Never never never

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.

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  • wikith

    I always triple check, too. Crazy scary. This fear is also why I always use more than I think will be necessary, and always give everything I have ready even if the pet passes with extra left.
    Ive had it happen to me with reptiles in the wildlife center I used to work at – turtles especially give lots of difficulty in determining whether they’re alive, not to mention getting the darn stuff into them. Slow metabolism means euthanasia also takes longer to work. We have one turtle I remember well, he had catastrophic shell injuries which made him ideal for teaching turtle anatomy to summer interns (easier to get open), so we euthanized, waited until he appeared dead, put him in the fridge to wait for that anatomy lesson… only to have a volunteer come screaming out that there was a live turtle in the fridge! Gave another dose, double what he should have needed, and the same thing happened! Third time was the charm. Damn thing received five times what he should have required.
    Also, from the article: Sematary, really? I realize this ain’t the New York Times, but buy this place a spell checker.

    • Lisa W

      FYI, “Pet Sematary” was a Stephen King book….

      • wikith

        Huh. I knew that, except I’d never seen it written, only heard it referenced, so I’d no idea that it was intentionally misspelled. Live and learn.

  • I saw that story too… so scary. I’m glad that vets like you take the time to check multiple times to spare pets from that pain and their families from the heartbreak. I can’t even imagine…

  • Lisa W

    Oh my God, what a horrific experience. I’ll have nightmares about this idea — I can’t imagine what the owners or the poor animals go through! I had never heard of this before.

  • Wow the thought of this happening just sends shivers up my spine. Having to make the decision to euthanize is hard enough. I can’t imagine having to make the choice twice and also experiencing the horror of finding your “dead” dog very much alive.

  • I’m afraid to click through and read.

  • Karen

    Ugh, i saw that story yesterday, that would be so terrible!!!!! I can’t even imagine :*(

  • i wish i hadn’t read this 🙁

  • Me too Roxanne, I can’t bear to click through and read. Good warning to future vet students though, Dr. V.

  • Chile

    I’m really struggling with this story hence why I sent it to you to see if it was “common.” I just can’t imagine the pain of going through that.

  • Emma

    I am so glad to see you refer to euthanasia as a sacred duty. It is. We are providing our beloved pets with the right to die with dignity and surrounded with love. I will always remember what one vet told his students: “Approach each euthanasia as if you were a priest administering the Sacraments. You are celebrating an animal’s love and life. To approach euthanasia with anything less than reverance is to deny the wonder of their Spirit and Ours.”

  • I also saw this story. I just can’t even imagine the horror of it… as a pet parent, or as the veterinarian. Just awful. I think triple-checking is the way to go. I’d much prefer that to not! I also really like the way you describe euthanasia as a sacred duty. That is a wonderful way to think of it. I appreciate that so much from a veterinarian!

  • I remember this was a real fear I had when I lost my first Berner and each time I have asked the vets the same question – “she can’t wake up can she?” I truly appreciate the veterinarians who have cared for my dogs and the fact that my last moments with each of them, despite the overwhelming sadness, have been moments of great peace.

  • Tonya


  • Katrina Joyce

    As a vet technician, it broke my heart when I read this story. I took a day to think about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a full circle responsibility laid on the whole clinic in question, not just the veterinarian.

    I’m not sure how other animals hospitals and clinics work, I will admit. I just know from my own experiences. The doctors at the clinic I work at rely heavily on their technicians. The technicians are very much involved with the care of each patient that walks through the doors. Everything from regular routine vaccine appointments to the sick animal who needs individual care for a few days, we are heavily involved in monitoring their well being, double and triple checking their charts for any history of vaccine reaction or aggressive behavior. I can’t help but think that if the technician on duty during that poor dog’s euthanasia procedure had been more proactive in the final stage of that animal’s care, that the family wouldn’t have to face the heart wrenching decision once again to put the animal to sleep, and that animal wouldn’t have to suffer that procedure again.

    So a note to vet students: Trust your technicians. We are here to help you. We’re not here to undermine your authority, we’re only here to help.
    And a note to other vet techs: Wake up and pay attention. Be more proactive in your clinics that way mistakes like this aren’t made in the future.

  • Thanks Dr. V for sharing that story! Reminds of of some old James Herriot story about curing a sheep with the “deep rest” the botched euthanasia provided. I, too, consider euthanizing any animal to be a sacred duty.
    I feel the vet in the horror story should offer free or discounted arthritis treatment to help the dog after all of that!
    To the turtle person: did you put the euthanasia solution in the front half of the body so it can get to the brain? They have separate hind and front circulation. (That’s why they are still alive after HBC with guts hanging out.) I always go for the soft spot at the back of the skull.
    Also–tips for soon-to-be-vets: the pentathol is thick, make sure you use a lure-lock syringe or it will sploosh everywhere. It is dirt cheap, use 2-3x what you think you will need. Draw up extra, giving half and then reloading can leave time for an excitement reaction midway through and you won’t be able to get the vein again.
    Placing an intravenous catheter ensures no extravasation, which hurts like crazy.
    Telazol to sedate a fractious pet will cause the veins to stick up and the blood pressure to increase, unlike other sedatives. Helps in those cases. Always check and double check after the deed. Unfortunately, we get good at euthanasia after a few years.
    Rest in peace to everyone’s pets that have *finally* passed over!

    • wikith

      Yup, used the big venous area under the carapace (ha, it’s been long enough since I’ve done turtle stuff that the name is escaping me), got flashback and everything. I kind of wonder if that turtle’s circulation was just so screwed up by the massive injuries that it wasn’t getting where it needed to go… but then he should have been too fragile to fight the stuff. *shrug* It happened eventually. I think the last injection we overcame our squeamishness and went right into the liver, which as I recall was partially hanging out, and that’s what finally worked.
      I never do a pet euth without an IV cath and telazol, just in case I need that extra bit. Waiting for rigor is also mandatory.

  • JaneK

    Okay, Dr. V……you are going to have to give some kind of warning about these horrifying stories….I’m already an insomniac! But I do appreciate your efforts to make this world a better place for animals and the people who love them……even to their last moment with us….making sure that others don’t make those mistakes….

  • Well, wow, I don’t know what I would do if this happened…

    Does remind me of a story from James Herriot’s book where this happened and it was actually a good thing.

    But otherwise, horror of horrors. 🙁

  • Hope

    This post reminds me that we in this country are not providing this ‘sacred duty’ properly to all the animals left in our care. We need to fight the continued use of gas chambers in animal shelters across the country. All animals deserve the respect of a humane injection and the due diligence that’s discussed here.

  • Oh, God. I can’t imagine how horrible.

    And I’m so with Hope above me. Animals deserve the best!

  • My daughter is a vet tech and I’m sure her dream would be that all the vets she works for were like you (she loves almost all of them but a couple of them drive her nuts). Katrina Joyce (an earlier commenter and also a vet tech) makes a very eloquent statement.

  • Holly

    If the time ever comes for Bailey to be put down so he doesn’t suffer, I will now be having a very serious talk with the vet in charge of the procedure about how much of the solution he/she feels it is necessary to use to insure successful euthanization without traumatizing my boy or (Lord forbid) having him wake from the doggy dead! I know for a fact I couldn’t have him put down twice.