Euthanizing a pet, while difficult, is something a lot of pet owners accept they’ll do at some point. Still, how many of you would take this step in your ultimate comfort zone: at home? How many parents of small children would do so?
In November 2011, my friends’ cat, Mouse, left this world to snooze in that big sunspot in the sky. Mouse was roughly 15 years old. She had kidney problems for a long time, but an aggressive tumor in her mouth, scarily dubbed oral squamous cell carcinoma, was killing her.
Now, how do my friends Beth — San Francisco resident, author, and mom — and her partner, Devin, explain this to their daughter, L? L was two and a half. Explaining and accepting death is hard enough for adults, much less a toddler. A parent friend who had a similar experience recommended at-home euthanasia. Though it may sound morbid, Beth said seeing and touching the body afterward helps kids understand the very abstract concept of death.
Home vet care is more expensive than in-office services, but Beth said that wasn’t much of a consideration for the family. Rather, the trip to the vet seemed like more trouble than it was worth:
Explaining that you’ll be taking Mouse away in the car, the vet will do something, she’ll die, you’ll bring her body back — it’s too complex and distracting when there’s already the hugely abstract concept of death to get across. We also didn’t want our daughter to focus on the euthanasia itself, which would likely have happened if there had been a lengthy vet trip involved. Secondary but still important, it was much easier on Mouse not to be taken off to die at the vet.
They moved as quickly as possible, but there was still some time between finding a vet and doing the procedure. They took that time to chat with L about what was happening. Mouse was very sick. She wasn’t going to get better, and she was therefore going to die. A doctor would help her die comfortably. And I thought this was particularly important: they emphasized that the euthanasia itself did not kill her, per se; the terminal illness did. Furthermore, they stressed how Mouse had a really long, wonderful life. Rest assured that Mouse lived every one of her nine lives; she once climbed out of her carrier on a motorbike speeding down the freeway and I’m pretty sure she once fell into an outdoor theater performance.
A rush order of kids’ books – Badger’s Parting Gifts and Lifetimes, the titles of which alone make me want to cry — helped with the task at hand. Though the primary goal was explaining death in a meaningful way to L, going about it this way helped Beth and Devin, too. Mouse herself got lots of love.
The family settled on Adam Behrens, The Wandering Vet, who had good reviews on Yelp.com. They not only wanted to euthanize at home, they wanted someone who could give a proper second opinion on Mouse’s diagnosis.
L’s babysitter came over to take her out for some playtime while the actual euthanasia was happening. After an explanation about what would happen, Dr. Behrens got to work:
We had her lay down on a pad in our bed (they lose bladder control pretty soon after dying). He first gave Mouse a barbiturate injection that made her unconscious. She was still breathing, but essentially in deep sleep. Then he gave her the second injection of potassium chloride, and it was really fast — she took one big deep breath, and then stopped breathing completely.
Beth and Devin called L and her babysitter back home after the doctor cleaned up and left, and they moved Mouse to the couch.
We pointed out how she wasn’t breathing anymore, she wasn’t able to open her eyes or get up and run around, but that she also wasn’t hurting anymore. It took L a few minutes to inspect the situation and get what she was going to out of it.
Devin had already dug a hole in the backyard for Mouse’s final resting place. They explained that people and animals alike are often buried in a grave. They buried her wrapped in Devin’s shirt, one of her favorite sleeping surfaces. Everyone took turns covering her with dirt. In so doing, Beth says it helped illustrate that Mouse wasn’t just sleeping.
In the months afterward, Beth describes L as “curious but not emotional” about the experience. Though L talked about it a lot, she didn’t cry or speak about her sadness for a while. Beth’s theory is that L just took a while to emotionally process what happened, and she credits L’s presence in the process with helping her intellectual understanding first.
It helped the adults emotionally, too:
This was the first time I was able to be in the room with a pet who was being euthanized; I couldn’t handle it when my own childhood pet died in the late 1990s. For my own sake, I was glad I did it, because it provided a sense of closure (even though there are still times when I forget she’s gone and think that she’s hiding under the blankets in the bed, which was one of her favorite places to sleep). And given that it gave L the tools to understand death — which she has since been able to apply to conversations about other people and animals dying — it was really worth it.
Thanks to Beth, Devin, and L for sharing this with Pawesome. Hopefully Mouse’s story can help some of you Pawesomers, too.
Photo: Devin Carraway