Euthanizing Your Pet: Should You Be Present?

Euthanizing a beloved pet is never easy. The decision to euthanize a dog is the most important and difficult dog-related decision someone can make. I recently wrote about how emotionally difficult euthanasias are for me and other vets. But I don’t fool myself: The sadness I feel during an euthanasia is nothing compared to the sadness the owner feels.

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Of course, I also believe that euthanasia, when performed appropriately, is a good thing. In fact, ready access to euthanasia is one of the few definitive advantages that veterinary medicine has over its human counterpart. Many people suffer intensely, often for years, before they die. They may suffer loss of dignity and chronic pain, even if they are receiving comprehensive hospice care. Special nursing homes known colloquially as “vent farms” exist; each patient in these homes is on a ventilator (a breathing machine that is a form of life support) indefinitely. The cost, in human suffering and in dollars, is astronomical.

Euthanasia, when performed appropriately, prevents pets from suffering and spares their dignity. But that doesn’t make it easy for the people who love the dog being put to sleep.

Two questions about euthanasia are frequently asked. First, people wonder about when to perform euthanasia. How does one know when the time is right? People also wonder whether they should be present for the procedure.

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Both of these questions are intensely personal in nature, and like all intensely personal issues, people who have no business in the matter often offer unsolicited strong opinions, often after the fact. They may say that you should have euthanized your dog sooner so that he would have suffered less. Or they may say that you should have tried harder to save your dog before resorting to euthanasia. They may say that you should have been with your dog when he was euthanized, or that you should not have.

Here is what I say you should do: Ignore the meddlers and follow your heart. Do what you honestly believe is best for your dog and do not allow anyone — including yourself — to make you feel guilty about your decisions. Other people can only say what would have been best for them. You can only do what is best for you.

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Let me also say this: Remember that hindsight is 20/20. The decision to euthanize a dog must be made in the present. After the procedure you may feel guilty for having waited too long, or not having been present for the procedure. (Conversely, some people deeply regret the decision to be present for the procedure, and wish that they had been spared the memory of seeing their pet deceased.) Do not beat yourself up. Make the best decisions you can, and remember that you cannot know with certainty in the present what you would have wanted in the future.

Two conditions must be met for euthanasia to be appropriate. First and foremost, the dog must be ready. To be ready the dog will be suffering, or on the verge of suffering, with no reasonable alternative to eliminate the suffering. Second, the people who love the dog must be ready, or at least as ready as they can be. However, the second condition must be met within reason; it is not fair to a dog to allow her to suffer for weeks or months because the owners cannot bear to part with her.

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Dogs have wonderful spirits, and it can be very hard to tell when a dog is suffering. I have seen dogs with terminal kidney failure smile and wag their tails at the sight of a friendly person. Their behavior can belie their suffering.

However, there are some general guidelines that can be used to determine whether the time is right. Appetite and behavior are the key things to monitor. Poor appetite is a sign that a dog does not feel well. It rarely means that she is simply “not hungry.” It more often means that she feels nauseated or too ill to eat.

Monitoring of behavior can require observation of more subtle changes. You and only you know your dog’s favorite activities; when your dog loses interest in those activities, something is wrong. For instance, on the dreaded day when my pal Buster has no desire to fetch a ball I will know that we are in trouble.

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In the end, the only thing you can do is follow your heart, and try your hardest to do right by your dog. However, I will tell you that over my career I have had countless people tell me, with their 20/20 hindsight, that they felt they had waited too long to put their dog to sleep. Almost nobody has ever said they thought they did it too soon. Perhaps this signifies that people who rush to euthanize their pets aren’t prone to soul searching, but it definitely means that many people realize in hindsight that they were keeping their dog alive for their own sake rather than their dog’s sake. All I can tell such people to console them is the truth: that they made the best decision they could with the information they had at the time.

Many people struggle with deciding whether to be present for their pet’s euthanasia. I described what to expect during euthanasia in my previously mentioned earlier article. In the comments section of that article, many people voiced strong opinions that owners should always be present for euthanasias. I beg to differ.

Of course, any owner who wishes to be present should be. The reason why many people wish to be present is easy to understand: They want to be with their pet to comfort her during her final moments. But for some people being present is simply too difficult. For them the experience, or the thought of seeing their pet no longer alive, is unbearably painful.

