Attending Pet Euthanasia and Whether this Relates to Complicated Grief and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anthrozoös, 32:5, 701-713, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2019.1645515