Helping clients cope with euthanasia

Euthanasia is a common but critical procedure. Robin Hargreaves, Vet Lead at Agria Pet Insurance, explains what he does to help owners deal with the end of their pet’s life

03 March 2020, at 9:00am
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I’d like people to see euthanasia as I do. After over 30 years as a vet, I’ve seen animals die of everything, but nothing is as gentle or painless as being skilfully put to sleep.

When I got my puppy, I knew that I would, one day, put him to sleep. I knew I would not want to let him die and that it was my responsibility when the time came. This knowledge didn’t detract from our relationship; it was a blessing that I’d be able to help him fall asleep peacefully one day, when the time was right.

People will often say, “I couldn’t be a vet – putting all those animals to sleep must be so depressing”. Truthfully, it’s the opposite. I know that over my career I’ve alleviated more suffering with timely euthanasia than with any other procedures I’ve carried out combined. If we could help owners to switch their thinking to, “I hope I get the chance to choose the time to have my pet put to sleep”, and recognise that it’s a positive thing, that would help them to deal with it.

Time to mentally prepare is crucial. That’s how I had reconciled saying goodbye to my dog – I had known it was coming all his life.

Subconsciously many owners push the future loss of their pet to the back of their minds. This approach is the worst thing an owner can do as it leaves them no time to prepare. Should their pet come in one day critically ill, they may need to make a decision in a matter of minutes. For an owner to process this so quickly is impossible, significantly amplifying the immediate devastation and long-term grieving process.

In practice, we can help by talking openly and positively about euthanasia. The opportunities for these discussions are few, but look for them – whether an animal is a healthy three-year-old or a much older pet. This way, you can have a rational conversation about the positives of a planned and gentle passing to help the owner begin to see it as a kind and wonderful gift, when the time is right.

A pet must want to eat, be able to move around and recognise its surroundings and those around it. It’s helpful to discuss with the owner what their pet continues to take pleasure from. I feel that an animal must still be making choices, deciding on doing something just for fun and following it through.

Quality of life is essential; you need to be able to do things that you enjoy. Ask, “What has your pet done over the past few days purely for joy? Or has it been simply doing what it had to do next?” If they cannot identify anything their pet does just for fun, they will be taking nothing away from it except any pain or suffering.

So, if we accept that being put to sleep is preferable to any other manner of dying then it’s all about timing. Many owners will say that they would prefer their pet to die in their sleep. But do they really mean to die in “my” sleep, so they aren’t compelled to make a decision? It can be helpful to explain to owners that dying during the night doesn’t guarantee that it is peaceful.

Better than trying to measure suffering is to acknowledge we cannot quantify it, so it’s a huge decision to say they can tolerate it for another day or week, if there’s no compensatory pleasure. In other words, “Am I confident today is a day worth living?”

I believe there is comfort to be had in euthanasia. There is a transfer of suffering. The animal is in distress, while the owner will try to hold themselves together. Once the pet has been put to sleep, it looks peaceful, no longer suffering, yet the owner is often in bits, hit by a wall of grief. The animal had a terminal problem it was never going to defeat, but now it has been lifted onto the owner in the form of grief – which is something they can overcome, in time.

When an owner has lost a pet and feels dreadful, they can recognise that it’s because the animal doesn’t feel dreadful any more, and take comfort in that. Owners may face the choice: leave the pain with your pet, or lift it from them, and take the burden yourself.

Agria Pet Insurance is one of the few pet insurers to provide cover for euthanasia, cremation and burial. For cremation and burial, or a house visit to put a pet to sleep, no excess is applied.

To find out more about working with Agria, including offering your clients 5 Weeks Free insurance, contact the Agria Vet Team on 03330 30 83 90, or visit Agria’s website.