The Worst and Best Decision
Deciding when to end your dog’s life is the worst and best decision that you will ever have to make. Luckily, our dogs do not need to suffer in the way that humans are obliged to at the end of their life, but it is nevertheless rarely easy. The priority must always be quality of life. If you have a close bond with your dog, you should be able to pick up on small signs but it can be hard when dogs have good and bad days. Your vet should be able to discuss options with you and offer an opinion, but ultimately the choice will be yours unless the vet considers it to be an extreme welfare issue.
Pain is a major consideration and it is always a good idea to know how to identify it as, although not life-threatening, many common conditions such as kidney or bladder stones, cystitis, ear infections, pancreatitis, gastritis, enteritis, arthritis, patellar luxation, slipped discs, periodontal disease or tooth fracture, infections, tumours and eye problems can be extremely painful.
There are several signs that you can monitor to see if your dog is in pain, although be careful as dogs that are suffering pain are more likely to bite.
The posture may change with the dog standing stiffly or stretching in a posture that is similar to the play bow. The dog may arch or sink his back and tail carriage may be low or tucked in. The dog may be restless or lethargic and may be reluctant to jump or may move slowly or awkwardly. He may also be withdrawn or extremely vocal and agitated.
Breathing may be faster and more shallow than normal and panting may be excessive. Watch for a change in the movement of the abdominal and chest muscles. Count how many breaths the dog takes in 15 seconds and multiply by four to get the rate per minute. Pulse rate is easiest to check using the femoral artery and the same technique of counting can be used to obtain the rate per minute. The heart and pulse rate may be increased and may speed up when the painful area is touched or moved.
Dogs in pain may eat and drink less than usual and may drop food and or water from their mouth and/or drool. The first thing to check is dental health. Check for constipation or diarrhorea.
Check the eyes to see if the pupils are dilated or constricted and whether one or both eyes are affected. Check also if they are bloodshot, jaundiced or if the dog is squinting.
It will be useful to have the above information when speaking to your vet.
This advice is not a substitute for veterinary opinion and treatment. When in doubt, check with your vet.
Once you have made the big decision, you will then need to decide what to do with the remains. It is a good idea to think about this long before you should need to so that you are not under pressure when it finally becomes necessary.
There are lots of options available and vets will offer a storage and cremation service which can be private or public. If you choose the former option, the ashes will be returned to you and you can choose whether you want them in a container for scattering or an ornamental container for display. There are several pet cemetaries around the UK; the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria can help you should you wish to make your own arrangements. There are unscrupulous crematoria that will promise an individual cremation but not carry it out, so if you are making your own arrangements, ensure that you choose a member of the association.
You may bury your pet in your garden if you own the property (check with your local environmental health department for local by-laws) or in a licensed pet cemetary. Again the APPCC will be able to help you locate the latter. If you bury your pet in the garden, you should dig down for 2-3 feet and place stones on top to ensure that foxes and cats and other animals do not dig up the remains. You can buy coffins from a similar range to that offered for humans, together with a variety of memorial plaques and stones. Bear in mind that you may want or need to move at some point in the future though. You may wish to plant something in memory of your pet. The Royal Horticultural Society lists an extensive range of plants on their website so you can search for something with the same name as your pet.
Most pet cemetaries will allow you to be present at the burial and some may allow you to be present for the cremation, but be warned, that watching a cremation can be a distressing experience.
A relatively new service is available in the US from a company called Coeio that provides a burial method known as mycoremediation. This uses a body covering containing fungi that break the cadaver down and can provide fertiliser for a memorial plant for instance. It is possible only a matter of time before it becomes more widely available – and cheaper.
Cryomation and Alkaline Hydrolysis
Cryomation and Alkaline Hydrolysis are new processes that are similar to cremation but using liquid nitrogen to produce sterile granular remains and ashes respectively instead of heat. Neither process is widely available as yet but both provide a more eco-friendly means of disposal than cremation.
There are a few taxidermists who will consider preparing pets. Bear in mind that your dog will need to be in fairly good condition and that the service takes a long time and can be costly. An alternative to taxidermy is to have your dog’s bones preserved and set. This produces an almost sculptural result and can be more satisfying than the rather lifeless appearance of taxidermy. It takes a similar amount of time and can again be costly. We highly recommend Skeletons UK (see image above) who provide a superb service at a very reasonable price.
Ashes Into Glass offer a service for including ashes in a paperweight or a range of jewellery including rings, pendants, earrings and cufflinks. Unused ashes will be returned to you.
Heavens Above Fireworks incorporate cremated ashes into fireworks and organise a display. If you would prefer something smaller or more private, they also provide rockets for self-firing. If you want something even more extravagant than a display, they can send your dog’s ashes into space via their partner company Celestis.
It can be devastating when a dog dies and not always easy to deal with when employers and non-pet owners may have limited sympathy. We often have feelings of guilt wondering if we have done our best for our dog and thinking of all the mistakes we may have made in their upbringing and care. The effects can last a long time and become confused with other problems in our lives. As much as we may not want to be without a dog, it can feel like disloyalty to our previous dog when a new dog arrives in the household.
The Blue Cross and the Society for Companion Animal Studies run the Pet Bereavement Support Service including a free helpline (0800 096 6606 Mon-Sun 8.30 hrs – 20.30hrs) run by trained volunteers who offer support for people whose pets have died, gone missing or been relinquished. You can also request help and advice by e-mail
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