Time to say goodbye to your small pet
Like any other pet, you'll have a unique bond with your rabbit, hamster, rat or other small pet. And just like other pets, saying goodbye can be a difficult.
Some small pets, like hamsters, mice, gerbils and rats, will only live a few years. Others, like rabbits and chinchillas, can live for much longer. However, as they get older, you might have to think about euthanasia (putting your pet to sleep) if they are unwell or suffering.
When is the right time to say goodbye to my small pet?
Small pets can find it hard to tell us when they're struggling or in pain. So it's important to speak with your vet about whether putting your pet to sleep is the kindest decision.
If your small pet is unwell, euthanasia is often used to end their suffering if:
- they have an inoperable or untreatable condition
- treatment is not working as well as the vet might like and recovery is unlikely
- treatment may be possible, but it may be kinder to let them go to prevent suffering
You may also want to talk to family or loved ones about the decision to get their thoughts.
There can be lots of variation between different species of small pet, so always speak to your vet about your pet's specific needs and situation.
Pain, old age and illness in small pets
Like all animals, small pets will slow down as they age and can often develop health conditions like arthritis. Although some of these conditions can be managed, there might come a time when treatment could cause too much stress and suffering for your pet.
Illness in small animals can also develop very quickly – they can look well one day and be very unwell the next. In the wild, many small animals are at risk from predators. This means they tend to hide early symptoms of illnesses and are often extremely ill by the time you see any symptoms.
They also have very fast metabolisms (their bodies 'work' at a high speed) so many illnesses worsen quickly. Sometimes they can be so ill that a decision for euthanasia is made before a diagnosis can be reached.
Symptoms of illness in small pets
Signs that your pet might be in pain or unwell can include:
- signs of pain, distress or discomfort (eg shaking or flinching)
- changes in thirst
- lumps, masses or tumours
- difficulty breathing
- not eating or drinking
- not being active
- not grooming themselves properly
- change in behaviour (eg avoiding physical contact)
- change in toilet habits (not going as frequently as normal)
- incontinence (weeing or messing on the floor where they wouldn't usually)
- losing fur, struggling to groom or wounds
If you are worried about your pet's health you should speak to your vet as treatment might be needed urgently. Your vet will help you decide the next steps to help your pet.
When you visit the vet, you'll hear them talking about your pet's 'quality of life'. This is a term they use to understand how much your pet is able to enjoy their life without pain or suffering. If your pet's quality of life is low and unlikely to improve, your vet may recommend that they're put to sleep.
My pet is not moving. Are they hibernating?
It's rare for pets to hibernate, especially if they have enough bedding to keep warm. Hamsters, for example, will only try and hibernate if the temperature stays below 10 degrees celsius inside, and pet rabbits rarely hibernate.
Speak to your vet straight away if you're worried that your pet is not as active as usual as they may be unwell and need urgent treatment.
What if my pet dies suddenly?
Sadly, small pets can pass away suddenly without warning. In life we don't always know what is around the corner, and a sudden or unexpected loss can leave us feeling guilty, shocked and struggling to cope. Remember that you did all you could for your small pet.
It can help to focus on the special bond you had with your pet and speak to your friends and family about your loss. Our team of trained professionals are also here to help you through if you want to speak to someone confidentially.
How should I prepare for my pet being put to sleep?
Once you've made the decision, it can take its toll emotionally. To help you through what can be a difficult time you may want to consider:
- taking some time off work to process what's happened
- explaining the situation to the vet receptionist when you make the appointment – you can often choose a quiet time for your visit to the surgery
- taking a friend or family member with you for support
What happens during euthanasia in small pets?
Some of the events described below may be difficult, but remember that your pet quickly loses consciousness and cannot feel pain from that point onwards.
Before your pet is put to sleep, your vet will usually ask you to sign a consent form. They will then give you an opportunity to say goodbye to your pet. After this, they will begin the process of euthanasia.
- Your pet may be given a sedation injection or anaesthetic gas, which will send them to sleep so they don’t feel any pain. The vet will let you know if this is best for your pet’s individual situation and whether you can stay with them for the procedure.
