Pet Euthanasia and Deaf Owners; Love can build a bridge (part two)

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In support of part one, highlighting the importance of preplanning and good communication with members of the deaf community, this blog features information on how to choose the right drugs and how to describe death itself. There are simple ways to minimize stress for deaf owners who otherwise may be unclear exactly what their pet is doing during euthanasia. Veterinary professionals and shelter personnel can choose drugs that reduce active signs of death, and be prepared to describe the procedure as it unfolds. 

During the appointment (described in part one) with that sweet old dog, I found myself wishing I’d modified my drugs just a bit.  She took some very deep breaths during death and gave a mild body stretch, both of which are ok but add a layer of complexity.

An animal being euthanized often shows active signs of death. These include:

~ Agonal/reflexive breaths
~ Body stretching
~ Muscle fasciculations
~ Urination and/or defecation
~ Cessation of breathing and heart beats

Euthanasia drugs can be given in such a way to reduce active signs of death and ideally reduce worry from those observing, espeically those who cannot hear your descriptions of what’s happening.  The Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) advocates for the use of pre-euthanasia sedation or anesthesia before all euthanasia procedures. Anesthesia induces a state of unconsciousness that reduces active signs of death such as agonal breaths and body stretching and is preferred. These can look alarming to those who aren’t expecting them.  Awake patients or those under light to deep sedation may do these, so the use of anesthetic pre-euthanasia drugs like tiletamine, alfaxalone or propofol are advised to keep the body quieter/less active.  There is no guarantee the patient will not take deep breaths or stretch their body while anesthetized, but the likelihood is reduced.  Urination, defecation, and muscle fasciculations may still occur.  It’s best to just communicate this as normal to the owner. 

Following death, the body will cool in temperature.  Depending on how long the owners stay with the body, they may or may not notice the change.  The pet’s body will also firm or go into what’s called rigor mortis, and the eyes will appear to glaze over.  These alterations are normal and can be conveyed as such. Fluid from the nose, small toe or whisker twitches, and membrane discoloration also occurs.  As the changes develop during death or just after, personnel can indicate normalcy.

A physical connection to the pet during death may be helpful in recognizing the change, and the permanency of death itself.  Owners can lay their hands on the body to make this connection.  I also think it reasonable to invite them to lay their hand over the chest to feel the heart stop.  This may only be applicable if heart beats can be felt before death, thus being able to tell when the heart stops. Being in close proximity to the pet has always been important to my deaf clients over the years.  Sensing the moment death comes may be a welcomed additional experience.

Here are some terms veterinary professionals and shelter personnel may use during companion animal euthanasia when deaf owners are present.  They are general but hopefully comforting during emotional times like this. Remember to edit down what must be stated.  Keep things simple while taking deep breaths for a calmer setting.

Other words/phrases that are worth learning to better support deaf owners during euthanasia include:

~ Welcome
~ Glad you are here
~ Dog, cat, and other species names
~ Medicine and injection
~ Sleep
~ Privacy
~ Paw print

Pronouncing death is always a tender moment for everyone.  My body language and facial expressions are gentle and passive in nature. Indicating the heart has stopped is a somber moment and that should be felt by everyone in the room, even by those who cannot hear the words “His heart has stopped, and he has died.”  

In closing of this 2-part blog on supporting the deaf community during pet euthanasia, I’ll leave you with one of CAETA’s favorite sayings by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, noted grief expert from my home state of Colorado.  “Mouth closed. Ears open. Presence available.”  You can say so much without saying a word. Be present in the moment to listen to the non-verbal cues being given. Trust your heart and be the angel they need you to be.

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy

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