Rabbits aren’t small dogs, and they aren’t small cats either. Their anatomical and physiological make-up varies vastly from that of more traditional canine and feline pets. And their welfare and psychological requirements differ too. As a result, we vets and nurses adjust our approach to their care in order to meet these needs. You may or may not know that, frustratingly, there are far fewer medications licensed for treating rabbits compared to those licensed for cats and dogs. Fortunately, there is something called the ‘Cascade System’ which enables vets to legally prescribe the medications that rabbits require.
When it comes to the difficult task of saying goodbye to a beloved bunny, never more is a sympathetic and tailored approach required. With the above-mentioned challenges in mind, rabbit owners may question whether euthanasia imposes stress and even pain upon their pet. It is a valid question to ask, and we hope we can reassure these pet owners with what follows.
How are rabbits put to sleep?
There are a few different ways that rabbits can be euthanased. For the purpose of this blog, we’re going to discuss euthanasia by intravenous administration of the medication pentobarbital, because it is probably most common these days.
In the event, so that you are fully informed, it is worth asking your vet about the methods they use. It is fair to say that rabbits, as a prey species, can become stressed during travel, and when entering a new environment. In these instances, it might be possible to arrange a home euthanasia or discuss the possibility of mild sedation prior to the event. However, for many bunnies, who visit the vet regularly for vaccinations, to them this is just another trip to the vets; and we can rest assured that they don’t know what’s coming.
Aren’t the needles painful?
Once at the vets, it is necessary to gain intravenous access. This is achieved by placing a cannula into a vein in the ear. Accessing this vein requires very little restraint of these pets. So excessive or overbearing manhandling can be avoided, which otherwise might stress a rabbit out. It is necessary to puncture the skin and blood vessel with a needle; however there are numbing agents that we would usually apply to the skin which reduce even this mild discomfort. Having secure intravenous access ensures smooth and relaxed administration of the anaesthetic.
What about the injection itself?
The drug we use, pentobarbital, is an anaesthetic agent; all anaesthetic agents exert effects on the central nervous system and, in turn, suppress the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Even in controlled anaesthesia, the tendency is for the heart to beat more slowly, and for the respiratory rate to lower as a patient drifts off into an anaesthetised state. It is by giving essentially an ‘overdose’ of this drug that we induce death by gently slowing and closing down the cardiorespiratory system.
What occurs is a very peaceful and sleep-like transition from conscious, to an anaesthetised state, and finally death. Pentobarbital is fast acting and is highly concentrated, therefore relatively small volumes are required. This makes the process painless, smooth and without complication. Indeed, many pet owners remark at how peacefully their pet gently slips away, just as if they were going to sleep.
So should I worry about it?
It is an honour and a privilege to be able to end a pet’s life when they are suffering, and we are grateful to have medications and techniques which enable us to do so without pain, and with dignity. If this is something you are facing and are fearful about, we urge you to discuss the matter with your vet first so that you are fully informed and prepared for what is about to occur. It can certainly be argued that any minor stress or discomfort experienced is far preferable to leaving a pet suffering or in pain.