- An injection will be given to your pet which will slow down and stop their heart
- Your pet will fall unconscious within a few minutes
- Death occurs within a couple of minutes when the heart stops beating. It may take a little longer if your animal is very ill or has poor circulation.
- You may see some twitching or hear gasps of air. These are not signs of life; they are reflexes that naturally occur when a small pet passes away.
- The eyes usually stay open and the bladder sometimes empties
Can I stay with my pet during euthanasia?
Sadly, it isn’t always possible to be with your small pet when they are put to sleep, especially as some of the medications used during the euthanasia process can be dangerous to people. Talk to your vet about the options available for your pet as they will be able to let you know the kindest way to help your pet pass on.
If you’re not able to be with your pet, many owners find it comforting to know that the vets and vet nurses will do everything they can to look after your pet in their final moments. You can also ask to spend some time with your pet to say your last goodbye once they’ve gone.
What happens after euthanasia?
After your pet has been put to sleep, you will be asked what you would like to do with their body.
You can choose between:
- cremation – usually your pet will be cremated alongside other pets and their ashes will be scattered at the crematorium. You can arrange for your pet’s individual ashes to be returned, although this may be expensive.
- burial – there are pet cemeteries which vets usually have details on or you can take their body home to bury them. Though be sure to speak with your vet as there are some rules that you will need to know about where you are legally allowed to bury them.
If you are undecided, then vets can usually store the body while you consider your options.
How can I support my children through pet loss?
For children it can be especially upsetting as it may be their first experience of death. Children need support even if they are not outwardly upset. Talk to them honestly about what is happening and, as far as possible, involve them in the decision making.
More on children and pet loss.
Is it normal to feel upset?
It's entirely natural to feel upset when a pet dies and it can take time to get back to a sense of 'normal'. After all, your small pet is a beloved family member. The first thing is not to feel embarrassed about showing your emotions – vets expect you to be upset. Everyone will react differently but it's common to feel a mixture of:
Though it's natural, try not to feel guilty or blame yourself – the decision for euthanasia is taken with your pet's best interests at heart to avoid them suffering.
Some people find themselves questioning whether they did the right thing. It's normal to feel some doubt, and this will ease in time.
What if no one understands?
Sometimes family, friends and work colleagues who have not experienced a special relationship with a small pet may not understand what you're going through. Or they might not think losing a small pet is as devastating as losing a cat or dog.
Our team knows that your relationship with your small pet can be just as important as larger pets. If you would like to talk to someone, our Pet Bereavement Support Service is here seven days a week with trained volunteers who have experienced the death of a pet themselves.
What can I do to remember my pet?
There are lots of things you can do to help remember your pet. You could:
- ask the vet if you can keep a lock of hair – don't be embarrassed, vets actually get this one quite a lot
- perform a ceremony, like a funeral, with all those who loved your pet
- create a pet memorial
- make a scrapbook of memories
- set up a little shrine in the corner of a room with a photo of them and a candle
- write a goodbye letter and bury it with them
- write a poem or short story talking about your life with them
- sharing your loss with others who have been through it
- becoming a volunteer and helping others through their pet loss
Will my other pets feel loss?
Like humans, pets also show signs that could be interpreted as grief. When an owner or fellow pet passes away, pets can show a range of behaviours from crying or searching, to a loss in appetite.
Find out how pets cope with loss.
Should I get another small pet?
Many small pets, like guinea pigs, need a friend of their own species for company. Sadly, if they don't, they can get very lonely and can even develop health issues. In this situation, getting a new small pet of the same species is important to help your remaining pet cope.
When you’re considering finding a companion for your remaining pet, you might want to consider rehoming a pet of a similar age. Often pets will need to be introduced slowly so they can bond and live together happily.
If the pet that you’ve lost didn’t need any companions of their species, you may start to think about getting another small pet. If you’re thinking of getting a different species, you’ll need to make sure you find out about their needs before you make your decision. Even if you get a new pet of the same species, no two small pets are the same and you may find your new pet is very different to the one that you’ve lost. But as you get to know and care for them, you’re sure to form a rewarding and loving bond with your new pet and enjoy them for their individual personality.
How we can help
Sometimes it helps to share your feelings with someone who knows from personal experience how distressing the loss of a pet can be, and who will listen with compassion and without judgement.