Between a rock and a hard place…(or, when you have to perform euthanasia of a pet in a survival or disaster environment)

A few weeks ago a patient sat before me, quietly tearful. Like so many others, she was embarrassed to say that her cat’s illness was the cause of her distress. Putting a pet to “sleep” – a kind euphamism for euthanasia – is deeply upsetting for many.

This got me to thinking: if no vet were around, how would this task be accomplished (without a bullet or a hammer)? Even as a doctor I’ve never undertaken the procedure, so I asked one of our professionals, a practicing veterinarian, how he would go about it. He kindly provided the following answer. Thanks, Dwight. – Doc Cindy

* * *

One of the unfortunate procedures that may need to be performed during a disaster is euthanasia of a pet. In the veterinary medical world this is rather efficiently and humanely performed by the intravenous injection of a solution containing concentrated sodium pentobarbital and phenytoin.  This is usually dosed at 1 cc per 10 lbs body weight plus an additional 1cc. 

This commercial solution or any barbiturates will likely be unavailable in a disaster, hence one may need to resort to other means of euthanasia.  Some folks would opt for a small caliber round (.22 cal) appropriately placed at ~1 cm above the intersection of lines drawn between the left poll of the head to the medial canthus of the right eye and right poll of the head and the medial canthus of the left  eye.  For those who find this means too violent I will offer another alternative. 

One of the simple, but useful pieces of equipment that should be in every disaster bag is a medium bore (i.e. 20, 18, 16 or 14 gauge) hypodermic needle. This can be used to suture (as a substitute for suture needle and needle holder) to close a wound by placing the tip of the needle on one outer edge of a laceration or incision and pushing it through the other side; then pass the suture material (or facsimile) through the needle, remove the needle and tie the suture. The other thing the needle can be used for is to exsanguinate the pet by placing the needle in the jugular vein or carotid artery and allowing for a slow, comatose-creating, more humane passing.  This can be messy, but the end result is satisfactory and non-violent. In the early days of veterinary medicine, veterinarians used to use a technique called “bleeding” to remove the “vile humors” from the body (Hippocrates) of horses to treat a variety of illnesses. Thankfully we have progressed dramatically since those times.  

Some folks have suggested an air embolus be introduced into a major vessel, but those produce significant amounts of pain as they occlude the vessels of the heart and lungs, so that’s not recommended. 

T-61 is also a commercial,  euthanasia solution which is not a controlled substance that veterinarians can acquire for you and could be kept in a “go bag” if you have pets, so that you can deal with this kind of eventuality, should it be necessary. 

I wish there was an upbeat manner to discuss this process, but humanely taking any life is not for the faint of heart. I honestly hope you never have to use this information.

Copyright © 2011 Dwight E. Cochran, D.V.M., VCA Apex Animal Hospital, Apex, NC

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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4 Responses to Between a rock and a hard place…(or, when you have to perform euthanasia of a pet in a survival or disaster environment)

  1. martha says:

    Dear, dear Doctor Cindy

    I have agonized over this matter for YEARS! I have tried to broach the topic with my vet, but in my fear I guess I was too obscure and the question was passed off without answer.

    I wish the vet was more clear about the placement of the bullet, he’s given medical jargon I can’t follow. The idea of inducing a slow or rapid bleed with a needle is awful, unless the pet were on death’s doorstep already. I might try to get some of that medication, must put that on my to-do list.

    Maybe car exhaust would be easier, or shooting. It’s all awful to think of. The only consolation is that the God who gave these creatures their tender loving nature must surely be a tender loving Father who will not deny them admittance into His heavenly Kingdom.

    Could we get some clarity on the placement of the bullet? Surely shooting between the ears from the back would suffice.

    Thank you for broaching this topic!!! It is a tremendous relief to have someone deal with this agonizing secret dreaded fear I’ve carried for so many years.


  2. Mike S says:

    I don’t know how often I have thought about sleeping my two pets. They are small dogs and if I have to get out of Dodge on foot, there is no way we could take the dogs with us. Our short term plan would be to get in the Ford and pull a trailer. If at some point we had to abandon our first plan, I would rig an exhaust hose to the trailer and euthanize the dogs that way. I would have everyone get into the car until the deed is done and then bury our buddies. I doubt very seriously that I could shoot either one of them unless we were all under threat from raiders and needed to get the deed done faster. But one never knows for sure.

  3. DrJohn says:

    Thank you for your timely piece. We recently had to put our dog down, and we were on vacation. Brownie had a UTI then became septic and renal failure, etc.
    We called the vet, and she patched us in to Brownie and we said our goodbyes. It was very tough, but I found comfort in the Scripture. It seems that God, who sees each sparrow fall, will have compassion on our pets.

    Like you, I recently saw a patient who had recently lost her cat. We showed each other phone photos of our cats, and I reassured her as much as possible. We don’t know the mind of God.
    I still miss my dog.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Thank you for the information! I do hope I never need to use it, but it is good information to know.

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