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Dog laying on sandy beach.

The essentials

  • Planning ahead is beneficial — From knowing what to expect to creating a special day for your pet, planning ahead can help ease this difficult transition.
  • There is no one right way to grieve — Allow yourself time to mourn without guilt.
  • Guidance and support are available — There are many valuable resources designed to help pet parents through this difficult time.

Pets enrich our lives and spread joy in so many ways. Whether your furry family member has been with you since puppy or kittenhood or joined your family later in life, end-of-life care is something that all pet parents eventually have to face. Unfortunately, animals can pass away for various reasons, such as an unexpected injury or an illness.

In veterinary medicine, we also have the option of euthanasia. If a beloved pet is diagnosed with a terminal condition or has a poor quality of life, a pet parent and their veterinary team can provide a “good death” to end their pain and suffering in a peaceful and dignified way.

If you have a senior pet or a pet suffering from an incurable illness, your vet will discuss monitoring their quality of life and knowing when to say goodbye. This time can feel bittersweet for many pet owners as you reflect on life with your pet and cherish your remaining time together. Most importantly, you can make plans for your pet’s passing, ranging from where, when, and who will be present to how to spoil them with favorite treats, activities, and people one last time.

1. Assess your pet’s quality of life

It can be devastating to watch a beloved pet decline with age or slowly succumb to an illness. But, part of our job as pet parents is to monitor their quality of life. As a vet, I remind my clients that they know their furry family members better than anyone.

Your pet may show obvious signs that it is time to say goodbye, such as no longer eating, drinking, or moving. But it’s also important to watch for more subtle changes — when you stop noticing the sweet little quirks that make them unique, or they are no longer able to participate in their favorite activities, it’s probably time to have a talk with your vet about quality of life and euthanasia. It may also be helpful to keep a record of their good and bad days. It can also help to use a checklist such as this one from Lap of Love, and consider the HHHHHMM quality of life scale.

2. Plan the when and where

Choosing the right time and place to say goodbye is a deeply personal decision with several options. Many pet parents feel comfortable at their veterinary clinic, where the staff are experienced in handling euthanasia with care and compassion. However, the vet clinic can also be stressful and offer less privacy. Alternatively, your pet may feel most at ease in their own home, surrounded by familiar sights, smells, and sounds. This can provide a more private and peaceful environment for your family to say goodbye. There are many at-home euthanasia services, such as Lap of Love, which are highly recommended if financially possible.

No matter where you say goodbye, deciding who you want present is another important consideration. This could include family members, close friends, or anyone else who shares a special bond with your pet. Consider a few comfort items for your pet and yourself, such as their favorite blanket or toy, treats if they can still eat, calming music, and tissues. Discuss these options with your veterinarian to determine the best approach for you and your pet.

Some pet owners may not wish to be present for euthanasia, and this is a valid choice. It’s important to prioritize your mental health during this difficult time. 

3. Know what to expect

Although this is a difficult topic to discuss, it’s important to know what to expect during euthanasia, and the best way to do this is to understand the process. Euthanasia causes a peaceful and painless death due to the injection of a high dose of barbiturates — the same class of drugs used in general anesthesia. This medication causes unconsciousness and, within minutes, stops brain and heart function.

There may be slight differences in how each vet performs euthanasia, but the following measures can help provide additional comfort for you and your pet:

  • Sedation. An injectable sedative can help your pet relax and reduce anxiety prior to euthanasia. This injection is usually given into the muscle or under the skin and may sting for a moment, but should then help your pet feel calm and at ease.
  • IV catheter placement. Euthanasia solution is injected into a vein, usually in the front or back leg. In many cases, it may be beneficial to have your veterinary team place a catheter first for easy access and to ensure that the euthanasia solution can be delivered quickly and painlessly.

After your vet injects the euthanasia solution, most pets pass quickly and peacefully. It’s important for pet parents to know that their eyes will stay open. It is also normal for an animal to urinate or defecate at this time, and their muscles may twitch involuntarily in a way that looks like breathing (known as agonal breaths). But rest assured that your pet will not be in pain or aware. Your vet will listen for a heartbeat with their stethoscope to confirm death.

4. Have a special day

Saying goodbye doesn’t have to be filled with only sadness. Dedicate a day to celebrate your pet’s life and create lasting memories. This could involve:

  • Favorite activities. Engage in their most cherished pastimes or new adventures (if they’re up for it), whether it’s a walk in the park, a car ride, or a cuddle session on the couch. Enjoy your time together, but watch to make sure your pet does not become tired or stressed.
  • Special treats. Indulge them with their favorite snacks or even “forbidden” food that they have never been able to taste before.
  • Quality time. Shower them with affection, play their favorite games, and simply be present with them.

If you decide to spoil your pet with foods such as chocolate or McDonald’s hamburgers, it’s best to do this right before euthanasia to avoid unnecessary stomach upset

5. Take lots of pictures

Your phone may already be full of pictures and videos of your fur baby, but memorializing these final moments can provide comfort and solace for the future. To help remember your beloved pet, consider these options:

  • Professional photo shoot. A professional photographer can capture beautiful portraits of your pet in their favorite environments.
  • DIY photo session. Create a comfortable setting at home with props and toys, and take your own photos and videos.
  • Paw prints. Many veterinary clinics or pet stores offer clay paw print kits or services to create a lasting keepsake.
  • Other mementos. Many other options are available, such as a memorial tombstone or urn, personalized jewelry including their cremains, a pet portrait, planting a special tree, an ink nose print or lock of fur, or making a donation in their honor to an animal-related charity.

