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Fear Free Euthanasia: Help Pets and People Say Goodbye Peacefully

Julie Liu, DVM

Pet parents will remember their animal’s euthanasia for the rest of their lives, and if their pet is agitated or anxious, they’ll remember that, too. Helping them to plan ahead can make the experience easier for your patients and their families.

When people make the difficult decision to euthanize a pet, there are many other smaller decisions they’ll have to make, such as when to schedule and whether they or their children should be present. Among the details that should be considered on your end is how you can reduce the animal’s fear, anxiety, and stress during their final moments.

When pets have a fear of the veterinarian and are brought in for euthanasia, their stress levels can escalate. The procedures that may take place before euthanasia can be scary or painful, such as being restrained by a veterinary staff member while their front leg is shaved and an IV catheter is placed. While this usually occurs away from the owner, the experience is often stressful enough that the difference is noticeable when the pet is returned to the exam room.

Even if a particular patient doesn’t routinely require anti-anxiety medications, consider them when clients are bringing pets in 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 the euthanasia go more smoothly. Dispense them at least a few days ahead of time to ensure that the client is able to give a test dose before the day of the pet’s euthanasia. Some anti-anxiety medications such as gabapentin also help reduce pain, so they can decrease discomfort to procedures such as IV catheter placement prior to euthanasia. If your patient is agitated or is still fearful despite oral pre-visit pharmaceuticals, consider injectable sedation prior to euthanasia. The last thing a pet parent wants to see in their time of grief is their pet flailing, vocalizing, or trying to escape. Sedation will decrease stress for the pet and their family.

If your practice routinely uses IV catheters for euthanasias, have clients rub a lidocaine numbing cream such as Supernumb on the tops of their pet’s forelegs several hours prior to euthanasia. IV catheter placement is painful, and numbing the area will make for a more compassionate experience, especially since multiple catheter attempts are sometimes needed in debilitated pets .

In your Fear Free practice, you use treats with patients during routine visits, and you 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 clients to continue bonding with their pets while lowering their stress. Take care to avoid giving greasy foods such as burgers–while tempting to offer as a last meal, they can cause nausea and gastrointestinal upset.

If you don’t offer housecalls for patient euthanasia, I urge you to consider it. Even pets who don’t have a strong fear of veterinary visits 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. I’ve euthanized several pets in their homes, and in every instance I felt that the experiences of the pet and the owner were better than they would have been in the clinic environment.

Pets deserve to have a Fear Free death as much as they deserve to have a Fear Free life. By considering a patient’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.

Happy Paws Magazine

Spring/Summer 2020 Issue Available Now!