Maine veterinarians are offering more compassionate care and surroundings to make euthanizing cherished pets less traumatic.

In the “quiet room” at the Bridgton Veterinary Hospital — a small, cozy space more resembling a living room or den than a clinical exam room — families say goodbye to their pets.

“Years ago, we wouldn’t have even considered a room like this, and now I can’t imagine practicing without it,” said Dr. Gary Wheeler, owner of Bridgton Veterinary Hospital.

The room, with a brown suede love seat, walls decorated with pictures, pamphlets, and plenty of tissues, contrasts with the other rooms in the hospital, providing a warm, soothing place for a family facing the death of their pet.

Euthanasia, translated literally, means “good death.” Saying goodbye to a pet is never easy, but Maine veterinarians say procedures and attitudes are shifting to make the environment and process more bearable for pet owners.

When euthanizing begins, staff at the Bridgton facility post a sign on the door of the quiet room, informing clinic patrons and staff of the emotional procedure occurring inside. The staff provides blankets and tissues. Helen Crawford, a veterinary assistant at the hospital, said staff dim the lights in the room so the families can feel comfortable.

“In this room, we find it’s a little away from the hustle and bustle, and it’s a little more comforting to be in a living room setting, versus an exam room setting,” said Crawford.

Grieving families may exit straight from the room without having to go through the main lobby; payment is taken care of in the exam room. After the procedure, each member of the hospital signs a card that’s mailed to the family.

Wheeler, who has owned the practice since 1989, said he has seen attitudes concerning euthanasia shift deeply over time.

“It’s been gradual. I’d like to think we, as veterinary professionals, have felt that euthanasia was a compassionate act, the most compassionate act you could do for your pet. How that came about has changed. I view it as continually changing,” he said.

A TALE OF TWO CATS

Donna Stretton Letourneau, of  Raymond, has lived through this evolution with two of her own cats. Five years ago, she knew it was time to say goodbye to her 21-year-old pet Pooh.

Letourneau said Pooh’s euthanasia still haunts her.

“It was traumatic. They held her down. She had fear in her eyes, and she was staring at me, looking at me with fear,” said Letourneau. “I just couldn’t get over it. I lost it, and fell to the floor.”

This Halloween evening, Letourneau had to say goodbye again. Her 18-year-old cat Abigail Halfatail, a gray tabby named for her crooked tail, had begun to decline.

“We spoiled her that day, and gave her tons of love,” said Letourneau. As she fell asleep, Letourneau and her husband got her into a cat carrier and took her to North Windham Veterinary Hospital in Windham.

“It was about 5:30 at night. They were extremely compassionate as soon as we walked in the door,” said Letourneau.

Letourneau said staff took Abby away in the carrier, while bringing Letourneau and her husband into a waiting room. Letourneau said it had a couch against a wall, with plenty of blankets and pillows — much like Bridgton’s quiet room. A bookshelf stood along the other wall, full of books on the process she was experiencing.

Abby remained in her carrier as the staff used gas to make her fall asleep. About 10 minutes later, staff brought Abby into the waiting room, wrapped tightly in a blanket, sound asleep.

“We got to hold her and say goodbye to her. It was really hard, but it was a lot of closure, to be able to hold your pet and say I’m sorry,” Letourneau said. “With Pooh, it was totally different.” 

MORE TIME, MORE GUIDANCE, MORE SENSITIVITY

Robin Downing, doctor of veterinary medicine and hospital director of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado, has seen the standards and practices surrounding euthanasia change over time.

“When I began practicing in the mid-1980s, it was common for veterinarians to make a life-limiting diagnosis like cancer in a patient, and then jump right to euthanasia,” Downing wrote in an email.

“There was no acknowledgement of the ‘space’ between that terminal diagnosis and the time for death. That has, fortunately, changed,” she wrote.

She said palliative care for animals has increased drastically, meaning more veterinarians concentrate on pain alleviation, and the comfort of the animal.

And when comfort and pain relief has done all it can do, Wheeler and others say veterinarians are showing greater sensitivity to the process, helping clients decide when their pet’s quality of life has dipped enough to warrant euthanasia. 

Euthanasia is always a two-part issue, according to Wheeler. The pet needs to physically be at the point where they’re ready to go, and then the owner has to be ready to say goodbye.

Wheeler said the guiding factor is quality of life.

“Pain isn’t always indicative of quality of life.” Wheeler said owners need to consider things like eating, going outside, going for walks and socialization.

“If the pet can’t do that anymore, it’s time to have a serious conversation about why we are going on,” he said.

Once the decision is made, Wheeler walks clients through the procedure of euthanasia and informs them of what to expect — another measure to help take the mystery and stress out of the process.

“We explain all the things that might happen, all the things that might scare people,” he said.

“This is not a cut and dry type of thing,” Wheeler added. “These are narcotics that we’re using — big-ime drugs — and every pet reacts differently to them. Occasionally you see an idiosyncratic reaction (such as unexpected movement), and that’s really scary for the owners. We try to accommodate that.”

