Updated 18 June 2013

The gift of death

A pet is a friend and a living companion. But when is it the humane thing to do to have it put down?


As an animal lover you obviously care about the health of your dog or cat and would go to great lengths to keep them happy and healthy. But there comes a time when it is kinder to kill than to cure.

Greg has had his sheepdog, Jessie, for eleven years. She has gone everywhere with him, slept in a basket in his room and has been his best friend for more than a decade.

In short, on a daily basis, Jessie is more of a companion to him than his housemate or some of his friends. She's a living companion and they exercise together and are tuned in to one another's moods.

But recently Jessie has developed serious kidney problems and she's getting more and more miserable, despite all the efforts of both Greg and the vet. Now she has also stopped eating. Greg knows it's probably time to have her put down, but he simply cannot face it. He knows he can't let her suffer, but life without Jessie is simply not imaginable. What now?

"All your life you have loved and protected your animal. Now you are required to end its life. It's almost unthinkable. And yet, if the animal is suffering, it is the caring and the right thing to do," says veterenarian Dr Awie de Villiers.

"The decision to have my cat, affectionately named Rubbish, put down was simple. There was no choice in the matter," says Tasmin Kockott, Rosebank tour operator. "I was incredibly sad, because I was losing a close friend. The affection and the connection there had been between us was so special and I feel I am a better person for having had that. "

The reasons for pet euthanasia vary and can include:

  • an incurable disease
  • old age
  • serious injury
  • no money for treatment
  • behavioural problems
  • lack of space in shelters for strays
  • change in living conditions for owners (eg. emigration)

A difficult decision
When it comes to deciding when to have an animal put down, there are no set guidelines. Pets come to feel like family members, and there's a huge sense of guilt involved in making this decision – or not making it.

"Each case is different," says De Villiers. "Unless an animal is really suffering, vets should be fairly neutral and leave the decision to the owners. The basic question is usually whether the animal is in pain, and whether it has any quality of life left. Most pet owners cannot bear to see their animals suffering needlessly, regardless of their own feelings."

He also added that certain diagnoses, such as acute kidney failure, or bone cancer, are likely to have certain outcomes and that putting an animal down can prevent needless pain and suffering.

"What people find most difficult is that they cannot communicate with the animal to determine how it's feeling. They have to make deductions based on its behaviour, and whether it is eating or drinking," according to De Villiers.

There are sometimes also other considerations, such as whether owners have the money for expensive treatment. Sometimes they have no option but to have the animal put down.

"Dealing with pet owners can be tricky, because they are so different from one another. Some will spend a fortune on keeping ailing animals they love alive and others will want to put down a healthy pet, because it no longer suits their lifestyle to have it," says De Villiers. "Putting young and healthy pets down is one of the grimmest tasks vets ever are expected to perform."

How are pets euthanased in SA?
Pets are most frequently euthanased (put down) in South Africa by means of an intravenous (into the vein) anaesthetic. This is usually a barbiturate – a strong sedative that works by depressing activity within the brain. The animal first becomes unconscious , then stops breathing, and this is followed by cardiac arrest. It is a quick and peaceful death.

"Interestingly enough, when women have pets put down, they usually prefer to be present – men do not," says De Villiers. "Obviously there are exceptions to this."

He recommends that children be given the opportunity to say goodbye and adds that this is not harsh – it's part of life.

General tips

  • Find a sympathetic vet.
  • Decide beforehand what your criteria will be for making this decision.
  • Be prepared for the fact that there is a huge difference between deciding to put an animal down and doing it.
  • Don't delay once you've made the decision – you are only making things more difficult for yourself.
  • Decide whether you want to be present and what you want to do with the animal's remains beforehand. You can usually choose between burial or cremation.
  • Be prepared for quite a strong emotional reaction, as this is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
  • Finish grieving for the pet before getting another one.

Where to after this?
Some pet owners grieve so deeply when their pets die, that they decide not to have another pet, in case this painful scenario repeats itself.

"That's a bit like deciding not to live, because it is too painful, or never making another friend, because you've had a bad experience with one," says Tasmin."The joy that a pet can bring you over a period of years is so much greater than the pain you will feel at losing it. Grieve, for as long as you need to, but do not let this deter you from the joy of pet ownership."

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated September 2009)


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