Friday, September 12, 2014

Humane Euthanasia

I have been wanting to write a post like this for some time, but have always felt like it was the wrong time. Tomorrow it has been a year since I euthanized my horse. I've really only mentioned her once here and it was a long time ago.

Many people struggle with making the decision to euthanize their animals. Most common responses of people who are considering euthanasia:

How do I know when it's time?
This is a very personal thing. Often times people will tell you 'you'll know'. I'd like to think that is the case most of the time. You have to make the decision when YOU are ready. You are the one who has to live with it at the end of the day. It is something that you as a pet owner need to be comfortable with. This website has a quality of life check-list. I personally don't like these kinds of forms, but some people need a visual of how bad it really is. Quality of life should be the number one priority for your pet.

I don't want to play god.
Well, that's interesting. Just by feeding/sheltering/caring for your dog - you are essentially playing god! By choosing to care for your pet and make life decisions for your pet, you are in charge. This is simply a really bad excuse for someone not wanting to make a decision.

I want them to die naturally.
I think it's fair to say that we all wish for our pets, and for us, that when the time comes they fall asleep and never wake up. While that does happen on occasion, it is very rare. It can take DAYS for the body to die. They can have seizures and respiratory distress in this time, they could be starving to death. It isn't a pretty picture at all and I know for myself personally, I want my pets to go out with dignity - not gasping for air. Also, something to think about; if you want your pet to die naturally then you need to go set it in an open field, or drop it off in the woods so that it can be eaten by another animal. That is how it is done in the 'natural wild'.


What is Euthanasia?
Wikipedia says:
"Euthanasia (from Greek: εὐθανασία; "good death": εὖ, eu; "well" or "good" – θάνατος, thanatos; "death") refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering.[1]"

The medications used for euthanasia are essentially an overdose of anesthetic. 

How is euthanasia performed?
I can only speak from my experiences and from experiences of where I work. Every veterinary clinic does things differently. In the case of small animals - we always give a pre-sedative that makes the animal fall asleep. There are pros and cons to giving a pre - it lowers the blood pressure which can make it hard to find a vessel for the final injection. However in my opinion it really doesn't matter because they are asleep and they aren't feeling multiple pokes, nor will they feel the final IV injection. Also, it is rare but a pet can have a reaction to the euthanasia solution being given and it can be very terrible for an owner to see. As they are in the process of dying they may cry, moan, or gasp. I doubt they are actually conscious for this process, it's much like how dogs can be if they are given anesthetic and it goes sub-q instead of IV. They are completely dysphoric and unaware. By giving a pre-sedative you don't have to worry about anything like that happening.

In horses they usually do not give any type of a pre. The horse is dead before they hit the ground. I didn't want it to be that way for my horse, so I requested to have her be fully anesthetized before the final IV injection was given.

Some places will place an IV catheter before hand. Where I work, we do not do that. Although it makes the process easier for us - we don't like taking a pet from their owner for this final visit, and IMO it's unnecessary torture. Having an IV catheter placed is not comfortable and if the pet is still very 'with it' it can be a struggle. In the grand scheme it is not worth the stress placed on the pet or their owner.

I have been through a few euthanasias with my own pets, and I have helped out in several at work. I am only going to talk about the two most recent euthanasias in my semi-adult/adult life because they were both completely my decision.

The first pet I euthanized was my dog Sofie.

Sofie was 14yrs old when I made the decision to put her to sleep. She had been battling Sinonasal Carcinoma [nose cancer] and while her cancer had gone into remission with chemo for nearly a year, her kidneys finally failed her. With kidney failure, you can give your dog sub-q fluids everyday to keep them hydrated and you can given them a pill that makes them want to eat. I treated her for about a month poking her for fluids and feeding her whatever she would eat - without the pill. Her values were not that high, I mean, they were high enough to make her ill, but I have seen much worse. I decided when we got to the point that she would need medicine to make her eat, that I wouldn't do that to her. I did not want to keep Sofie around simply because I couldn't let her go. I did not want her eating because I was giving her a medicine that forced her to be hungry. In my mind I felt that she had lived a good, full life, and that it was okay to let her go. She was still 'with it' when I chose to euthanize her, she was fully aware and normal, but she definitely felt like crap due to her kidneys failing. I do not regret making the decision, I don't think I waited too long, and I don't think I did it too early. She looked great, and that is how I wanted it to be.

The second pet I euthanized was my horse Cairo.