RAVENS, BLUE SKY AND COMFORT: AT-HOME EUTHANASIA

While a growing number of Maine veterinary practices, like the Bridgton and South Windham hospitals, are creating more welcoming and accommodating environments for the euthanasia process, at-home services in the state are also growing in popularity. 

Downing, in Colorado, said the option is a natural one: It is where the pet and the family are most comfortable. 

“In-home euthanasia is really a blessing for these animals, and for the families who love them,” she stated. 

Dr. Susanne Best, owner of Well Point Veterinary Services in Norway, has a deep connection with at-home euthanasia.

“It can be a really incredibly peaceful and wonderful way to go. I’ve done some euthanasia at home, outside, where pretty magical things happen,” she said.

Years ago, she adopted a black flat-coated retriever from a veterinary clinic she worked for. Best said it soon became obvious the dog had a tumor on her spinal column.

When her dog lost the ability to walk, Best made a wheelchair for her, so she could still go outside.

“She would spend as much time as she could just standing out in her wheelchair,” said Best.

When the day came to put her down, Best took her out to a woodsy patch of garden. The trees surrounding were all in a ring, so when Best looked up, she could see the blue sky. She said she gave her dog the sedative, and the dog began to fall asleep.

“I was just injecting the second drug in the vein — her breathing was changing and she was just beginning to change over. Out of the blue, this whole flock of ravens came up above her, circled around exactly above her body, and as she took her last breath, they flew away.”

Best said that while large veterinary practices and hospitals may not have the time to do at-home euthanasia services, smaller veterinary practices see many benefits.

“The animals are not anxious,” she said. “You just walk into their lives, and their surrounded by their families, and they’re in their own surroundings,” she said.

“They’re so much more relaxed. It takes less drugs initially to get them to relax more, and it can be really beautiful,” she said.

Dr. Abigail Messina, who works for the mobile veterinarian house-call service Vet At Your Door, agrees. The service has three regional branches in Maine, and not only provides home euthanasia, but hospice care, medication and acupuncture, at-home screening, lab work and basic check-ups.

“At home it is just a peaceful and beautiful experience. The pets are calm, they’re happier and there’s lots of food,” she said. “We bring treats, and the owners are at ease and are comfortable. A huge benefit is the comfort level of everyone.”

“It’s a sad time, but not necessarily a stressful time,” Messina said.

HELPING PET OWNERS FIND CLOSURE 

For the veterinarians who perform euthanasia, sometimes multiple times in a single day, the emotional impact can also take a toll on them.

“I try to say it’s compassionate, but the actual act is difficult,” said Wheeler in Bridgton.

Wheeler verifies the death of each pet. “I’m sitting there with my stethoscope and I often hear the last heartbeat. That’s kind of a thump right in my gut. Do that day in and day out, you have to maintain some sort of positive take on this, or you will be dragged down into the mud,” he said.

Wheeler said euthanasia is a painful process for everyone involved, but an incredibly important one that is always evolving.

“All of this is all about closure. So that the owners feel be a little bit better,” he said. “We’re guiding people through a difficult process.”

He added, “The profession is very aware of how sensitive this is, and everyone is handling it the best that they possibly can.”

Helen Crawford, a veterinary assistant at Bridgton Veterinary Hospital, displays a sign used when a euthanasia procedure is in progress at the hospital, to remind others to keep their voices low and respectful. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Donna Stretton Letourneau of Raymond said goodbye to Pooh 5 years ago, and described the process of his euthanasia as traumatic. (Photo by Donna Stretton Letourneau)

Donna Stretton Letourneau’s cat Abigail Halfatail was euthanized about three weeks ago on Halloween evening. She said the process was handled much more sensitively and was “totally different.” (Photo Courtesy of Donna Stretton Letourneau)

The quiet room at the Bridgton Veterinary Hospital is stocked with tissues and comfortable furniture for pets and their owners as compassionate euthanasia procedures are performed. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Bridgton Veterinary Hospital Dr. Gary Wheeler describes how most owners decide when it is time to say goodbye to their pets — when the bad days outnumber the good ones. Helen Crawford, a veterinary assistant, listens in. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Dr. Gary Wheeler of the Bridgton Veterinary Hospital sits on a couch with Sam sometime in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Bridgton Veterinary Hospital)

Pet doc’s beloved Sam taught lesson on guilt

Dr. Gary Wheeler, owner of Bridgton Veterinary Hospital, remembers having to deal with death and the euthanasia process early in his career with his own beloved cat, Sam.

“He was my most special pet. Everyone has one pet that always has their heart. That cat got me through vet school,” said Wheeler.

“He was the king of my household for many years. He started to fail. It was a difficult process.”

Wheeler said that after he made the decision to euthanize his pet and performed the procedure in his home, he was racked with guilt for months. He said he knows now that guilt — Did he wait too long? Did he not wait long enough? — is very common among pet owners.

“I always try to tell them it’s nothing to feel guilty about,” he said. “In my heart, I still feel guilty, but in my head I know I was giving him the last opportunity to improve, but it never happened.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: