Using sleeping pills for dog euthanasia may at a first glance appear like an optimal solution: dog owners do not need to spend money on the veterinary fee, the dog can be given the pills comfortably at home and sleeping pills are easy to access, with most dog owners having a bottle readily available at home. However, there are many dangers with this practice that dog owners should be aware of. It's concerning and very alarming to see many websites nowadays providing guides on how to put a dog to sleep at home with sleeping pills. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, warns about the dangers of euthanizing a dog with sleeping pills.
Understanding Euthanasia in Dogs
Whether death is unexpected or it is the result of a decision that you and your vet make, the more caring the relationship you have had with your dog, the more difficult it will be to face. A feeling of loss is natural, as is the anger, denial and pain of grieving. The stages of grieving, from denial to eventual acceptance and resolution, typically last for almost a year.
While passive euthanasia, that is, not intervening to prevent death, is practiced in human medicine, in most parts of the world active euthanasia, the giving of a substance that causes death, is a uniquely veterinary consideration.
Most dog owners feel that making this type of decision is the hardest aspect of owning a dog. Yet in North America and Europe active euthanasia is the most common cause of death in dogs over two years of age. In the reality of making such a morally difficult decision, most dog owners, with a little advice from their vet, are capable of making sensible and sound decisions.
A Good Death to Stop Suffering in Dogs
Euthanasia means ending the life on an individual who suffers from a terminal illness or another incurable condition to relieve suffering. The word comes from Greek eu (which means "good’’) and thanatos (which means "death’’) thus the translation – "good death’’.
Putting the facts aside, euthanasia is almost certainly the most emotional decision you will ever make for your dog. The ethical aspects of euthanasia relate to the part your dog plays in your life and how much enjoyment it still gets from its own life.
In a nutshell, your consideration of euthanasia is influenced by your culture. In the Judeo-Christian tradition of Europe and North America, we have little difficulty taking on the responsibility for making such a decision on behalf of our dogs.
In other cultures, for example the Buddhist-Shintoist tradition in Japan where all objects – animate, like dogs and people, or inanimate, like rocks and pebbles – have souls, the decision to euthanize a dog is fraught with cultural conflict.
From the European/American tradition the following points are valid reasons for ending your dog’s life:
- Overwhelming physical injury
- Irreversible disease that has progressed to a point where distress or discomfort cannot be controlled
- Old age wear and tear that permanently affects the quality of life
- Physical injury, disease, or wear and tear resulting in permanent loss of control of body functions
- Incorrigible aggressiveness with risk to children, owners or others
- Carrying untreatable disease dangerous to humans.
How Does Regular Euthanasia in Dogs Work?
Euthanasia is a painless procedure in which the dog is given an overdose of an anesthetic. The drug pentobarbital is the most commonly used agent. Pentobarbital is a fast-acting medication that when used intravenously and in large doses can quickly render the dog unconscious.
A dog loses consciousness within seconds, as it happens during regular anesthesia. Within another few seconds, while the dog is unconscious, its heart stops. Depending on the circumstances, a sedative may be given before the barbiturate and a cannula inserted into a vein to ensure that the procedure goes smoothly.
While brain death occurs within seconds, electrical activity continues in the muscles and may cause some of the body’s muscles to twitch. If the respiratory muscles are affected, there can be a reflex gasp as if the dog was still alive. This kind of reflex muscle activity may take place up to ten minutes after death.
Using Sleeping Pills for Dog Euthanasia
Unfortunately, more and more online sites are offering instructions on how to have your dog euthanized on your own, at home, through the use of sleeping pills.
Reasons for Euthanizing Your Dog with Sleeping Pills
The number one reason why owners choose to euthanize their dogs at home, with sleeping pills, is to avoid the stress associated with visiting the vet.
Reason number two is the cost of the euthanasia as a procedure. Fortunately, both issues can be easily solved. If stress is the issue, sedatives can be used before visiting the vet.
What is more, you can even have the vet come at your home and perform the procedure in your dog’s familiar environment. If cost is the issue, shelters and emergency vet clinics routinely perform humane euthanasia either for free or at a very low cost.
Why Having Your Dog Euthanized With Sleeping Pills is a Bad Idea?
There is a plethora of reasons why using sleeping pills for euthanasia is a simply bad idea. First of all, the generic term sleeping pills covers a wide range of medications and most of them will not even work.
Furthermore, even if you chose a type of medication that can potentially work, there is the vomiting issue. Dogs tend to vomit when given pills, especially if the number of given pills is substantial.
Even if the dog does not vomit, it takes a lot of time for the pills get digested and enter the bloodstream. Plus, most sleeping pills are fast-acting and quickly removed from the bloodstream. Therefore, even if the dog is overdosed, there is no guarantee that the full dose will hit the dog at once.
Over-the-counter available sleeping pills can make dogs sick and particularly distressed. Most of them are known to cause: vomiting, seizures, foaming from the mouth, increased salivation, severe agitation. Last but not least, having your dog euthanized on your own is against the law in many countries.
To sum it up, euthanizing a dog with sleeping pills is simply not humane. Therefore, in good conscience, I as veterinary professional, cannot encourage the topic. Instead of focusing on how to euthanize your dog at home you should be focusing on why having your dog euthanized at home, particularly when there is a more efficient and humane alternative.
An extensive survey of the records of a large pet insurance company revealed that euthanasia was the most common cause of death in dogs and was carried out because owners and vets felt it was in a dog’s best interests. According to the survey, 8% of the insured dogs died from natural causes, 5% died in accidents and 35% due to illness. Regarding the euthanasia part, 2% of the dogs were euthanized due to behavior problems, 29% due to illness and 21% due to old age.
At the time of euthanasia, vets are frequently told by owners that they will never again keep a dog. However, the statistics tell a different story. While we find the loss of a canine companion deeply distressing, most of us – over 75% - bring a new dog into our lives within months.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola. Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.
For further reading: Medications used to put a dog to sleep