Euthanizing a pet can be traumatic. This vet helps foster understanding, safe space and closure

In 70 years, Marilyn Speers has never been without an animal, ever.

She’s had several pets in her life, but her favorite has to be Phoebe, her beloved and faithful companion of six years.

She was a “prima donna” says Marilyn, who lives in Millicent, South Australia.

“She could see beyond everyone. She comforted me”, says Marilyn.

After a lifetime of allergies and health issues, Marilyn had to make the very difficult decision to euthanize Phoebe two months ago.

“I knew it was time… She’d had enough.

She put three pets to sleep, but Phoebe was the first one Marilyn could be with when she took her last breath.

“I wanted to be with her, because I was the last she would see.”

“Those big chocolate eyes were so intense, they said, ‘I need to go to sleep, please let me sleep’. So we let her sleep,” says Marilyn.

“It’s a day I will never forget.”

Marilyn Speers with her other dog Bella.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

Marilyn’s early experiences with the loss of a pet were very different from her most recent loss.

As a child, she took her first dog, a cocker spaniel named Trixie, to the vet after finding a lump on her stomach.

She remembers being told it wasn’t worth saving.

“I came in with a dog and I left without her. And that was it. And it happened often,” says Marilyn.

“At the time there was no empathy: it’s an animal, it will fall asleep, pay the bill.

“[But] when it came to Phoebe, it was just amazing, really.”

Marilyn wants people to understand how important it is to lose “just a pet”, especially those who don’t have pets.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

Have time and space to say goodbye

Marilyn was able to say goodbye to Phoebe in a specially designed pet euthanasia room at her local veterinary clinic in Millicent.

This year, senior vet Sarah McGrath transformed one of the consultation rooms into a dedicated retreat with a separate entrance, for clients to say goodbye.

“It’s a really tough subject for a lot of people,” Sarah says.

“People can feel quite conflicted in their decisions because it’s a level of having to put someone else’s life in their hands.”

“So having a place where they can sit and feel calm and be able to reflect on the beautiful parts of the journey, rather than just thinking about what’s going to happen, has become a really big priority.”

Sarah McGrath is a Senior Veterinarian at a clinic in Millicent, South Australia.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

Once inside, customers are in no rush.

“Some kids will sit with me on the floor and we’ll talk about the animal before we say goodbye, and we might draw a picture on the bags or the packaging,” Sarah says.

Once the animals are asleep, they are wrapped in a fabric called a “forever wrap”, which is donated by a local sewing group in town.

A space for pet owners to say goodbye and mourn.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

Understand the process

A big part of the process is actually explaining euthanasia to the owners.

“A lot of people may be afraid of the unknown or have preconceived ideas about what might happen,” Sarah says.

“[It’s] a really, really peaceful process, there are certainly a lot of ways we can use to make sure it’s really, really peaceful.”

Veterinarians insert a catheter and a long tube into the animal’s leg, allowing the owner to be as close to them as possible.

When the animal dies, it can breathe deeply.

“Sometimes people think they’re still alive. It’s just the body letting go,” Sarah says.

Sarah also warns the owner that the animal may have other physical side effects during the process.

“They might have a wee or a poop or a fart, and we love talking about it with owners, and a lot of owners will laugh about it,” she says.

“It’s a time for them to humanize this moment, it’s okay, because our bodies are letting go.”

Pets usually die with their eyes open, which can also be surprising.

“They will slowly fall asleep and stop breathing,” Sarah says.

“Sometimes for old pets it can be a very quick process, or if their circulation is so bad it can be a slow process.”

“Traditionally people would associate their pets coming out of the vet with a black plastic bag, and that was so wrong to me,” Sarah says. Instead, owners’ pets are wrapped in cloth bearing their name.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

What happens afterwards?

Some people will choose cremation or home burial for their pet.

“Others don’t have that ability, so we’ll take care of finding them a final resting place,” Sarah says.

Some people like to spend more time with their pet when they get home.

“The animal’s body can be wrapped up, but its head can be pulled out if it wants to be petted or if the children want to spend more time with it,” Sarah explains.

“But then they don’t have this visual of bodily fluids that might be coming out of their body. It’s this practical stuff that is unfortunately part of the dying process.”

Some owners choose to keep their pet’s ashes in a memorial box.(ABC: Bec Whetham)

ask for sympathy

Marilyn’s Phoebe now rests in a friend’s out-of-town rose garden, her necklace, blanket and favorite bunny hidden in her scarf forever.

“I’ve only gone out to see Phoebe twice since she left, because it’s very difficult”, says Marilyn.

“It’s heartbreaking. It really tears your heart strings, it squeezes.”

She always wants people to mention Phoebe’s name.

“Because it’s comforting to think that other people are feeling what you’re feeling, or trying to feel. Especially if they haven’t had pets,” Marilyn says.

“Losing an animal is just as heartbreaking as losing a human friend, because you are caring for another life, that dog or animal is up to you.”

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