If you’ve ever had a very sick or elderly pet, no doubt you will have had the difficult, awkward, emotional and sometimes heated conversation with your vet regarding the end of their life. Maybe it went the way you expected, maybe not. You may have even noticed your vet using certain terms to describe your pet’s death. What are these phrases? Why are some problematic? Do vets not say ‘put to sleep’ anymore?
Euthanasia and Why it is Important
When a vet ends the life of an animal humanely to prevent suffering or pain, the technical term for this is ‘euthanasia’. Euthanasia comes from Ancient Greek, and means ‘good death’. It is one of the most important and powerful options veterinary surgeons have in veterinary medicine. It is a privilege that we are permitted to end an animal’s life in a pain-free compassionate way on our terms, rather than allow a prolonged death. Without euthanasia, millions of animals would suffer needlessly with old age, chronic disease or severe injuries. Euthanasia is always a kind option for these sorts of cases. And every good veterinary surgeon should discuss it with pet owners regularly.
Although less than with human euthanasia (i.e., assisted suicide), animal euthanasia can be a controversial issue. There is often contention regarding when to euthanise an animal, how to do so, and even whether it is the correct decision. We are not going to discuss these issues today, but instead focus on how vets discuss euthanasia with clients.
Terms for ‘Euthanasia’
As discussed above, euthanasia is the technical term for a vet ending a pet’s life. The word means exactly what it says and cannot be confused with another term. It is also directly translated into many other languages without confusion (German ‘euthanasie’, French ‘l’euthanasie’, Russian ‘evtanaziya’, and so on). This is its main advantage. Across many languages, fields and people, medical professionals will understand the term.
However, ‘euthanasia’ does carry some drawbacks. Firstly, not every pet owner or layman knows what euthanasia means. If we have to explain what the term means, we will use other phrases, which defeats the point entirely. Furthermore, it can sound very clinical and non-compassionate; which when dealing with upset owners may not be the best term to use.
Put to sleep
‘Put to sleep’ has become a little controversial in recent years. On the one hand, it is compassionate, implies a gentle send-off with no pain and certainly sounds less clinical than ‘euthanasia’. For many people, it may imply the gentle dying in their sleep that most people desire for their animals (and indeed themselves). It can be easier to discuss with children or people with learning difficulties; though the risks of miscommunication are higher here too.
However, there have been (anecdotal) reports of vets going to put an animal ‘to sleep’, coming back and the owner asking when they will wake up. Clearly, if true, communication in those anecdotes failed spectacularly. But it is easy to see how ‘put to sleep’ can be misconstrued; especially when we use similar phrases to refer to reversible anaesthesia. This is the big reason some vets avoid using this phrase. Context is, of course, critical (more on this later). For clarification it could be followed with ‘and he won’t wake up’, but plenty of vets still avoid it for fear of miscommunication.
Send over the rainbow bridge
This one is a bit of a marmite expression, depending on the vet and the pet owner. Not everyone even knows what it means. But for those that do, it sounds gentle, peaceful and a positive thing to be putting an animal through. Religious people especially may like this phrase, as the poems where the phrase originally came from were religious in nature and implied an afterlife for animals.
Criticisms of this phrase might be that not everyone understands what it means. And it can sound childlike and non-professional coming from a vet. It also does not really explain what will happen to the animal, requiring the vet to explain using less gentle terminology anyway. Non-religious people or those not of a faith where the phrase has meaning may also dislike this phrase.
We hope that this one is not on many vet’s phrase list. While simple and unable to be confused, it lacks any sympathy, compassion or kindness. It doesn’t treat the animal like a loved individual, and may not imply a peaceful death. Certainly, even vets who work with livestock may be reluctant to use this term, as it still can sound cruel in that setting as well. Farmers certainly care for their animals more than that. Outside of professional medical discussions, this phrase is unlikely to be heard.
End of life
This is a good middle-ground phrase that is unlikely to be misconstrued, doesn’t sound too clinical or too casual, and doesn’t imply suffering or a stressful death. It may be a good one to use with older children who can understand death.
‘Saying goodbye’ has the same issues as ‘put to sleep’ in that one can easily see an owner asking when they can see their animal again; not understanding the goodbye is permanent. Certainly, it can be a kind phrase. But the vet should always ensure the owner is certain of what is going to happen next.
In reality, (almost!) all of the above phrases are suitable for discussing euthanasia, and different vets will have a preference. Vets with the best communication skills may even tailor different phrases for particular situations and clients, such as ‘euthanasia’ or ‘end life’ when discussing with a human GP, or ‘say goodbye’ or ‘send over the rainbow bridge’ for a family with children. We feel this is the best approach to euthanasia.
While certain phrases like ‘put to sleep’ have their downsides and can be misunderstood, it should always be remembered that context is key. With no context, ‘put to sleep’ could mean many different things. With context, the phrasing should be clear – a good vet will be able to discuss euthanasia without any confusion. This can be done by utilising multiple phrases (“we are going to say goodbye to her now, and end her life.”), thoroughly explaining the procedure with the owner and emphasising that it will stop the animal’s heart thus killing them, and asking the owner if they understand.
Most practices will get the client to sign a consent form stating their animal will be euthanised. If possible, such as animals with chronic diseases, discussing euthanasia as a likely outcome well before the animal is ready for it can help the owner process the idea, and prevent euthanasia coming as a shock that could lead to miscommunication and heartbreak.
Having an animal euthanised is never an easy process, and it is our job to make this process as smooth as possible. Using certain phrases is one small but crucial step we take to make sure your pet has a dignified ‘good death’.