Putting a Dog Down: How to Know if Now is the Right Time

Even though we know our beloved pets are unlikely to outlive us, when they come towards the end of their life, it is a difficult time for everyone involved. Some dogs die naturally of old age, and others develop problems through age or have injuries and medical conditions that make their lives intolerable. Although putting a dog down is heartbreaking, it is sometimes the best course of action to relieve their suffering. The biggest question I see pet owners struggle with in these situations is the one of “when” – deciding that now is the right time to make the call. So in this article, I’ll walk you through what happens when a veterinarian euthanizes a dog, and the advice I give to my clients on how to decide when the time is right.
Dr. Kathryn Dench - Qualified Veterinarian Surgeon with over ten years of experience in small animal medicine.
October 4, 2022
min read

How Do They Put Dogs Down? 

Putting a dog down is a medical procedure to end a dog’s life humanely. You may also hear it referred to as putting a dog to sleep, and in the medical world it’s known as euthanasia.

The procedure is restricted to trained and certified veterinarians, who use an intravenous injection that stops the dog’s heart quickly and painlessly.

What Do They Use to Put Dogs Down?

When putting dogs down, veterinarians inject the dog with a concentrated anesthetic agent called sodium pentobarbital. Euthanizing solutions are often colored bright pink, purple, or blue to make them identifiable and to prevent mistakes.

Usually, the injection is administered into one of the veins in the front leg. If your dog’s blood pressure is low, it can be hard to get access to the vein in the front leg, so the vet may use a vein in the back leg or inject into the abdomen instead.

Your vet may also choose to place an intravenous catheter in your dog’s leg for easier access to the vein and to make the process smoother. Depending on your dog’s condition, the vet may give your dog an anesthetic or sedative injection before administering the euthanasia solution. The sedative is injected into the rear leg muscle and takes effect within five to ten minutes.

How Do They Put Down Dogs Without Hurting Them?

The euthanizing injection works exactly like an anesthetic, but at a higher concentration: it’s painless and spreads throughout the body so fast that dogs don’t feel anything. As it reaches the brain, they become unconscious and their breathing slows down. A few seconds later, the anesthetic relaxes the heart muscle, and the heart stops beating. Generally, the process of injection to peaceful death occurs within 30 seconds or less.

Although the solution itself doesn’t hurt, it does involve an injection and some dogs are particularly sensitive to needles. If this is the case, you’re probably already aware of your dog’s reaction to vaccinations and other injections. In these cases in particular, your vet may give a sedative before the euthanasia, so that they are relaxed and sleepy by the time the intravenous injection takes place. 

Signs That Now is the Right Time

Deciding when to put your dog down is one of the most difficult choices you will face as a pet owner. We have strong relationships with our pets, but there comes a time when we’ve got to let them go. The decision generally relates to your pet’s quality of life: as their quality of life decreases, holding on longer can mean doing more harm than good.  

But how do we assess quality of life, and when is the right time to say goodbye? Some pets may wake up one morning significantly worse than they were the day before, in which case the decision, however painful, is relatively clear. But for many older dogs or those with medical conditions, the downward spiral is a slow one, and it can be hard to know when they’ve crossed the line from acceptable to poor quality of life.

In my clinics, I advise my clients to think about life from their dog’s perspective. What are the things their dog loves to do – and how easily can they still do those things? This isn’t something your vet can decide for you, because you know your pet best. For example, if your dog’s favorite thing is running into the yard to scare away the birds, how often are they able to do that now? Do they still have that spark of enjoyment each day?

Here are some other signs to look out for, to help you assess your dog’s quality of life.

Frequent Crying or Whining

When your dog cries or whines constantly, they could be feeling pain or discomfort. If your dog shows frequent emotional changes, from crying to anger, a visit to the vet can help to establish whether there’s a medical cause.

After diagnosis and treatment, your dog's friendly, happy disposition will return. However, if the underlying condition cannot be treated, you and your vet can discuss whether euthanasia is a suitable option to alleviate your dog’s agony. 

Sudden Change in Behavior

Old age and disease conditions lower your pet’s vigor and leave them feeling disorientated. A senior dog may also have diminishing sight and hearing. They may lack the enthusiasm to rise and greet you, but respond by lifting their head. They might not enjoy walks and may require your help getting in and out of a car or tackling stairs. Not only that, but they may become clingy and feel vulnerable away from you. It’s essential to monitor your dog at the onset of changes to determine the best course of action. 

