Home Euthanasia
Nobody says, “I hope I die in a hospital bed in the ICU in a lot of pain.” If you were to query your friends, most people would probably say, “I hope I die at home in my sleep.” (In fact, according to some surveys, as many as 70 percent to 90 percent of people would prefer to die at home.) The uncertainty of knowing when and where we will shrug off the mortal coil is a great source of angst for many of us humans. Dogs and cats have it a little different.

We have a unique opportunity in veterinary medicine to provide more control over the circumstances of a loved pet’s passing than our colleagues in human medicine, because veterinarians are entrusted with the significant power to provide euthanasia. And although we have been easing the medical aspect of the death process through the choice of drugs in our arsenal, only recently have some veterinarians come to embrace the emotional aspect of the process by providing a service many people desperately want: to say goodbye to their pets at home.

Why Home Euthanasia?

“My first home euthanasia in 1994 was a life-changing experience for me,” says Dr. Amir Shanan of Compassionate Veterinary Care in Chicago. “It was a couple who had taken care of a quadriplegic 80-pound Doberman who had surgery for cervical disk disease and was never able to get up after the surgery. They had cared for this dog for eight months before realizing there was no hope.”

He pauses. “There were a lot of tears and hugs, and I walked out of there thinking, Wow. There must be a lot of other people who would prefer this over the stainless steel table.” Shortly thereafter, Shanan placed his first ad in the yellow pages for in-home euthanasia services. At the time, he said, that was practically unheard of.

“The clinic setting is limiting,” Shanan says. “In general, households are a much more personal interaction with the client. They are in an environment that is more conducive for them to express their feelings, more so than in the clinic.”

Creating a Better End-of-Life Experience

As more people began requesting this service, more veterinarians began to offer in-home euthanasia. “Home euthanasia is almost getting to be mainstream,” Shanan says. “It’s not where we were 10 years ago.”

In 2009, Shanan founded the nonprofit International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care to address the growing prevalence of home-euthanasia providers and provide guidelines for “comfort-oriented end-of-life care.” He sees this type of service as much more than just showing up and administering an injection.

For Shanan, offering home euthanasia is just one component of creating a better end-of-life experience for pets and owners. “People want support, help in making decisions, from the perspective centered on their needs and values,” he says. “They want someone helping them figure out what’s right for them. A lot of times, that’s the piece that’s missing more than anything else.”

However, euthanasia shouldn’t be confused with hospice care for pets, a relatively new option in the animal world. Hospice care can be provided after a pet has been given a terminal diagnosis and is intended to keep the pet comfortable until natural death or euthanasia.

A More Peaceful Process

When Cristen Prenez’s Golden Retriever Max was diagnosed with cancer, she didn’t know home euthanasia was an option. “I have a wonderful vet who I’ve been going to for 20 years,” she says. “When Max got sick, he had a tumor on his knee, and it became increasingly more difficult for him to get in the car and go to the vet. We knew it was terminal, and it was really painful and stressful for him to get to the car.”

Her regular veterinarian referred her to Dr. Lynn Hendrix of Beloved Pet Mobile Vet in Davis, California, for an end-of-life consultation. Prenez calls the decision to euthanize Max “brutal,” but Dr. Hendrix’s guidance made a big difference. “I didn’t know what to expect. Lynn came to the house and explained how the [process] works. She was extremely compassionate and caring, and we had lots of questions, [like] ‘How do we know when it’s time?’”

For Prenez, the ability to keep Max at home was key, but just as important was Dr. Hendrix herself. “[Hendrix] was very much about what Max was feeling, and we had a complete open line of communication about behaviors,” Prenez says. “It’s a fine line, and she really helped us figure that out.”

When Prenez decided that the day had come to let Max go, Dr. Hendrix came to the home. “It was a long experience, but in a good way,” Prenez says. “She recapped all the steps. Everyone was loving on Max. He was very comfortable.”

Prenez was shocked at how peaceful she found the process to be at home compared to the clinic. “You don’t want your family member to die in a hospital; you want him to die in a peaceful, happy place,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t get away from it, but we had an option.”

When Prenez’s second dog, Haley, became ill several years later, she again called on Dr. Hendrix. “We knew what to expect. We knew that [Haley’s] cancer was super aggressive, and the process for euthanasia was an easy one. There was no anxiety.” Haley, a Beagle, still had a voracious appetite despite her aggressive cancer, and Prenez recalls “laughing to the very end” through her tears as they fed Haley treats. “I never thought that losing a pet could be like that.”

Opening Up Options

Though Shanan is among his profession’s leading advocates for in-home euthanasia, he doesn’t believe it is the only option clients should consider. He says many people are concerned that euthanizing a pet at home will result in bad memories in the home, and in those cases, he respects the clients’ concerns.

“My view is not that home euthanasia is best for everybody,” he says. “What’s most important to me is opening options — giving the family a sense that they have some power and control over some of the decisions.”

Shanan recalls one of the ways he had to become creative to provide families with the experience they needed: “There was a dog who was comfortable only swimming in the pool,” he says, “so I administered the sedative to the dog in the pool, while he was being held by his owner. I was laying on the side on the concrete.”

Is Home Euthanasia the Right Choice for You?

Prenez says she will never go back to taking a pet into the clinic for euthanasia. “We will do this for every one of our pets and recommend it to every one of our friends,” she says.

Talking to your vet ahead of time — if possible — about how you feel about this end-of-life decision can help ease the process a little when it’s time for you to say goodbye to your pet. If you think at-home euthanasia might be right for you and your pet, ask your veterinarian if she provides this service. If not, a referral can often be arranged.

“Humans need to feel comfortable with losing a pet, and they want to know their pet has been comfortable until the end,” Prenez says. And for Max and Haley, she is relieved to know that they were.

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