What does it euthanasia mean? And how is it performed?
We often use the euphemisms “put to sleep,” “put down” and “put out of his misery,” among others, but the term is actually very specific.
It was first coined in the 1600s by the Greeks and means “an easy or happy death.” The first syllable, euth is Greek for “good,” and thanatos means “death” in Greek.
The alternative to euthanasia is going naturally. Sometimes that death is good, such as going to bed one night and passing away in one’s sleep. Other natural ways to die are not so easy, such as pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid inside the lungs, which is much like drowning, another type of death better avoided.
If our pets would always pass away quietly and peacefully there would be no need for pet euthanasia. However, there are times when pain cannot be adequately controlled, such as bone cancer. Or when breathing is so labored that the patient cannot make himself comfortable.
There are many misconceptions about euthanasia, so let’s look at exactly what happens, as well as what doesn’t happen.
One of our clients said to me one day, “Dr. Randolph, I went with my neighbor to Dr. Wixenheimer last week because his dog had to be put to sleep and he needed someone to drive while he held his dog. I had never seen that done before and had no idea it was so peaceful. It’s good to know there is such a kind alternative to passing miserably.”
Another technique no longer in use include carbon monoxide (CO) asphyxiation (previously used in some municipal shelters. The source of CO was either bottled CO available commercially or the exhaust of an internal combustion engine piped into a sealed room.)
Today, euthanasia is performed by administration of an overdose of a general anesthetic, administered intravenously. That means it does straight into the bloodstream, and the effect is almost immediate.
After the injection starts, changes occur in three steps. First, he loses consciousness. From that point on he is unaware of anything else that happens.
Soon, the second step is that breathing stops. A client once asked me if her pet would have anxiety because he was unable to breathe. It is important to realize that anxiety would occur only if he were trying to breathe. On the contrary, at this stage the brain is totally shut down and is no longer calling the autonomic nervous system to stimulate breathing.
The third step is the final one. The heartbeat stops. Oxygenated blood no longer circulates in the body and the pet is declared deceased at this point.
There can sometimes be involuntary movement, and even sounds after death. These occur as neurons (nerve cells) experience electrical discharge resulting from chemical changes. They should not be interpreted to mean that euthanasia failed. The pet will not come back to life after a fatal injection.
Veterinarians are often asked whether euthanasia is the worst part of our job. Of course, it is always a sad event. Losing a pet who is also a family member is a crushing emotional blow. Still, what a blessing it is to have this tool, which allows us to humanely end suffering when a pet’s prognosis is bleak and there is no longer hope for recovery.
See you next week, Dr. Randolph.