by L.Vanessa Gruden in Paw Printz – January-February, 1996. It is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian!
Every couple months, I get phone calls from sad and desperate people asking, “When should I have my ferret put to sleep? How do I know when the right time is?” There’s no simple or easy answer for anyone. Often, its people I’ve previously spoken to at length while their pet battled an illness. We’ll already have gone through all the symptoms, all the treatments I’ve heard of, all the tricks to get them to eat. They’ve been back and forth to the vet, and frequently have consulted with a specialist as well.
The doctors have contributed their knowledge and done the best they can to treat the animal. And, eventually, it comes down to the last days, and our pet must say goodbye.
Is there ever a right time to lose a beloved friend? No, of course not, but death is a reality we all must face. In some ways our pets are luckier than we are, people must fight for the right to die in dignity and without pain. We’re free to release our pets from their pain without lawyers getting involved.
There may be people who believe it is wrong to end any creature’s life before nature does so herself. Maybe they’ve forgotten the cruelty of nature – would we condemn any one we loved to suffer the final stages of an illness without pain-killing medication because it was “unnatural?” Although there are now pharmaceutical companies researching medication for pets, they still cannot tell us how much it hurts and how much medicine is needed to dull the pain. I believe it is far kinder to our pet to take on the difficult burden of releasing them from suffering when it is necessary.
Please remember that I am discussing animals with terminal illnesses that are already nearing death. We have taken into the shelter ferrets that were left to be put down because they were “suffering.” Although these animals did have an illness, with medication and care they were in no discomfort and had many more months of happily pottering about. It is possible to want to put an animal to sleep way too early! However, I suspect these cases had less to do with the animal’s needs than they did with the owner’s selfishness.
Putting these issues aside, the question of the “right time” still remains. Everyone seems to agonize whether it may be too soon to let them pass on, and we are hampered by the understandable desire to put off this difficult task as long as possible and to keep our dear friend with us as long as possible.
Other than the unpleasant people noted above who really were having their animal put down too early, it’s very hard to say when “too soon” is. You know your animal best. Whether you realize it or not, you have learned to read his/her body language and expressions to know when they’re happy, bored, excited, upset, or simply tired. Over the time you’ve spent together, you’ve watched them grow older and slow down, and perhaps have seen them lethargic from a cold or other illness. Maybe one of your ferrets has had surgery in the past – think back to the groggy, clearly uncomfortable way they acted right afterwards. When an animal is terminally ill, that discomfort is not going to go away. It will become worse and worse.
If there has been a protracted illness, like some cancers, you should be aware of the probable unhappy ending and can look for the signs. Unfortunately, some illnesses, even cancers, can strike suddenly.
There may have been a barely noticeable drop in their health when they become rapidly very ill. Liver or kidney failure, brought on by old age or completely some underlying disease, is a common cause of death in elderly ferrets. With this type of health problem, you may only have a day or two left with your friend.
If your animal has insulinoma, extremely low blood sugar may cause them to go into convulsions. A convulsion is characterized by periodic convulsive twitching and screams lasting for a minute or two at a time. Contact a veterinarian immediately! Karo® syrup, molasses, Ensure®, Sustacal®, or a dose of their currently prescribed steroid may help raise the blood sugar and lessen the reactions. Animals more deeply in trouble may need Valium™, which a vet can administer. Do not delay bringing your animal to a vet! The longer the convulsions go on, the more brain damage will result. While the underlying illness will not go away, it is possible for an animal to recover from convulsions, as frightening as they are to see. Ferrets can also suffer convulsions from epilepsy and a vet familiar with the animal can advise what course of action to undertake until you can get to their office.
Your veterinarian is always a helpful guide. He or she can help you determine what the possibility of recovery is – if this may be a temporary setback or if all avenues of treatment have been tried and there is nothing more to be done. Some doctors are as reluctant as we are to give up and may try every last measure available. Ask what the chances are of a procedure being successful before submitting your pet to any more discomfort. Ask that they be honest with you, and be honest yourself. It’s no kindness to prolong your animal’s pain unless there is a good chance of recovery or significant improvement. If you must indeed face the worst, here are some things to look for that may help you determine when to let your ferret pass on.
Most people choose to keep their pet with them for the last days, if possible. You can probably keep a closer eye on them than the vet and it is less stressful for them to be in their own home during this time. Segregate them in a small area away from other ferrets (unless it seems to upset them); usually they want no part of others any more. We use an old baby bassinet, which is small, plastic-lined for easy cleaning, and high enough so they can’t fall out. A heating pad or heated lizard rock will help keep them warm and old, soft blankets or towels can be cut into 2′ squares, then thrown out when soiled. Be sure the heating unit doesn’t get too warm. You can try putting a low dish of food and water inside, as they may drink a bit, but be sure it is off to the side so they don’t fall into it. If you have children, this will be the time to sit them down and explain what is happening and let them say goodbye. Young children shouldn’t be allowed to run in and out petting the animal. Your ferret can’t enjoy it any longer; it will only be disturbing.
