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Saying final goodbye to pets is tough

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — When the time came for Gayle Vassar's beloved yellow Lab, Tyrone, to die, it was at home, in his special spot, nestled between his two favorite people in the world.

"I could not have wished for anything better for this very good dog," Vassar said, swallowing back tears as she recalled the emotional day in June that she and her ailing 14-year-old dog sat beneath a tree in her Pleasant Hill, Calif., front yard along with his veterinarian.

The women petted Tyrone and the doctor gave him his first injection. He fell into a deep sleep.

"(The vet) just said to let her know when I was ready," Vassar said. "Then she gave him the other shot and he was gone."

For Tyrone, who was battling arthritis, bad knees and complications from a medical condition that made it difficult to swallow, it was as good a death as his owner could provide. Vassar, 53, believes that with the help of an understanding veterinarian, she was finally able to let Tyrone go.

Death is an inevitable part of pet ownership. And the decision to euthanize a sick, injured or elderly pet, says Walnut Creek, Calif., veterinarian Erin Troy, is usually an extremely difficult one. But whether it's in a pet's favorite spot, or at a doctor's office in an owner's loving arms, what matters is how those final hours are handled.

Sometimes owners want to be present, holding and comforting their pet, Troy said. She recalled a client who fed his golden retriever one last pork bun as he passed away. Others have brought toys, favorite treats and blankets.

Not everyone, however, makes that choice.

"Some people do not have the strength to watch the life leave a pet they've loved for all those years," Troy said. So she asks her clients to trust that their pet's final moments will be handled with dignity and respect.

But each passing is personal and particular to the pet.

"Trying to tell people to think with their head and not with their heart is asking a lot," Troy said about the advice she gives clients grappling with the question of euthanasia. "It's a decision best made with the help of someone who knows the pet but is a little more objective, like the veterinarian. You will know when the time is right when you look at your pet's eyes and you see that they're ready to go."

Sometimes the decision to euthanize must be made quickly, as was the case for El Sobrante, Calif., residents Lisa and Erik Hoffmann. They had to put their orange tabby Leon to sleep at a veterinarian's office in July after a sudden illness.

When the day came, the Hoffmanns did all they could to make sure he was comfortable.

"Leon used to carry this kitten, this stuffed animal, around," Lisa Hoffmann, 50, said. "He used to carry it around the house and cry. He was the craziest cat!"

But a few weeks ago, the Hoffmanns found their otherwise healthy feline behaving strangely. He was having difficulty walking. The diagnosis from the veterinarian was devastating. With their cat in severe distress after passing a kidney stone, the couple made the painful decision, with the advice of Leon's vet, to end their pets suffering and give him a comfortable end.

Not an easy choice

"We brought his baby — his stuffed kitty — to be with him and he had my husband's sweatshirt," she said. "We just wanted to make sure that he knew we were there and that we loved him."

Leon passed away in their arms.

Euthanasia is rarely an easy choice, especially for those for who find it contradicts spiritual or religious beliefs. And, for the fortunate, it's not always necessary.

The decision to allow her dog, Tuesday, to die without intervention was the best way Kelly Sumrall knew to let her cherished pet go.

The Martinez, Calif., resident said her 15-year-old mixed breed dog didn't appear to be in pain. She still had a spring in her step. And she was eating and enjoying certain aspects of her life.

But Sumrall said she instinctively knew that her elderly dog was ready to die.

"I was just going to let nature take its course with her," she said. "And I feel lucky that it did end up going that way.

Tuesday died June 15, of natural causes, on her pillow at home.

Letting go

Whether euthanasia takes place at home or in the doctor's office, there are many things owners can do to make their pet's death as comfortable as possible:

California holistic veterinarian Karen Rettig suggests trying over-the-counter flower essences like Rescue Remedy which can help calm both owners and pets.

Turn down lights, burn herbs like chamomile and lavender and maintain a peaceful atmosphere.

Tell your pet that it's OK to go so they know they have permission.

Come to terms with the euthanasia. Don't panic and worry because animals may mirror those feelings. "That's not the way you want them to go," says Walnut Creek veterinarian Erin Troy.

Consider where your animal is most comfortable and, if possible, have the euthanasia done there.

© Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)