If your dog suddenly stops being responsive to food, exercise, and attention, they could have a more serious problem. Other behavioral changes, like irrational aggression or hiding most of the time, can also be red flags. If you notice these behavioral changes, it’s a good idea to take your dog for a medical checkup.

Decreased Appetite 

Your dog may skip a meal occasionally or eat less than usual; that shouldn’t alarm you. But if they skip food for more than three days, it’s advisable to contact your vet. Although you may be able to help your dog by hand feeding for a while, if they don’t have enthusiasm for their food they can rapidly become undernourished. If it’s not possible to address the underlying cause, euthanasia might be recommended.

Noticeable Pain When Moving

Mobility is one of the major factors to consider when assessing a dog’s quality of life. Older dogs often suffer from arthritis, which can leave their joints feeling painful throughout the day, and prevent them from their usual levels of activity. If the pain continues despite attempts to treat it, you may need to consider euthanasia as a last option.

Sadly, joint pain is not limited to our older pets. Younger animals who have sustained injuries in the past are more susceptible to arthritis and other forms of musculoskeletal pain, which can make day-to-day life excruciating. Again, if the pain cannot be relieved, this ongoing suffering is a consideration for euthanasia.

Extreme Lethargy and Isolation

When your previously energetic dog becomes lethargic and starts isolating themselves, it is usually a sign that all is not well. A dog in their last stages of life doesn’t enjoy outdoor activities like before. Their energy is diminishing, so they no longer play with toys or other pets, and stop seeking attention or socializing with family members.

An old dog may become too weak to stand or may even fall when walking. They may also develop fecal and urine incontinence, frequently soiling themselves and remaining stationary unless assisted. Assisting your dog in pottying and moving can be disheartening and exhaustive.

When your pet can’t sustain their physical stature and bodily functions without your help, it may be time to consider putting them down.

Frequent Vomiting or Diarrhea

Frequent vomiting or diarrhea is a serious cause of concern for every pet parent. It is essential to seek your vet’s intervention as soon as you notice the pattern. In the majority of cases, there is a cause that can be treated, whether due to infection or food allergies. But in some cases, these upsets are due to internal organ failure, which can be harder to treat. If we’re unable to relieve the nausea, it makes it impossible for the dog to enjoy an everyday life.

Labored Breathing or Coughing

Respiratory illnesses and some cancers can cause labored breathing or coughing. When treatment is unsuccessful, and your dog experiences chronic labored breathing and/or persistent coughing, it’s important to consider their quality of life. Human patients with breathing difficulties comment on how exhausting it is, leaving no energy for any other activity, and it’s likely that dogs with similar struggles feel the same way.

How Much Does it Cost to Put a Dog Down?

The costs of euthanizing a dog depend on where you choose the procedure to be, at home or a vet’s office or pet hospital. If you need to call the vet at night or on the weekend, there may also be out of hours fees, which can increase the costs. 

It’s a good idea to settle euthanasia bills and aftercare services in advance to avoid receiving a bill to pay after your pet is gone. Did you know pet insurance can help cover emergency health expenses, including euthanasia? Click here to learn more and compare affordable plans.  

Euthanizing at a Veterinarian’s Office or Pet Hospital

When carried out at a vet’s office or pet hospital, the cost is subject to a range of factors, such as your dog’s weight and materials used before or during the process. 

Costs in some clinics begin at $50, while at others they can range from $150 to $400. You should therefore discuss with your vet before any procedure to determine the actual cost you’ll incur.

You may also consider euthanizing your pet at a nonprofit organization. Most nonprofit organizations euthanize dogs for free or at discounted rates.

Benefits of Euthanizing at a Vet’s Office

  • You can choose to stay with your pet while they are put to sleep, or say goodbye before the procedure
  • Your vet can store the body for your collection or handle it as you instruct them
  • It’s cheaper than when done at your home
  • Memories of death won’t linger around your home

Euthanizing a Dog at Home

How much does it cost to put a dog down in your home? In-home euthanasia is more costly than at a vet’s office or pet hospital. Your vet will come to your home for the procedure. In-home euthanasia makes your dog feel more comfortable and secure in their final moments.  

Most in-home euthanasia providers charge upwards of $230 for euthanizing alone, and there may be additional travel costs depending on the distance from the clinic to your home. Additional costs will depend on the materials used during the process, such as sedatives. 

