Discussion: End of Life Decisions

As we rally against the needless killing of shelter pets for convenience, we sometimes tend to skip meaningful discussion on true euthanasia for our own pets.  This is such an important issue to explore as it is often complicated and always heartbreaking.  One way to lift the veil is by sharing our experiences, something I have tried to do on the blog each time one of my own pets dies.  I am inviting readers to share their experiences, questions and thoughts on the subject in the comments.

For myself, one of the questions I have struggled with regarding euthanasia is timing.  I know this is a common challenge for pet owners.  None of us wants to wait too long but of course we don’t want to make the decision too soon either.  With some pets, I have questioned myself on both accounts – that is, wondering if I waited too long and if I should have waited a little longer.  Hearing other people’s experiences has been very helpful to me and I hope this discussion will be helpful to others.  I will pose some questions to get the ball rolling but please feel welcome to share any related thoughts that are on your mind.

  • In euthanizing a pet, how much have you relied on input from your veterinarian?  Do you feel that ultimately, only you know when it’s time, due to the bond you have with your pet?
  • Have you ever made a decision to provide hospice care for a pet and allow the pet to die at home?  If yes, were you closely involved with a vet during the process and do you wish you had – or had not – been?
  • Have you ever scheduled a euthanasia appointment with your vet in advance and then spent a final special day with your pet or do you typically end up at the emergency clinic during the night?
  • What about when you die – do you have a plan in place to provide care for your pets once you are gone?  Is there any reliable way to protect them from being seized by animal control and killed for convenience after your death?

Funky Cold Medina Co

At the time public pressure brought by an animal advocate forced the Medina Co pound in Ohio to stop gassing cats, it was believed that the shelter staff did an admirable job caring for dogs.  After all, the facility boasts a 92% live release rate for dogs.  But records obtained via FOIA request appear to show that many of the dogs who were euthanized last year at Medina Co received less than the amount of Fatal Plus indicated on the label.  For example, a 50 pound dog being euthanized by IV injection with Fatal Plus should receive no less than 5 cc according to label instructions.  But many dogs whose weights were recorded as 50 pounds by Medina Co received only 4 cc of Fatal Plus with one 50 pound dog receiving just 3 cc.  Several dogs weighing 60 pounds also received the 4 cc dose.  This is a serious problem according to an animal euthanasia expert in Ohio:

The Medina County animal control officers “need to be relieved of duty pending a thorough investigation of their qualifications and ability to do their jobs,” David Balz, Ohio-certified euthanasia instructor and director of the Wyandot County Humane Society, wrote Thursday in an email to The Plain Dealer. “I would not trust them to work in my shelter, in any capacity, under any circumstances, let alone that of euthanasia technicians.”

The state of Ohio does not specifically require that those qualified to euthanize animals do so only using the dosage on the drug’s label.  (The state of Virginia for example, requires exactly that.)  But Ohio code does include this:

Any agent or employee of an animal shelter performing euthanasia by means of lethal injection shall do so only in a humane and proficient manner that is in conformity with the methods described in division (A) of this section and not in violation of Chapter 959. of the Revised Code.

A humane and proficient manner.  In order to get a qualified opinion, I contacted David Balz myself. I asked him his view on whether using less than the label dosage, such as is evident in the Medina Co shelter’s drug logs, would qualify as performing euthanasia “in a humane and proficient manner”? He replied, in part:

I would say that it is certainly questionable. There is also the issue of using a drug “off label” in other words not following the directions or usage on the bottle. Only a licensed professional can do that. The rest of us have to use things as they are labeled. I may “know” that a particular drug will do something or that a different dosage would do a particular thing, but, not being a MD, DDS, DVM etc, I would not be allowed to do it any way except what is labeled on the bottle.

I also asked Mr. Balz to explain the concerns associated with using too little of a euthanasia drug. His reply, in part:

There are a number of problems associated with “underdosing” when using the drug for euthanasia. The most obvious is that, while the animal may literally go to sleep, it may also wake up. The problems with that are obvious. My worry about the workers in Medina is that if they previously had confusion regarding Intraperitoneal injections on cats and are now having problems with IV dosage calculations, then perhaps they also are not capable of establishing that the animal is dead before disposing of the body.

The other issue with “underdosing” is that at the doses we recommend you are basically “anesthetizing” the animal to the point where the base of the brain shuts down and the animal’s heart and lungs simply stop working – long after total unconsciousness which is the first effect. Picture the human operating room and the doctor asks the patient to start counting backwards from 100 – the doctor injects the drug and the patient says 99………and is unconscious. From that point on the level keeps deepening. Obviously in anesthesia we support the patient, but in the case of euthanasia they rapidly go into coma and then stop completely (at recommended doses they are unconscious in seconds and dead in 1 to 5 minutes). During this process there is an “excitement” phase where the patient/animal may flail about injuring themselves and others. When the animal is underdosed it becomes more likely that this excitement phase will occur or be extended. Thereby potentially being dangerous for the workers.

Public records obtained via FOIA request show that Medina Co shelter director Del Saffle, whose initials appear on all of the underdosed dogs, received training and certification in euthanasia practices in 1995. Although many shelters require their euthanasia technicians to continually update their training and certification, Medina Co apparently does not. Even without recent training, anyone performing euthanasia in an animal shelter should be reading and following the label instructions for the drug being used. No animal shelter employee should be underdosing animals with euthanasia drug under any circumstances.  If there is to be any deviation from the label instructions, it is always recommended to overdose and never to underdose animals being euthanized.

From the HSUS euthanasia reference manual:

Technicians can help minimize the chances of record-keeping errors by rounding up (never down!) to the nearest milliliter[.]
[R]ounding up and administering slightly more drug than technically needed is perfectly acceptable (it is never acceptable to use less than the label dose).

Medina Co reportedly places euthanized animals into an onsite incinerator.  The implications of the shelter’s practice of routine underdosing of dogs with euthanasia drug are obvious and disturbing.  Why was this practice ever allowed at Medina Co and when will the county put a stop to it?

What Options Exist for Pet Euthanasia in Your Area?

Please consider participating in this informal survey about euthanasia options and costs in your area:

  • What does your vet charge to euthanize a pet?  If that fee does not include disposal of remains, what is the fee for that?
  • Does your local shelter offer euthanasia of owned pets who are medically hopeless and suffering?  If so, what fee do they charge for that service?
  • When answering, please include the following specifics:  type of pet (e.g. “dog under 50 pounds”), city or county and state.

I am in Kershaw Co, SC.  My vet charges $35 to euthanize a small dog.  I don’t know what the fees are for disposal of remains as we bury our pets at home.  This includes a sedative injection which she administers first.  It also includes the vet remaining with the owner and the dog for as long as necessary to make absolutely certain the dog is deceased.  My vet is very caring and never wants any of her clients to have their euthanized pet “come back to life” after leaving the clinic.  With Graham, she only felt the need to stay a few minutes after verifying death but with Emily, because she was running primarily on adrenaline, she stayed probably half an hour after verifying death.  The emergency clinic charges about $125 to euthanize a large dog (again euthanasia only, not disposal of remains).  They place a catheter and administer a sedative before the euth injection.  My local shelter does not offer euthanasia services to the public.  I don’t know what options might be available to someone locally who has a medically hopeless and suffering pet and can not afford a private vet visit.


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