(Q) How do I know when it is time to "put my animal to sleep?"
(Q) What happens when I "put my animal down?"
(Q) How can I help my children understand the loss of a pet?"

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How do I know when it is time to "put my animal to sleep?"

A. When we assist an animal to die, we are really doing so at their request. Animals know when they are dying. They are not afraid of death, at least not in the sense that we people are. Nearing death, they come to a place of acceptance and try to communicate that to us.

Not surprisingly, because of our own grief, sadness, and distress at losing them, we may be unable to receive that message. So, while they may not fear their own death, they may, because of their deep attachment to us, be worried about how we will get along without them. After all, for most pets the most important thing in their lives is our happiness and they feel personally responsible for that. Our job becomes hearing the message they are trying to tell us. “I am ready to go and I would be grateful for your help.”

Sometimes they are simply asking us to be at the same level of understanding and acceptance as they are so they can be at peace. Sometimes they are asking for help to ease the way. Discerning the difference requires work from us.

No one is in as good a position to know your animal as you are. You share a close bond that has enabled you to understand one another completely. First of all, trust yourself. I do. Your pet does. The hardest part is setting aside the distress you are feeling; it can cloud your ability to hear clearly with your heart the message you are being sent. Quiet your fears. Be close beside one another. Talk either aloud or silently. Listen.
There are clues, too. You know some of these already.

  • Stops eating and/or drinking
  • Hiding, choosing to be alone and apart
  • Changes in normal behavior
  • Obvious debilitating consequences of disease or extreme age
  • Unable to do favorite things (play ball, chase squirrels, tussle with the other pets, groom fastidiously, jump to high perches, etc.)
  • Evidence of pain that can’t be alleviated
  • Shame at house soiling from incontinence or incapacity

You may see some—or none—of these.

Especially in the absence of clues, the exercise of visualizing the death may be helpful. See the place and the time. Where would you and (s)he like to be? See who is there. Who would (s)he like to be present? Do you want to be there? Who would you like to have with you? Is there a crisis involved? What is the nature of the death associated with the pet’s condition? What kind of care would you like for the body after death? Imagine as many details as you can.

Then project yourself past the time of the death, into the future and look back on it. Is there anything that you regret? Would you change anything or do anything differently? Are there questions to ask or details to clarify? Remember, you still have time.

The veterinarian caring for your animal may be a helpful source of specific information. Dying can be a very long and drawn out process, other times much less protracted. Death itself can be peaceful or difficult. Much depends upon the nature of the cause. Sometimes pain is involved though many times not.

Medical people can share their knowledge pertinent for your pet’s condition; their advice will help you make informed choices.
Others who can assist you with insight are:


Q. What happens when I "put my animal down?"

A. When we are helping an animal to die, our goal is to help him be as untroubled as possible. Because pets, like us, are most comfortable at home, being able to die there, surrounded by the people and animals of their family and friends, is a good beginning for everyone’s ease. He can be in his favorite place, indoors or outside (weather permitting), surrounded by the ones he loves.

To ensure his comfort we use drugs to alleviate any pain or discomfort, anxiety or frustrations that he may be experiencing. We want him to have a few minutes of simply feeling wrapped in love, free at last of any issues he’s been struggling with, be they related to age, infirmity, or illness. During this time he will begin to relax both mentally and physically and will drift into a kind of twilight sleep. For a while he will be able to still see, hear and smell us although in a rather hazy way.

Then with the effects of the anesthetic he will fall into a deep sleep in which he will lose consciousness, no longer able to connect to us through his senses. In this sleep, as he further relaxes, he may even dream or snore. When animals are elderly or ill, they have frequently been unable to rest well. A few minutes of the deep peace of sleep is a precious gift that we can give.

With anesthesia the body becomes ever more relaxed. We may see little quivers of the muscles as they go through cycles of contraction and relaxation. As the muscles of the eyes begin to relax, they can no longer do the work to keep them closed; the eyes usually open and remain so. Everything begins to slow down. Because the final anesthetic injection has been given as an overdose, sleep deepens into a coma and he is able to die peacefully in his sleep. The breathing becomes shallow and slow. When it ceases the heart too slows and soon coasts to a stop.

Then he will be in a space on the edge of time, gathering himself, focusing his energy, preparing to release his spirit. When he is ready he will leave us. It is during this time that we may see a sigh or reflexive breath. If one is not expecting this, it can be rather startling. It is not a sign of pain or distress; rather it is a goodbye as the body and the spirit tug away from one another.

