It is one of life’s most difficult realizations—recognizing that the time has come to put down a beloved pet.
And according to some veterinarians, stress and discomfort for the animal and the owner is intensified when they must travel from home to a vet’s office and spend their final moments together in a sterile, unfamiliar setting.
However, that’s not the only option.
A growing number of people are turning to veterinarians who provide at-home euthanasia services.
“It’s on the increase, no doubt about it,” said Christi Jones, a veterinarian who operates Gentle Touch Home Veterinary Care and travels throughout metro Atlanta, including DeKalb County, to provide sick and well pet care, vaccinations, chronic disease and pain management as well as at-home euthanasia.
Jones grew up in Dunwoody, practiced small animal medicine in Dunwoody for six years and is now a relief veterinarian working in clinics throughout metro Atlanta area.
She said the home option is “so much more desirable, so much more comfortable for everyone.”
She explained that in a clinic vets and their staff can’t eliminate all the factors that can be stressful and upsetting to the animal and its owner. She pointed out that the normal noises in a clinic can be particularly disturbing when a vet is carrying out euthanasia procedures.
“It’s frustrating for me as a vet to hear stuff in the background. It’s disconcerting,” said Jones, who worked in an animal hospital for six years after finishing veterinary school. She’s been in private practice with Gentle Touch for the past year and a half.
Jones provides potential clients with a full explanation of the euthanasia process on her web site, www.gentletouchhomevetcare.com:
If euthanasia is deemed the best option, we will administer a sedative injection in the muscle first (this can sometimes very briefly sting). Your pet will relax over the next several minutes and will be in a kind of sleep state. Once he or she is quiet and comfortable, we will clip a small portion of hair over a leg vein and will inject the euthanasia solution through a small butterfly catheter. The injection takes only about a minute; the heart usually stops within 1-2 minutes. The process is painless and very smooth in most cases; occasionally we see 1 or 2 deep breaths toward the end (called agonal breathing–not a conscious thing) and rarely some fine muscle twitching occurs.
The field of in-home pet euthanasia has solidified so much in recent years that it now includes university classes, textbooks and even a national directory of veterinarians who perform the service.
When Paws, Whiskers and Wags Pet Crematory opened in Decatur six years ago, it partnered with several veterinarians who offer at-home euthanasia services and refers clients who are interested in that service to them.
Lori Murphy, business manager with Paws, Whiskers and Wags Pet Crematory, said their clients consider the animals in their lives as family members. “They want them treated with respect and dignity.”
The number of people taking advantage of at-home end-of-life animal care is “definitely on the rise,” according to Murphy.
She noted that cats are particularly skittish when it comes to being taken to a vet’s office for routine treatment and often will return home and hide under furniture following vaccinations or a well animal checkup. A cat being taken in for euthanasia is likely to be extremely anxious, which adds to the anxiety of their owner, who is already highly emotional, she noted.
Karen Jordan has been a veterinarian since 1996, working first in a clinic then starting a veterinary house call service in metro Atlanta. Originally she started her business—Compassionate Care Veterinary Service—catering to geriatrics—older animals and often older owners. Older animals frequently have mobility issues and owners struggle getting them in and out of vehicles and vet’s offices, she explained.
“What we found over the past several years, even though we started with geriatric animals and geriatric owners, it’s transformed,” said Jordan. “There’s a lot of owners with younger animals that are such an important part of the family…the thought of having to take that animal to a clinic and have that be that animal’s last moment is no longer appealing.”
Sometimes it’s the size of an animal that is also a factor, such as the Great Dane that weighed 110 pounds, said Jordan. It can be painful physically and emotionally for animals and their human handlers, especially moving them about. Some dogs and cats are extremely anxious and may be shivering. Jordan said many pets pick up nervous energy they sense from their owners. She said she can see the anxiety in the animal’s dilated eyes.
“That’s not how I want them to be in the final moments of their life,” said Jordan.
She described being in numerous home situations with family and friends gathered to say their final goodbyes. In some cases where a pet might have cancer or arthritis, the animal still wags its tails or purrs while being cradled or stroked by family and friends.
“It’s such an amazing process,” said Jordan.
Jordan also provides services one day a week at a clinic, where she said she and staff have attempted to make one room for euthanasia warmer by adding lavender candles and carpeting. However she said it isn’t the same.
Often clients feel rushed in a clinic setting, despite being told to take all the time they need. Such is not the case at home, Jordan said, adding that her clients take as much time as they want with their animal after it has expired.
“It’s so hard to come to a decision to put an animal to sleep. It’s very, very difficult to do…like putting a loved one in a hospice situation. You understand the end result will be absolutely heartbreaking.”
Jordan recalled tending to a Golden Retriever that was the neighborhood “golden.” Neighbors and friends brought tokens such as flowers and doggie treats to the home on the dog’s last day. It was arranged that the vet was the last to arrive.
“It was the most touching thing I had seen,” she said. “Everything helps with the process of grieving, helps the owner get through this first phase of letting this pet go.”
Some people ask for a little time during the process to say a prayer and Jordan discretely steps away. In some cases, families have already dug a grave in their yard. They may hold a ceremony, plant a garden memorial or have the vet take the animal away. However for some people it is too much, some say they can’t be present for the entire process and leave the room.
“It reminds me how much these people love these animals, how great the bond is,” said Jordan.
Cost for in-home euthanasia is higher than in a clinic, said Jordan, adding that it ranges from $75 to $100 at a clinic and $125 to $200 for a house call.