Several years ago I was sitting in an exam room with a man who was about to euthanize his cat. “Is he going to wave his legs around?” he asked.
“That’s pretty uncommon,” I said.
“No seizures?” he asked.
His shoulders relaxed. “That’s good,” he told me. “Because when I was a kid and we euthanized our cat, I took him home to bury him, and the next morning I found him halfway out of the grave.” He took a breath. “When we called the vet, he told us sometimes the pet can have some muscle spasms afterward, so that is what must have happened.”
I stood there for a moment, shaken. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “That’s not going to happen.”
The cat didn’t have post-mortem seizures, of course. The poor creature was buried alive, and had just enough fight in him after waking from the sedation to work his way partly out of his grave, only to succumb to the elements. That visual is one I can’t erase from my memory.
Of all the mistakes one doesn’t want to make as a vet, I can’t imagine one worse than that. An owner makes the agonizing decision to say goodbye to their beloved pet, goes through the entire process, takes the pet home. And the next morning that pet is back from the dead, recovered from their not-quite-fatal overdose of pentobarbital.
Does this kind of thing still happen? Unfortunately, yes, though it certainly isn’t common. I know at least two people who have had the singularly horrific experience of coming upon a pet who lived through a euthanasia- finding them alive and well in places they were never meant to experience. A couple people sent me this story over the last day and I just can’t get over the sorrow this poor family must be going through.
The thought of being responsible for that sort of thing horrifies me. Euthanizing a pet is one of the duties I consider most sacred, helping an owner and a pet through a terrible and traumatic time. The least we can do is make 100% without a doubt sure that these pets are gone. It’s not that hard to verify.
My techs have never laughed at my somewhat obsessive triple checking of a pet after euthanasia. It is the least we can do for our clients who trust us with this most unique of responsibilities. I know there are some vet students who read this blog, and to you I implore you: of all the mistakes I can beg you not to make, this one takes the cake. I just can’t imagine.