Euthanasia - "good death" - is a loaded topic for humans. But in the case of animals, the use of medical care to hasten the end of life is an accepted practice.
"It's the hard part of our profession," says Dr. Steven A. Rogers, a veterinarian in Falls Church, Va. But on the other hand, he notes, it's an advantage veterinarians have over medical doctors, when animals are terminally sick or suffering discomfort or pain.
Like many vets, Dr. Rogers is frequently called on to perform this service for families of injured, sick or aging pets. But even when the death is induced in as peaceful a manner as possible, it is not an easy time for the animal's human companions.
Under what circumstances should you choose euthanasia for a pet? Most veterinarians have guidelines, which they should be happy to discuss.
Many say they object to putting a pet down simply because it has become inconvenient or a nuisance for the owner. In these cases, they will often try to find another another home for the animal.
But vets may define those circumstances differently - often depending on the relationship between the vet and the animal's owner. For vets, as for physicians, communication with clients is an important part of making sound judgments - and they should be willing to refer clients to other vets for second opinions.
And as with physicians, pet owners should search out a vet who is willing to talk these issues out. When clients and vets have good relationship, the tough calls are easier to make. In a recent commentary for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Lynette A. Hart, Benjamin L. Hart and Bonnie Mader of the University of California at Davis suggest that the very first visit is a good time for vets to discuss the whole range of issues that clients will face during the life of their companion animal - including the possibility that they will want to consider euthanasia at the end of its life.
When will that time come?
"I always tell people they will know the right time, and they usually do," Dr. Rogers says. "They know their pet better than I do."
Vets can tell people when an animal is suffering or uncomfortable and what they can or can't do to help the animal. But the decision itself is up to the owners.
Many vets are comfortable allowing owners to be present for the procedure, but others may not be. Some vets may even consider making a house call for clients who want their animals to die at home.
Vets should help you think ahead to the problems you may encounter, but if they don't raise those issues, you should. If the procedure is done in the office, you may want to ask what precautions the staff will take to protect your privacy, such as allowing you to leave from a side or back door after the procedure. Some vets may suggest that you bring someone else to drive you home. And since the loss of a companion animal can leave a big void in your life, you may want to ask about such services as pet loss support groups, telephone hotlines or books that may be helpful.
Many pet owners report great satisfaction in being allowed to be with their animal in its last moments. Sometimes the animal is given a sedative prior to the injection that actually brings on death, and some owners prefer to remain until the animal loses consciousness, then leave the room before the lethal injection.
If you do want to be present when your animal dies, ask the veterinarian what you should expect. Otherwise the experience can be somewhat unsettling.
For instance, when a needle is inserted, the animal may whimper or bark or vocalize in some way, just as we humans often flinch at needles. And when death comes, there may be involuntary muscle twitches, urination or a bowel movement. Vets are usually prepared for these occurrences, but unsuspecting owners may find them disturbing if they are not briefed beforehand.
Being present at your pet's death can be an important way of completing a long relationship of mutual care and affection.