I just finished reading “Still Alice,” a book about a fictitious Harvard neurology professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a good read, albeit a depressing one, and it brings up a lot of issues about terminal disease.
In the earlier part of the book, she goes to her doctor and asks for a bottle of sleeping pills- with plans to take them all once her disease had progressed to a certain point. In real life this situation plays itself out over and over, the desperation of people with incurable disease trying to find a dignified end when there is no longer reprieve from their suffering.
We humans, and perhaps us Americans in particular, are so weird about accepting death. We fight it tooth and nail, which is admirable, sometimes, except when it’s unwanted. There is only so much one can do. There is living well, and there is dying well.
In this, I think veterinary medicine has the advantage over human medicine. We have some amazing medical care available, renal dialysis and chemotherapy and advanced neurosurgery. And when that isn’t an option, for one of many myriad reasons, we have some amazing ways to die.
When a pet comes in to me for euthanasia, we first place a catheter in the leg. That is the most discomfort a pet will experience, that one poke. That gives me an open access to a vein for whatever I choose to administer.
With rare exception, it goes as follows: I administer an anesthetic agent, the same one we use to induce general anesthesia. The pet falls asleep in their owner’s lap. Pets who have been suffering for a long time carry a great deal of tension and stress in their body, and the owners often take a deep breath when they see this tension melt as the pet relaxes, realizing how much of a burden it was for their pet.
I flush the catheter.
Then I administer an overdose of pentobarbital. Usually, by the time I am done giving the injection, the heart has stopped. The whole process takes a minute or two. While I am doing this, the owner is whispering to their pet, giving them rubs, letting them leave this earth in the arms of their loved one with their voice filling their ears.
It is a peaceful, gentle event.
People who haven’t been through it are often shocked- they expected something more dramatic and stressful. It’s almost anticlimactic after the invariable stress of the days leading up to it. I’ve found, both as a vet and a person who has had to do this to my own pets, that the days before are much worse than the euthanasia itself. Having such a kind and peaceful passage is, in my opinion, the last and kindest gift we give to our pets in return for all they have given us, and I don’t regret that part of my job for one moment. So much so that I often think about starting a home hospice practice.
Our pets often have a better end than we do. That makes me sad and proud, both at once.