Benefits of Euthanizing at Home

  • Your dog will feel more comfortable and secure at home
  • You don’t have to move the dog, especially if their mobility is compromised
  • The vet can either leave your dog’s body at your house for you to bury, or take it back to the clinic for cremation 
  • You can express your vulnerability without fear or shame

Burial or Cremation

If you own your own home, you have the option of burying your dog in your garden. The alternative is cremation at a pet cemetery, which your veterinarian can arrange for you.

Cremation is usually charged separately from the euthanizing costs. Private cremation cremates your dog individually, and their ashes are given to you. On the other hand, communal cremation cremates several dogs together, so you can’t collect the ashes. Thus, private cremation costs you more than communal cremation.

Dealing With Your Emotions

Putting your dog down is a heartbreaking experience, leaving you with a sense of loss. People grieve differently, with some taking a few days to recover while others take some years. You need to understand the grief process and seek help to avoid getting stuck.

Bidding Farewell

When you’ve decided to have your dog put to sleep, it’s good to spend time to bid farewell to your pet. This will psychologically prepare all of you to handle the impending pet demise and make your dog happy in their last moments. 

If you have kids, let them know your decision and adequately prepare them for the loss. This is also the time to decide whether you or some family members will be present during the procedure. There’s no right or wrong choice: some people want to be with their dog until their last moments, and others don’t want to have those final memories of their pet. You can trust that whichever decision you make, the veterinary staff will take good care of your dog.

The Grief Process

There are several stages of grief that members of the family may experience in the days and weeks following a loss:

  • Denial – this is the first feeling after parting with your dog, where you cannot accept the reality of your loss. It’s a bargaining stage where you hope that your pet’s life will magically be restored.

  • Anger – you may feel angry and want to vent your feelings towards those closest to you, including family, friends, and vets.

  • Guilt – as anger begins diminishing, you may feel guilty about what you did or failed to do for your pet, and for getting angry with others.

  • Sadness – you’ll feel sad or grieve the loss of your dog.

  • Depression – as you battle your sadness, you may isolate yourself or even feel depressed.

  • Acceptance – coming to terms with your loss is the final stage. You have accepted things as they are and can memorize your pet without much sadness.

Handling Grief

Although grieving a pet is a personal affair, you don’t need to face it alone. There are always willing family members or friends to lean on. There are also people who’ve had similar experiences and would like to connect with you. 

The various types of support include:

  • Pet-bereavement counseling services
  • Pet-loss support hotlines
  • Local or online pet-bereavement support groups, forums, videos, books, or magazines

Despite outside support, you should take action to ease your recovery. 

Here are some of the ways to help you:

  • Acknowledge your grief and permit yourself to express it
  • Write out your feelings in a journal, essay, short story, or poem
  • Reach out to friends or family who can console you
  • Find pet-bereavement support groups through your vet or local humane society
  • Create a memorial for your pet, such as holding a small remembrance service or planting a tree or plant in your favorite spot
  • Help children understand the loss and deal with their feelings
  • Seniors should develop more interactions with family and friends, get more pet-loss support, or volunteer in local humane societies
  • Give plenty of tender love and care to any remaining pets

When to Get Another Pet

There are no strict rules on when to get a new pet, but it’s not always advisable to get another pet immediately after losing one. This is because your grief may overshadow your joy of meeting a new pet, which deserves your full attention and love. A new pet comes with its own personality and won’t replace your lost one, so it’s better to give yourself time to heal first.

People heal at different rates. You can know that you’re healed when memories of your lost pet no longer make you sad. When choosing a new pet, it’d be best to avoid one resembling your lost dog and give a different name to have a new relationship less strained by the past. 

Final Thoughts

Deciding to put your dog to sleep is one of the hardest, but often the kindest, decisions we have to make as pet owners. Knowing that you’ve made the right decision at the right time can be a source of comfort during the grief that comes after the loss of a pet. 

To avoid carrying the burden of loss alone, you can reach out to local and online pet-bereavement support groups, family, friends, and local humane societies for emotional support during your grieving period.

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GoodPaw Pet Services Inc., GoodPaw, offers free advice, product information and other editorial resources that are intended for informative purposes only, and should not be used in place of proper veterinary care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat your pet. If your pet is experiencing any health concerns, contact a licensed veterinarian. GoodPaw assumes no responsibility for action taken based on information given from GoodPaw.com.

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