With death all the muscles of the body relax completely, including sphincters to the bladder and bowel. We will have prepared in advance with waterproof pads placed under him. One of the last muscles to relax is the iris, the colored part of the eye. When it is relaxed the pupil will become widely dilated and we will no longer see the color of the eye.

Drugs used for euthanasia (providing a peaceful death) are all anesthetic type drugs. They may vary as to the exact type, number, amount, and route of injection depending on the species, age, and condition of the animal. Each animal is unique in his needs. The plan is tailored to meet those needs. But the goal is always the same: to avoid anything that might be scary, frightening, or painful for him or for you. He should be comfortable and you will be comforted to see him finally at peace.

Just as each animal is unique in life, so each one is very individual in death. We can never predict the nature of his death exactly but we know it will be his own. Helping you through this most beautiful of passages is the mission of  Beside Still Water. It is a privilege to be asked to share this precious time in your life together.


Q. How can I help my children understand the loss of a pet?

A.  When children lose a pet, it may be their first experience with death, though perhaps they have lost a Grandparent. While death is not a common occurrence for most people, it is far less familiar for children because their life experience is limited. Even so, children are sometimes "old souls" when it comes right down to it.

     Yesterday I experienced the miracle of such a one. This little lad of 12 years had already heard about Heaven because his Grandpa was there. He was pretty angry that he couldn't be with him anymore. Now he heard that his very sick dog was also going to Heaven.

    When I arrived at the home to assist with the euthanasia of the pet, the Grandmother was looking after the child in another part of the house; they came to meet me and say goodbye to the pet. He regarded me with some suspicion and did not quite buy into the notion that he should go back to playing his favorite game elsewhere. It was quite clear to him that something of great importance was about to happen and he didn't want to miss it.

     This child was quite fearful of needles so the pain relieving medication and sedation had been administered prior to his joining us. Because the pet, already in a twilight sleep, still had some conscious albeit hazy connection to those of us present, I suggested that he might like to go tell her, perhaps whisper in her ear, anything important that he wanted her to know. I told him that she had let me know (for indeed she had) that she was ready to die, to release her spirit and leave her body behind because it was no longer a good home for her spirit.

     This he did and then went to his Grandmother, refusing to leave the room to play his game but agreeing instead to have her read to him while we administered the last drugs, an anesthetic overdose that would deepen her sleep into a coma and allow her to die peacefully. Soon he got up from his Grandma's lap and came over to us who were clustered around his pet on the floor. "What is happening?" he wanted to know.

      "We are waiting with her as she is preparing to release her spirit," I told him. "Do you want to wait with us?" Quietly this precious little one stepped over her and seated himself on his Daddy's lap. Together we waited for her spirit to soar.

     Presently, I listened for her heart, now still; I asked if he wanted to listen too. He nodded. We tucked the earpieces into his tiny ears and I tapped gently on the diaphragm of the stethoscope so he could recognize sound, and laid it where her heart had once been heard. He listened intently. "Can you hear anything?" Solemnly he shook his head. "Her spirit has gone," I said.  He nodded.

    While I do not claim to be an expert in child behavior, I frequently have children of many ages present with us at the time of euthanasia. May I share some  guidelines?

  • As the parent you are always the final judge of how involved each child should be; you know him better than I do.
  • Be truthful. While it is not always necessary to explain every detail of what will happen, don't falsify the situation. Children always know when they are being lied to.
  • Use appropriate language. Do not be afraid of the words death and dying. Don't use the euphemism "putting him to sleep" when you mean to say we are helping the animal to die.
  • Answer the questions a child has; there is no need to explain more than he wishes to hear.
  • Include children in the decisions that must be made. Have a family council.
  • Don't be afraid to let your child see that you are sad.
  • Try not to be wounded by seemingly insensitive comments such as "Why are we killing her?" Children are often just learning the nuances of word meanings. This is where we really need to help them.
  • Remember that children have very short attention spans. They quickly turn from tears to "When can we get a new pet?" and back again to feeling sad.
  • Preparation is important. Especially if a child will not be present at the euthanasia or know in advance the time the appointment, encourage him to say goodbye to the pet whenever he is leaving home.
  • Use thought constructs that are familiar for your child. If he has heard about Heaven, for instance, that may be easier to grasp than the concept of death which only seems to be understood beginning around age five or so.
  • Allow some time to ponder. One youngster, after hearing that his kitty's spirit was going to go up to Heaven, asked nonchalantly the next day, "Who is going to fix the hole in the roof?"


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