Practical - Index > Companion Animals & Urban Wildlife > Pet Loss Index

 
 
       
Dying at Home
 

April 02, 2001
Written by: Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer

It was time to let Butch go.  

The 15-year-old black lab-German shepherd mix was severely crippled with spinal arthritis, needed help just to get to his feet. And as painful as the decision was to make, owner Valerie Griffin knew it needed to be done.

While many clinics do their best to make the experience as gentle as possible, some owners opt for a different approach—euthanasia in the home.

But she didn’t want Butch’s last moments to be at the veterinarian’s office—his last memory to be of slick floors that make walking difficult, medicinal smells, the cries of other animals.

"I thought he didn’t deserve that," she said. "He deserved to die at home."

So she called her veterinarian, Dr. Maria Chadham, in San Pedro, Calif., and asked if that would be possible. Dr. Chadham said yes.

The decision to euthanize a pet is one of the most painful ones an owner can make. While many clinics do their best to make the experience as gentle as possible, some owners opt for a different approach—euthanasia in the home.

Rebecca Emmett’s pointer, Toby, was terrified of the veterinarian’s office. "He’d just shake all over—he’d have a hard time standing up at the vet’s."

So she took to having him treated at home, by a mobile veterinarian.

When the time came, the veterinarian, Dr. Linda Ryder of Companion Animal House Calls, Richmond, Va., first gave Toby a tranquilizer. The family gathered around, watched until he began to wobble, then coaxed him over to his soft bed by the fireplace. The dog lay down, and they stroked him as the veterinarian gave the final injection. "He just put his head down and it looked like he went to sleep," Ms. Emmett recalled.

Dr. Ryder performs about one in-home euthanasia a week. Many of the clients are people she’s never seen before, people who call specifically for this service.

The reasons vary, she said. Sometimes it’s a pet that has trouble moving—one too big for the owner to lift. Sometimes it’s a small pet, like a cat, that’s terrified of the car, and the owner doesn’t want that additional guilt of knowing the pet was afraid.

It’s anguishing to make the decision to euthanize, so people want to know they did the best they could. "They want closure, and they want it peaceful," said Dr. Paul-Michael Turkal.

Jennifer Floyd of Jamul, Calif., has had several pets euthanized at home to avoid jolting their already pained bodies along the rough road to the veterinarian’s office. "The dog’s taking a nap on a patch of grass in the backyard, I talk to the dog, give him a biscuit, the vet slips in the needle and it’s all over," she said. "It just seems like a quieter, more respectful way to go about things."

It’s anguishing to make the decision to euthanize, so people want to know they did the best they could. "They want closure, and they want it peaceful," said Dr. Paul-Michael Turkal of Home Veterinary Service, Clinton Township, Mich. "There’s no dogs barking in the distance, they can express their emotions as a family and not worry about what people think."

In-home euthanasia generally involves a minimum of three to four family members, he said. He’s seen as many as 20 to 30 people gather around to say goodbye. Families will have children come home from college; relatives come in from around the area.

It tends to be a planned event. In contrast, people who bring their pets into Dr. Turkal’s office at the Animal Medical Surgical and Critical Care Center have generally made a spontaneous decision—they’ve come to the conclusion that the pet can’t go on in pain, and they need to end it now. "Instead of letting it weigh on their mind, they want it done then and there."

Veterinarians said they find in-home euthanasia tends to be gentler psychologically on the family, though performing it poses additional complications. There’s no staff to back up the veterinarian, and the animals can be more aggressive on their own turf—so many will give the pet a sedative before injecting the euthanasia solution.

It’s important to move slowly and explain to the family exactly what’s happening, because they are more emotional than they’ll let themselves be at the veterinarian’s office, Dr. Turkal said. "People think of this as pain, and you have to explain every vocalization, every twitch."

For instance, the Nordic breeds will invariably howl when euthanized. Dr. Turkal doesn’t know why, but it’s important to prepare the family for that in advance. He also makes sure to give a double dose of the euthanasia solution. "It’s the end stage. Why skimp?"

When the veterinarian showed up at Ms. Griffin’s door on an October afternoon, Butch knew something was up, but he didn’t seem disturbed. There was no struggling. Ms. Griffin’s husband and mother were there too, to tell the dog goodbye.

"I felt that doing it at home would be a spiritual experience rather than a death experience," Ms. Griffin said. "I felt he had a perfect life from birth to old age. I just wanted him to have the perfect way out."

Ms. Griffin lay with him on his bed in the living room, holding him close as the veterinarian slid the needle in. Butch cried out once, then closed his eyes and it was over.

People have asked her if it wasn’t more painful, having Butch euthanized at home. It wasn’t, she said—it was the best way she could have handled it.

"I felt that doing it at home would be a spiritual experience rather than a death experience," she said. "I felt he had a perfect life from birth to old age. I just wanted him to have the perfect way out."

For more information:

Euthanasia: Knowing When

Euthanasia: What to Expect When Your Pet’s Time Has Come

"Letting go" can be a wrenching experience for pet owners. For information on pet grief counseling, read these VetCentric articles: "Dealing With the Death of a Pet, Part 1: Pet Cemetery" and "Dealing with the Death of a Pet, Part 2: Grief Counseling." Both these articles contain links to pet grief counseling services.