A year ago tomorrow I drove Cairo to Noti Oregon to be humanely euthanized and then buried. This decision was not taken lightly. Horses are a bit different than dogs in that unless you have property you need to house them elsewhere and it can cost a lot of money. Money was not the complete deciding factor in my situation, but it did play a part.

In February of last year my horse Cairo was coming on 21yrs of age and she came up lame in her hind end. I had the vet out and we took x-rays and injected her hocks and one knee with steroids. She progressively got better in the hind end, but was off in the front. I'm not saying she was never lame a day in her life previously, because she did have issues with tender feet now and again, but this lameness I was feeling was different. She was short striding in the front end and it was very obvious to me. The vet told me it was a mechanical thing and she wasn't painful. However, watching friends ride her she looked very off to me. Throughout the spring and into the summer I took her on a few camping trips and a couple of trail rides. She came home seriously lame and limping nearly every time.

It sounds terrible but I will say it - I could not and cannot afford to have a horse that cannot be ridden. I had Cairo for 8 years, and for 8 years it was a struggle to keep her because horse ownership is SO expensive. Money aside though, my main concern was Cairo's happiness. Over the years of having her I did become complacent and did not ride as much as I did when I first got her. Cairo really needed to be ridden several times a week to stay sane. It was that last year that she had started bucking and crow-hopping because she simply was not being worked enough and was full of it. Since she was gimpy though, that made working her all the time impossible.

Cairo never saddled herself for me, but I am pretty sure she enjoyed being ridden, or at the very least just enjoyed the interaction. When I came to the barn she 'talked to me', and would meet me at the gate every time. I like to think she enjoyed my company just as much as I enjoyed hers.

There are a few things about Cairo I need to share.
  • She had terrible Thoroughbred feet. Her feet were flat and her soles were soft. She needed shoes 24/7 in order to stay sound. She also needed a farrier who knew what they were doing.
  • She was a bitch. She could not be pastured with other horses because she would beat them up over food or shelter. 
  • She was a very hard keeper in the winter time. I had to feed her high fat/high protein food to keep the weight on, and she also needed good quality hay.
Given the above statements Cairo could not just be a "pasture pet". Even on pasture she would require shoes and she would need to be alone. Most people want a "pasture pet" to keep other horses company. Cairo would have been a terrible pasture mate. Since she was hard to keep weight on, I was very concerned that even a person with the best of intentions might not feed her up properly and would let her get underweight come winter.

Before I bought Cairo she was purchased from a rescue in Canada. I found out soon after purchasing her that she was bought at an auction, by the rescue 300lbs underweight. Knowing this history I was leery of placing her with anyone for fear that she would end up on the auction lot again.

A friend suggested giving her away as a broodmare. My first thoughts on this were - she's lame at 21yrs old, she has terrible feet, AND, what do people do with broodmares when they don't need them anymore? So you can see why that option did not look good to me either.

Although it was hard and seriously heart-breaking euthanasia seemed like the best option. Typically livestock gets taken away by a rendering service. I really couldn't stand the thought of my horse's body being thrown in a landfill... or being melted down - whatever they do there. I don't own my own property and it is illegal in either the county/city/state for us to bury horses on our property anyway. Cremation costs $1k+ and you would get 40lbs of ashes - which is a lot to deal with as well. Through a facebook group I learned about Omega Farms, they are a place down in Noti, Oregon that buries horses and other livestock. They do not have grave markers but they map the property and can take you to your pet's place of burial if you want to visit. My sister hauled Cairo down there for me, and my vet was nice enough to make the long drive down there as well. They usually don't give horses a pre - but I didn't want her to be awake for the final injection. I paid a little extra but was able to have her fully anesthetized, so she was already on the ground for the last injection. It's hard to explain what it was like... it was the crappiest decision I've ever had to make. I miss her everyday and think about her all the time. I know it was the best decision for her and for our situation, but she was a HUGE part of my life, literally and figuratively.  I feel very blessed that I was able to do things the way that I did.

I wanted to share my own personal stories and experience with euthanasia because I know it can be a hard decision to make. When I have had to make 'the decision' it has not been easy, but I have always tried to place my pets before myself.

I hope this information helps put into perspective the decision making process and also helps explain how euthanasia works. I also hope for any friends who were wondering about Cairo that this fully explains why I made the decision I did. I can't believe a year has gone by already. I'll end this entry with pictures of my beautiful mare.

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