Most ferrets will begin to refuse food. This is different, again, from the temporary anorexia associated with the green virus, the flu, or other lesser illnesses. While force-feeding is necessary – sometimes for weeks – with those diseases, a terminally ill ferret should not be further stressed by forcing food. You can try for a day or so, but if they have a terminal illness, not eating is one of the signs they are ready to pass on. The muscles in their hindquarters weaken and they can barely stand on all legs and must crawl to their litter paper. (And many will! It’s amazing how even the very ill will try not to soil themselves or their bedding.) Being unable to get to their litter is another signal of the end coming.
Carefully observe and interpret your ferret’s movements and reactions. A healthy ferret enjoys being petted and responds positively to ear scritches, rib rubs, or back massages. Even an ill animal will show signs of comfort being held quietly in your lap. An extremely ill ferret will be unresponsive – will not pick up their head, or may even try to move away as if your touch was too tiring for them. If they can no longer even enjoy the basic pleasures that bind your pet to you, the quality of their life has severely deteriorated.
When death is rapidly approaching, you may find your ferret collapsed, taking deep breaths. Their body temperature will drop to 97 degrees or less. If they are moaning or wheezing with each breath, they are near to death. If they are comatose, with their back arched and their head stiffly pointing up, the muscle contractions prior to death have begun. There is nothing you or anyone can do to revive them at this point. Internal cancers like lymphosarcoma may grow to the point where the major organs just collapse, suddenly causing your pet to hemorrhage internally. Black, tarry poop is usually caused by blood in the stool (unless you’ve been feeding too many raisins!) and should always be carefully monitored.
However, a severe loss of blood, either eliminated or vomited, is irreversible. Bring your animal to a vet at once.
Your vet will be able to offer advice and counsel, but the decision to put your animal down must be made by you. It’s natural to hope for a miracle and put off what must be done. However, I can tell you from experience that I have regretted the times I waited until the ferret was obviously already half gone far more than the times I let them go a little earlier. In a terminal illness, the inevitable must be faced. It’s kinder to them to spare them suffering, and it will be easier for you to look back without self-recrimination.
There are a couple methods a veterinarian may use to put an animal to sleep. They administer a lethal dosage of pentobarbital sodium, which causes the heart to stop beating. If they are able to find a vein in the leg, the medication can be inserted into the bloodstream and will cause death within a very few moments without any pain. If the veins have collapsed, it may be necessary to inject it directly into the heart, making for a speedier, but possibly more uncomfortable end. An experienced ferret vet will have a better chance of finding the heart the first time, but be aware of the possibility that a second try may be necessary. If the animal is deeply comatose, it is unlikely they will feel anything in this instance.
You can always ask to be present. It is an extremely difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, and very personal decision. There have been studies that show comatose humans can sense their surroundings and hear people speaking. Your pet will at least inhale your comforting scent if you stay with them. Myself, I believe it is the last debt we owe our beloved friends, to be with them and ease their stress at the last moments. No matter how hard I personally find it, it is reassuring afterwards to know you gave as much comfort as possible to a pet that gave you so much love and laughter during its lifetime.
Don’t forget the furry friends your ferret may have had, particularly if he or she had a special buddy. This can be a very confusing and upsetting time for them, and we have seen case after case of ferrets that became severely depressed or only survived the loss of their friend by weeks or months. They will need extra attention now. I once read a recommendation that you allow the survivor to see their dead partner; they may show little interest in the body, but this may help them understand what has happened. Sometimes animals are more aware of things than we may realize and while it might sound odd, it can’t really hurt anything.
In our society, we use the ritual of a funeral, wake, memorials and flowers to structure our time after losing a loved one and keep us busy until we are able to better deal with the pain. Many people don’t realize how hard it can be to lose a pet and are unprepared, and other people may not understand your grief. It is entirely natural to be upset. We form close ties with pets; sometimes our animals have been with us for years, although it can be just as hard with one that has only been with us a short time. We can create our own ritual to ease this difficult time. We may bury our friend in a special place or donate to an animal charity in our pet’s honor, and many people place memorials in the newsletter.
I often recommend people adopt another ferret soon. This is not out of self-interest because I run a shelter! I honestly believe the most generous way to honor the memory of your pet is to take in
another who has been lost or abandoned. People who refuse to get another ferret after losing one are probably being selfish. In striving to avoid the pain of loss, they lose out on the real joy another one can bring into your life. You can never replace a ferret – each one is too individual and special. But you can translate all the hurt you’re feeling into love and give it to an animal that desperately needs it. In return, I can guarantee you’ll get more back than you ever could have expected. And when you meet your friends at the Rainbow Bridge, you’ll be greeted not only with thanks for all the care you gave them, but with their thanks for caring for others, too.