We all have special animals on the farm. They might be dogs or cats, ponies or horses, cattle or pigs. When we’ve shared their lives and enjoyed their company for years, we get very fond of them, and unless they die unexpectedly, there usually comes a time when we have to face the fact that we should consider euthanasia for them. These times are always difficult for the caring owner, but it’s absolutely inevitable that you will experience them when you own and love animals.
How can I decide?
Your vet and your family and friends can assist and support you when you have to think about euthanasia for a special animal, and you should consider not only what’s best for the animal, but also what’s best for you and your family.
When you are trying to decide if the time has come, you could ask yourself “Does the animal still have pleasures like eating, going for walks, being groomed? Is there more pleasure than pain in its life?” If the answer is “Yes” then maybe the euthanasia option could be delayed.
If it has few pleasures in life, if it’s very thin and frail, or in pain much of the time, if it struggles to get about, or if the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means, it may be best to choose euthanasia, and sooner rather than later.
Your vet will understand your attachment to the animal, and will examine and evaluate its condition, estimate its chances for recovery, and discuss potential disabilities and long-term problems. He or she can explain the medical options and possible outcomes.
In this way, your vet can help you make the euthanasia decision, but the decision is finally yours, so it is important that you fully understand your animal’s condition. If there is any part of the diagnosis or the implications for your pet's future that you don't understand, ask to have it explained again.
If you are considering euthanasia, you and your family should discuss the fate of the animal’s body. There are several options, and your vet can provide information about burial, cremation and other possibilities.
What does ‘euthanasia’ mean and what does it involve?
Euthanasia literally means “painless death”. There are various euthanasia methods, and in most situations the best is probably lethal injection by a vet. For large animals there is also the option of shooting with a bullet into the brain. The shooter should of course be a responsible person who is an experienced and fully licensed gun user.
How do I tell my family?
Family members are usually already aware of a special pet's problems. However, you should discuss the options with them. Encourage family members to express their thoughts and feelings. Even if you have reached a decision, it is important that family members, especially children, have their feelings considered. Children have special relationships with their animals. Excluding or protecting them from the decision-making process may only complicate their grieving. Children respect straightforward, truthful, and simple answers and if they are prepared adequately they are often surprisingly resilient and accepting of a loved animal's death.
Euthanasia is often accomplished by a vet giving an injection of a death-inducing drug into a vein. It might be possible for your vet to give a tranquilizer beforehand to sedate the animal before the lethal injection is given. This can make it less stressful for everyone involved.
The vet will usually require someone to hold the animal quietly.
If it’s a dog or a cat, a nurse may hold the leg applying gentle pressure above the vein to distend it a little for the injection.
With large animals, the vet will usually inject into the jugular vein in the neck. With the animal being quietly held, he or she will distend the vein slightly by thumb pressure below the injection site. Within a second or two of the vet starting to give the injection, the animal will slump onto the ground in deep and irreversible unconsciousness, and death will follow quickly and painlessly. Don’t be alarmed if the animal gives a reflex gasp a few seconds later. This can happen even though it is technically dead.
Generally euthanasia by lethal injection is the best option for all concerned, but for large farm animals like horses, shooting can result in instant death too. This is not so nice for onlookers, but it means that the carcass could be taken away and salvaged for pet food. On the down side, you and any other observers may be traumatised by the sight of blood, sometimes there are involuntary muscle spasms after the animal drops, and of course the thought of the carcass being used as pet food may not be acceptable.
For large animals, your vet or an experienced and compassionate stockman will help you decide on the best euthanasia method for the particular circumstances.
Disposing of the body
This can be a real problem, and it’s one you have to resolve before the event. The carcase must be buried promptly, well away from catchment areas.
Unless you can dig the hole yourself, it’s easier to get a contractor to do the job!
Other options for euthanasia
There are other options that might not appeal to anyone who is sentimentally attached to their animals, but for others they are worth considering.
The hound kennels or licensed pet food premises.
If the animal is fit to travel, the hunt kennel boss may take it away to euthanase it for hound food. Alternatively, there may be licensed pet food premises in the region that will purchase the animal and take it away. If the animal is not fit to travel because of weakness or injury, the pet food company representative may be able to euthanase it at home if it meets certain criteria relating to its health status and any drugs it has received.
Your local vet or maybe your regional SPCA can advise on the pros and cons of these options and provide contact phone numbers.
This isn’t an option most of us would choose but if there is a well-run horse abattoir in your region, some of you might want to consider sending your horse there. It’s best to check that there will be no delay before slaughter, and the horse must be fit enough to be transported without the transportation causing unnecessary extra distress.
The bottom line
When we own animals, we have a moral obligation to treat them with dignity and respect at the end of their life. It’s the last act of kindness we can do for them.