6. Speak lovingly

During their final moments, shower your pet with love and reassurance. Hearing is often the last sense to fade, so speak softly and tell them how much they mean to you. Some pet parents even sing a special song or play calming music.

7. Plan for after

Making decisions ahead of time can alleviate some stress during an emotional time. Consider:

  • Burial or cremation. Decide whether you prefer burial or cremation for your pet’s remains. If burying, research local regulations and coordinate any necessary arrangements. If cremating, you can decide on a group or private cremation, and whether you would like your pet’s ashes back.
  • Keepsakes. If you would like a clay pawprint, nose print, or lock of fur, be sure to let your veterinary team know beforehand.
  • Transportation. If not using your veterinarian’s services, arrange for transportation of your pet’s body.
  • Pre-payment. Talk to your veterinarian about pre-paying for euthanasia and any related services to ease the financial burden later on. This also allows you to focus on saying goodbye to your pet and not have to worry about taking care of expenses immediately afterward when you may not feel up for it.

8. Take time to grieve

The loss of a pet is a significant life event that can trigger intense grief. It’s important to acknowledge your emotions and give yourself permission to mourn. There’s no timeline for grief, and everyone experiences it differently. Some may find solace in spending time alone, while others might seek comfort in the company of loved ones.

Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise — sadness, anger, guilt, or relief that your pet is no longer suffering. Don’t try to suppress or rush through your grief. Instead, embrace it as a natural part of the healing process. If possible, take time off.

Seek support from friends, family, support groups, or pet loss counselors. Pet loss affects so many of us that there are many dedicated resources to help you through this time.

9. Talk to your children

Children form deep bonds with their pets, and the loss of a furry friend can be their first experience with death. It’s essential to approach this conversation with honesty, sensitivity, and age-appropriate language. While talking to your children about death and euthanasia is a personal decision, many take the following approach.

  • Be honest and direct. Avoid terms like “went to sleep” or “went away,” as these can create confusion and anxiety. Use clear terms like “died” and “death” to explain what happened.
  • Validate their feelings. Let your children know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or confused. Encourage them to express their emotions openly, whether through talking, crying, or drawing.
  • Answer their questions. Be prepared to answer their questions honestly and simply.  If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so. You can also use this as an opportunity to share your own beliefs about what happens after death.
  • Offer comfort and reassurance. Remind your children that they are loved and supported and that you’ll get through this together as a family. Share your own memories of the pet and encourage them to do the same.
  • Create rituals and memorials. Involve your children in creating a memorial for the pet, such as planting a tree, making a scrapbook, or holding a small ceremony. This can help them process their grief and say goodbye in a meaningful way.
  • Seek additional support: If your child is struggling to cope, consider talking to a therapist or counselor specializing in child grief. They can provide guidance and support tailored to your child’s needs. There are also many excellent books on this topic.

Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is never easy, but by understanding and normalizing grief, proactively assessing your pet’s quality of life, and thoughtfully planning for their passing, you can ensure their final days are filled with love, comfort, and dignity.  Remember, you are not alone in this journey.  Lean on your veterinarian, family, friends, and support groups for guidance and comfort as you navigate this difficult time. While the pain of loss may never fully fade, the memories you’ve created with your furry companion will remain in your heart forever.

It’s important to remember that every pet and their human family are different, and there is no single “right” way to grieve or say goodbye. This guide is meant to offer support and resources as you create a personalized plan that honors your pet’s life and helps you find peace during this challenging time.

Frequently asked questions

What do I do before my dog passes away?

Prioritize your dog’s comfort and quality of life by creating a peaceful environment and spending time with them, engaging in their favorite activities, and offering them their favorite treats. Capture memories with photos, videos, or paw prints. Plan ahead for when and where your pet will be euthanized, and discuss what to expect and aftercare options with your veterinarian beforehand.

What not to do when your dog dies?

Allow yourself time to grieve without rushing the process. Avoid feeling guilty if you made the difficult decision to euthanize, as you acted in your pet’s best interest. Don’t isolate yourself; reach out to loved ones or support groups for comfort.

How can I help my dog pass away peacefully?

Consult your veterinarian for guidance on pain management and comfort measures. Create a calm environment and offer love and support. Consider humane euthanasia if your dog is suffering from a terminal illness or severe pain.

What over-the-counter medicine will put a dog to sleep?

There are no safe over-the-counter medications for euthanasia. Only a licensed veterinarian can perform this procedure using specialized medications.

Should I let my dog pass away naturally?

The decision to let a dog pass naturally or opt for euthanasia depends on their quality of life, pain levels, and medical conditions. Sometimes death occurs unexpectedly, but often, when pets are terminally ill or suffering, euthanasia can be the kindest option to end their pain in a dignified way.