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The decision is phenomenally personal, and I have complete respect for either choice. In my experience a slight majority of owners wishes to be present; however, a very sizable minority does not.

When my pal Buster’s day comes, I imagine now that I will want to be with him at the end. But in the heat of the moment it is possible that I may not be able to bear the pain of watching him go (I already know that I will not be able to be the one to perform the procedure). I hope that either way I will cut myself some slack when hindsight kicks in.

Photo: A man and his dog at sunset by Shutterstock

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This post was written by Dr. Eric Barchas, regular contributor to Dogster Magazine.


Don Powell
Don Powell3 years ago

Bummer Shaun about your pet being aggressive. You are correct that it is a personal choice but, for me, I would still be there since he would be muzzled anyway and he would not be able to bite.

But you are right, it depends on the person and what hey can handle.


Shaun F.
Shaun F.3 years ago

My pet became really aggressive towards me(attacking) and incredibly confused to his surroundings a few days prior to the appointment. For all those folks claiming you should absolutely be there, they were lucky to have their idyllic norman rockwell euthanasia experience, with their sad pet looking up at them with recognition and sad eyes. We aren't all so lucky.

Shaun F.
Shaun F.3 years ago

It's a personal decision.

Manuela B.
Manuela B3 years ago

Absolutely one should be there for your pet. Can you imagine the distress they would go through just being without you let alone at the moments of dying.

Nancy Hatcher
Nancy Hatcher3 years ago

Oh, hell yes you should be there! There are some things that are just NOT about YOU! When a loved companion has reached a point when life is too painful the last thing it needs is to be deserted at the end!

My beloved Bob (brindle boxer) lost a leg in a car accident but managed to live a long happy life. The time came though when he could no longer walk even to go potty. We were holding a towel under him and we'd lift his back end to help him go out until even that was too much for him. His "bud" was Peabody, our part wild cat, who loved Bob. They slept together, played together and were inseparable. Peabody was about 16 yrs at the time and age was also declining rapidly. I felt that without Bob, Peabody would decline even faster.

The hardest decision I've ever made was to let them go together. I would never even consider not being with them through to the end. They both deserved to be loved right to the last breath. It broke my heart and I cried for days but I still wouldn't think of being so selfish as to leave them with a non-pack member!

My companions are important members of our pack & are considered family members. I would no more leave them than I would a child or parent.

Jeannet Bertelink

It s very difficult but you must do it.

Lynn Curwin
Lynn Curwin4 years ago

I have always stayed with my animals (dogs, cats and horses) when they were euthanized but I understand that some people feel unable to do this. If the person is showing a lot of signs of being upset it could result in a more distressing experience for the animal. In some cases when people I know have felt unable to stay with a pet being euthanized I have taken the animal in and stayed with it so that there would still be a familiar person around.

john byrne
john byrne4 years ago

COULDNT imagine deserting my pet at this time, both of us would never forget it.

Mari L.
Mari L4 years ago

We made the painful decision as a family when there was no option. Everyone was there. She looked at us with soleful but thankful eyes. After days of not recognising anyone she looked at each of us (As if to say thanks for being here?) We held hands and prayed for her. The vet, included! We all cried. And the doctor also wept. It was the hardest thing to do, but I'm glad we were all there.

Beverly C.
Beverly C4 years ago

This is a very good article, authored by a veterinarian who loves his patients AND their families! His views are very informational and people should read and remember them, should they be faced with this difficult decision!

I've had numerous pets over the years and have been present for most of them when it came time for them to go to the Rainbow Bridge, as it's called. I'm still saddened over the loss of each of them; but personally, I wanted to be the last person they each saw, not just be alone in some medicinal atmosphere without a loved one to comfort them! Many years ago, in 1985, I had a dog named Missy, who had a tumor. She had tumors prior to this that were successfully removed but THIS one began to "seep" blood. I had my ex-husband and a close friend take her to my vet while I was at work. They called to tell me that the vet said she was shaking and obviously in a lot of pain; and he recommended I "let her go". I had to think about it for awhile but finally decided I couldn't let her go on in such pain so I authorized it. Many times since that day, I have felt so bad about doing that without being there for her still saddens me that her last sight was that of a vet she hardly knew and a cold table in a "not very personable" room!

So, for me, I have always been with my pets that followed Missy...even though it's been very difficult for me. It really all boils down to personal preference, beliefs and priorities in my opinion.