Dealing With Guilt After Putting a Pet to Sleep

Man with old golden retriever outside.
Losing a pet is never easy.

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Pets are important parts of our families so it's no surprise that grief is often felt when they pass away. But sometimes the decision to end a pet's suffering is left to us to make and this can result in some guilty feelings. Knowing more about the process of putting a pet to sleep and how to cope with these feelings are an important part of the healing process.

Reasons a Pet Is Put to Sleep

While we often wish our pets would live forever, the reality is that just like people, pets are not immortal. They are subject to injury and disease and eventually pass on from this life either with or without the assistance of humans. Some animals have untreatable diseases, are unable to have a good quality of life, are in chronic pain, have organs that no longer function, or are injured beyond repair. These reasons and many more may warrant a discussion with your veterinarian about putting your pet to sleep to relieve suffering.

How Is a Pet Put to Sleep?

The most common method of putting a pet to sleep is through an overdose of an anesthetic agent. This drug is injected into the vein of an animal and the pet falls out of consciousness, is unable to feel anything, and its heart, lungs, and brain stop functioning. Usually pets are also sedated prior to this injection to relax them and help them hold still. Sedation may be administered in the muscle or the vein. Owners are often given the option to be with their pet during this procedure but they do not have to be. Other than the poke of the needle, this procedure is considered painless.

Sometimes a pet is already under anesthesia and the option to put a pet to sleep arises due to complications or untreatable conditions. The same type of injection is delivered in a pet that is already anesthetized so that the pet feels nothing.

Is it Humane to Put a Pet to Sleep?

The word euthanasia means "good death" and is used to describe the act of putting a pet to sleep. Pets that are suffering and no longer have a good quality of life are often given the gift of having their pain stop and preventing any more loss of their dignity. The fact that we are able to provide this type of relief for our pets is seen as a positive thing to most people and the manner in which it is done is very humane.

Occasionally, overrun animal shelters and other places and people will opt to put a healthy pet to sleep. This is often referred to as convenience euthanasia since there is no medical reason to put the pet to sleep. A lack of space, time, resources, and other reasons relating to the wants and needs of the animal and/or person cause the choice to be made. Convenience euthanasia is a controversial topic and one that some argue is not humane. Many veterinarians will even refuse to provide this type of procedure.

Coping With Guilt

The majority of the time a pet is put to sleep for very good reasons. Your veterinarian can help you determine when the time may be right to put your pet to sleep if you feel it is suffering since sometimes putting it to sleep is the only way to relieve the pain.

It hurts to say goodbye but when you put a pet to sleep, you can find comfort in knowing it is no longer hurting. Guilt is often a normal emotion to feel when we have to make a tough decision though, especially if we aren't sure it is the right one. It's hard to make a life or death decision and not question whether or not we could have done something else to prevent the loss of our pet.

We need to remind ourselves during these times that we can't always predict the future so looking back and thinking we could have or should have done something differently to prevent this outcome isn't productive. Making ourselves feel guilty does not help the situation. The best thing we can do is to reflect and learn from our past experiences. It is unlikely that any decision we make for our pet is intentionally trying to hurt it so allowing ourselves to feel guilty for doing or not doing something is not fair. During these difficult times, it may even help to remind ourselves that we should love and forgive ourselves like our pets so often did. We can learn a lot about unconditional love from our pets and giving ourselves grace and understanding are good ways to honor our pet's memory.

If you need further guidance and help, it is important to remember that pet loss support groups and grief counselors are ready and willing to hold your hand through this emotional process. Do not be afraid to reach out for support.