Is cat euthanasia ALWAYS painless?

We, the cat owning public, are told that cat euthanasia is always painless. It is guaranteed. It is a humane way to say goodbye to your cat. But is it always humane and painless? When you dig around a bit you come up with the answer NO. One veterinarian, Paul, confidently states on their website that “most vets are not doing euthanasia properly”. Note: I am not a vet. This article is based on careful and thoughtful online research from veterinary websites.

Convenience euthanasia
IV catheter to carry the barbiturate anesthetic
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The problem starts with injecting a barbiturate anaesthetic into the cat. Barbiturates cause extreme irritation to tissues he says and therefore if the injection is carried out incorrectly or it goes wrong it can cause “immense pain”. Apparently sometimes the vein can rupture. If the pain is not ‘immense’ there will be pain under these circumstances. That’s the first problem.

IV Catheter – tricky

For this reason, he says that most good vets inject the anaesthetic via an IV catheter. In this instance, a catheter is a tube which is placed into the vein of a cat. It is a secure entry point for the drug to be given to the cat but the problem here is that it can be fiddly to place the catheter in the cat causing the cat to struggle sometimes. More distress.

This means that the veterinary nurse usually holds the pet while the catheter is being introduced. This is distressing to see if the cat’s owner is in the room at the time. Therefore, they take the pet out back to be catheterized. They then bring the cat back into the consultation room for the final injection with the customer present if they want to be there. As a cat owner that’d worry me. I have not experienced it.

Paul also says that when the barbiturate injection is applied properly there is no evidence that it is painful. But he adds that with the single injection method he has seen dogs and cats open their eyes wide and tense up. Sometimes they vocalise and appear to resist. This indicates discomfort and pain.

Three-stage process

He has a three-stage technique to ensure that the entire process is painless. He remarks that 99% of veterinarians still use the single injection method which can cause pain and discomfort. This is the three-stage technique:

  1. Initially the cat is given a small injection under the skin to sedate her and for pain relief.
  2. The second injection then administers the general anaesthetic. The cat is then totally unconscious.
  3. Only then is the cat given the final barbiturate anaesthetic injection.

This totally avoids any discomfort or pain that they final injection can cause.

The AVMA (vets’ governing body) in America says that the procedure does not cause any pain, distress, anxiety or apprehension. The barbiturate, sodium pentobarbital, acts rapidly and reliably. Cornell say that some vets may give the patient a mild sedative prior to the lethal injection. This reflects what Paul states above.

It would appear that very few veterinarians use the three-stage process. They most probably use the two-stage process which is to relax and sedate the pet first and then administer the lethal drug via a catheter. The catheter is not always used on my research. But there are no statistics that I can find on the usage of catheters available online, even on Google Scholar.

Sodium pentobarbital

Nothing in my research indicated that sodium pentobarbital causes discomfort or pain when it enters the cat or dog’s body.

Conclusion

My conclusion is that cats and dogs might occasionally feel pain during the euthanization process. There are no statistics available online so we don’t have percentages. We cannot, however, presume that cats and dogs don’t feel pain in these last moments of their lives.

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