Training and fieldwork create a special bond between dog and owner. But our four-legged friends often find themselves in situations where they need our help. Our new Ask a Vet series delivers advice directly from a professional, working veterinarian. Have a question about your dog? Shoot an email to themeateater@themeateater.com and we’ll dig into the concern. 

If there’s any fault in our love of bird dogs and the strong bond we build with them through training and hunting, it’s that they just don’t live long enough. I’ve experienced the loss of a hunting dog from both sides of the examination room, and the recurrent theme, regardless of how many years you were lucky enough to share together, centers around feeling cheated out of more time with them.

Maybe you’ve watched that spark slowly dim as years of physical exertion took its toll on aging joints, or seen injury, trauma, or cancer dole out more stress than your fearless and loyal friend can overcome. At some point in your hunting dog’s life, you’ll be faced with a difficult decision about their final days.

If ever there existed a specific season for euthanasia, we’re in it right now. The holidays that span November through the beginning of January usher in a dark time for many of our clients, as they—often reluctantly—choose to let their bird dogs go. While the impetus may involve the cold weather and its impact on arthritic joints, I also suspect that the holidays provide enough free time at home that clients discover just how bad things have gotten with their aged pet and feel compelled to take action.

This time of year takes a toll on the emotional health of veterinarians as well, but I find comfort in helping owners show their beloved bird dogs one last act of kindness and mercy.

Euthanasia Explained
Years ago, I read an online article from an outdoors magazine about euthanasia in hunting dogs. What surprised me most was not the content of the story but rather the wide range of opinions and experiences surrounding euthanasia left in the comments section. Misconceptions, cautionary tales of horrible euthanasias gone awry, and ghastly DIY recommendations abound, some of which still haunt me today. In my experience, it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the spiel I give owners before the procedure, I explain in plain terms what we’re doing, and most importantly, what to expect from the process.

When you remove emotion from the equation, euthanasia is rather simple: The patient is administered an intentional overdose of an anesthetic agent, typically a barbiturate.

The procedure is minimally invasive and painless, aside from the placement of an IV catheter that ensures the solution reaches the heart as quickly as possible. Depending on the size of the dog, they usually lose consciousness within a few seconds. Death follows quickly thereafter, in most instances in less time than it takes for me to reach my stethoscope to confirm.

Death in any species can be messy and unpredictable, even during euthanasia. Despite my best efforts to help your pet gently slip into a peaceful, eternal sleep, there are some aspects of the process that remain beyond my control.

Occasionally, some of the dogs who are anxious and vocal in life will involuntarily vocalize after death, which understandably distresses owners. In situations where I suspect this will happen, I often recommend a sedative prior to the euthanasia, although I’ll admit that I’ve yet to piece together a cocktail that prevents this from happening in all instances.

Those same postmortem gasps you’ve heard from the deer you’ve killed can occur in our pets, too. I try hard to inform owners ahead of time that these involuntary contractions of the diaphragm happen on occasion. While these contractions resemble breaths and can be disturbing if you’re not prepared, they indicate your pet has already safely and peacefully passed.

Most veterinary practices have upped their game in terms of the bedside manner regarding euthanasia. We strive to provide clients with a peaceful environment (often in a special room), where your family and your bird dog can say goodbye. If coming to the clinic is a limiting factor for you, many veterinarians will make house calls so your bird dog’s last moments are spent in a familiar environment.

Euthanasia Deciding Factors
The most difficult question I field as a veterinarian usually involves some version of: “If it was your dog, what would you do?” Understand that our individual preferences and perspectives can vary as much as our personalities, and it’s nearly impossible for me to make a decision entirely from your point of view.

My role is to provide you with as much information as I can to help you make an informed decision during what is likely an emotionally-charged time. The oath I took as a veterinarian also obligates me to limit pain and suffering in your dog—a task which, in many circumstances, includes helping owners recognize when these things are happening.

Our fear of losing a beloved hunting companion creates an additional emotional obstacle when trying to decide if it’s time. Bird dogs can be exceptionally stoic in the face of incredible pain, and their tails can wag even when their bodies can do little else.

An old vet gave me this advice years ago, and I found his recommendation (while a little prickly in its delivery) a reasonable litmus test for deciding when to put your bird dog down.

First, is your dog still being a dog? Does your bird dog still engage in normal dog behaviors, including exploring, sniffing, marking, or barking? A zest for living comes standard in the hunting dog, and when that joie de vivre fades, I start thinking about letting them go.

Secondly, do you still bring your bird dog joy? Does the dog do the same for you? The human-animal bond is a two-way street that requires contributions from both you and your bird dog to maintain. Often, the signs are clear to the veterinarian that the dog is throwing in the towel, and owner denial can be the biggest hurdle to alleviating suffering in some of my patients. We owe it to our dogs, who have devoted their lives to working for us, to answer honestly whether we’re letting them hang on for their own benefit, or rather, for ours.

Euthanasia performed by a veterinarian, while not a perfect solution, can end pain and suffering and spare you and your family the lasting trauma of watching an agonizing death. While I hope to be so lucky in my final moments of life, I can assure you that natural deaths are rarely benign. In a perfect world, our bird dogs would pass painlessly in their sleep, with sweet dreams of chasing one last rooster interrupted quickly and uneventfully.