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Please devote a column to the subject of euthanasia. Just the thought of it is painful to most of us, but pet owners need to be better informed before they face that final moment with their beloved animal friend.

Ten years ago we had to say goodbye to our 16 1/2 -year-old poodle. We elected to stay with him to comfort and reassure him in his final moments. What I anticipated as a sad and painful experience (for me) was worse than horrible due to a lack of information and sensitivity. Euthanasia is a difficult decision, but sometimes it is the best choice for an aging or ill friend whose suffering cannot be relieved. What I am asking you to write about is the actual process -- what to expect.

A -- I am sorry that your experience attending your loving pet's euthanasia was so unpleasant. For the most part, today's veterinarians are very aware that being present at a pet's euthanasia is very important to some owners. And most veterinarians and their staffs have developed a sense of how to best facilitate the euthanasia process.

Although there are differences among practices in how euthanasias are conducted, I will try to describe how this upsetting event is typically handled in an effort to minimize the difficulty of the situation.

The decision regarding whether or not to attend a beloved pet's euthanasia is highly personal. For some individuals it is best for them to not be with their dog or cat as it passes away. Others prefer to be with the pet until the end.

Please know that when an animal is hospitalized for euthanasia, most practices give that task priority over all others except emergencies.

Individuals who work at veterinary hospitals typically do so because they care deeply for animals and have tremendous empathy for pet owners. If you elect not to stay with your pet, be reassured that your pet's final moments will be spent with someone with genuine compassion.

When you make arrangements for euthanasia, the veterinary staff member assisting you should spend adequate time going over various burial and cremation options so that you can make your choice well in advance. This is often a good time to finalize any special details and for payment to be discussed.

If you do decide to stay with your pet, you will be given a specific appointment time. Many practices prefer to perform owner-attended euthanasias at the end or the beginning of a block of office appointments, so that distraught pet owners will not have to deal with a busy waiting room when they bring in their pet.

Be aware that such planning is also designed to allow adequate time for the veterinary staff to devote to you and your pet. Try not to make demands to be scheduled outside of these recommended times, unless the circumstances make it absolutely necessary.

When you arrive for your appointment, most practices will direct you to an exam room promptly. The veterinarian or a trained staff member will come in to meet you and to outline what you can expect step by step. At this time you may be asked to sign a consent form if that was not taken care of earlier.

Because euthanasia in veterinary medicine is accomplished by intravenous injection, the veterinarian may ask if he or she can take your pet into the hospital's treatment area briefly to place a small catheter into one of your pet's veins. Rarely, in the case of an extremely anxious animal, sedation may be necessary to help calm the animal for the procedure.

The drug used for euthanasia is an overdose of a very potent anesthetic that will stop the heart, respirations and brain function. In the vast majority of cases, the pet will merely seem to fall asleep peacefully in the owner's arms.

Because some reflexive muscle contractions and electrical impulses can continue after death, some slight muscle twitching is occasionally observed. In rare cases, the deceased pet's body will have a reflexive opening of the mouth as if the pet is trying to draw another breath. Urination or defecation may occur as the muscles relax.

The eyes of dogs and cats do not close at death. Obviously, such observations are very upsetting to an owner who has not been forewarned about the possibilities.

Following the injection, the doctor will check your pet's heart to confirm its demise. You may then spend a few additional minutes with your pet.

Please know that euthanizing a pet is a very sad and difficult part of being a veterinarian. My sympathies and thoughts are with anyone facing this decision. I take some comfort in knowing that euthanasia is a humane way of terminating suffering in our animal friends.

Jan M. Freeman, DVM
Prepared as a public service by the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society. Send questions to Pets, P.O. Box 403, East Aurora, N.Y. 14052-0403. Sorry, personal replies cannot be provided.

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