The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

Alex in the foreground, with Rusty and Andrew behind him—photo from 1993. Yes, they are in a bathtub.

Many years ago I lost Alexander, my dear, dear cat to stomach cancer. This was before veterinary medicine had the technology that’s available today. It was also before I took as proactive an approach to my animals’ health and welfare needs as I do now. I knew nothing about training or socialization. My cats were not crate- or carrier-trained. I didn’t know to use counterconditioning, desensitization, and habituation to teach them that the vet’s office could be a great place (or at least not an awful one). As a result, it was a struggle to take my cats to the vet and most were terrified there.

Alex was looking intently at me in every photo I ever took of him—1993

This came to a head with Alex. He had had a rough start in life. He was a runt of a neighborhood litter,  rejected by his mother, and he almost died of parasites. My friend and I bottle fed him and nursed him to health. He was a difficult cat for many years but we bonded very closely.

When he was eight years old, he started losing weight. I took him to the vet, who did blood work and could not identify a problem. He gave me pills to induce Alex to eat, something I now regret with some horror. It was an exhausting battle for both of us when I tried to get the pills down him. And after he did eat, digesting food probably caused him pain.  After a few months, as Alex lost more and more weight, the vet thought he felt nodules in Alex’s abdomen. This was before ultrasound equipment was commonly available at vet practices, or at least at this one, so this was through palpation only.  The vet thought he had localized kidney cancer and was hopeful that he could surgically remove it.

I remember, vividly and painfully, taking Alex to the vet for this surgery. He was petrified. I was required to take him at 8 AM. Then I left and waited and waited for a phone call. They didn’t operate until after noon. When the vet performed the surgery, he found that Alex was riddled with cancer. He called me and we agreed that there was no option but to euthanize Alex then and there. I was still in shock that I was losing this comparatively young cat, but another thing that I can still barely stand to think about was that he was terrified, in a steel cage in an unfamiliar place, for the last four hours of his life.

Things Have Improved

It is much more common now for people to work with their animals so that they won’t be scared of novel situations, handling, or the vet’s office. More and more people are learning husbandry techniques. There is now Fear Free Certification for veterinary professionals and trainers. And even many practices that don’t have the certification are practicing more techniques to keep the animals truly calm, rather than shut down.

There are countless things to prepare our dear pets for, with the goal of making these activities minimally stressful. One thing that many of our pets will eventually face is euthanasia. And when the time comes, we humans are not likely to be at our best.

I have a wonderful and brave friend who includes “euthanasia games” in her husbandry work with her dog. Getting her belly shaved, getting prepared for an injection or an IV insertion—all those steps we humans absolutely dread for our animals—can be predictors of great food and fun for a beloved pet. Just another game to her. And even if, at the end, the dog can’t or won’t take food, the activities will at least be familiar and have good associations.

In addition to this type of preparation, there are more and more options for at-home euthanasia, which is almost always less stressful.

Because of these factors, the odds of our pets’ end of life being low stress and pain-free have greatly improved. But there is one situation that is hard to prepare our animals for, and almost impossible to prepare ourselves for. That is if our pet must be euthanized on the operating table and have to undergo the waiting and prep for surgery without us. This may be during a routine surgery that turns up something awful and unexpected. It could be in the event of exploratory surgery, where something awful is expected. Or it could happen because of an unplanned emergency. I have been through the exploratory surgery situation with two beloved animals now.


My dog Summer was euthanized in August 2017 on the operating table after exploratory surgery unveiled hopelessly advanced hemangiosarcoma.  The vet and I had agreed to this plan beforehand. We would not revive Summer if the cancer were too advanced. (Some people make different choices about this. This is a deeply personal decision, and I respect all approaches.) The vet performed the surgery because of some hopeful signs on the ultrasound. But Summer had widespread cancer metastases.

Summer, just like Alex, spent her last waking hours waiting, without me, in a cage. I hope it was different for her because of the preparation I did do. I am thankful that every time I took Summer to the vet, I took her mat and some treats (unless she was fasting). I worked at making vet visits pleasant, with good associations. Some vets gave her treats, too. I did not do this methodically, though, and I wish I had. The vet I took her to most often was a large practice in a cramped space, and often fully booked, so we never went for practice or play visits.

Summer did have a few experiences of staying at the vet for a length of time. She had been spayed immediately after I adopted her, and also at age five she had had a bout of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, a life-threatening problem. She was hospitalized for several days. I treasure the video I took of her emerging when I came to get her to take her home.

I mention these experiences because they were times when I left her at the vet and she had to stay there for medical procedures and be kenneled and then I came and got her again. I hope that in her doggie brain, staying in a cage at the vet was enough of a familiar routine with a good outcome. But I wish I could have prepared her much more.

Leaving a Pet at the Vet: Can We Practice?

If my experience with my pets’ veterinary care is typical, some vets have a surgery list for their surgery day, but the order of surgeries can be fluid. I have always been asked to have my pet there fairly early in the morning, even if they end up having their surgery several hours later. I have not had the option of waiting with them, but I hope to have that option if there is a next time for this.

Perhaps some of you have a close enough relationship with your vet to be able to stay with your dog or cat as they wait for surgery. Or perhaps your vet schedules surgeries so your pet doesn’t have to be in limbo in a back room for long. I have not had those options. And I don’t think many of us can count on always having those options since we never know when we might have a medical emergency with our pet and end up seeing an ER vet we don’t know.

So after going through this exploratory surgery nightmare twice, it occurred to me that the animal waiting alone is just another husbandry task. As much negativity as there is about “sending our animals to the back room at the vet,” there always may be some times when they have to be without us for medical care. Can we prepare them for that?

Here are some ideas about getting your animal used to being handled without you being there. This presupposes that you trust your vet.

Clara “goes to the back” for dermatology procedures and handles it well
  • Go to a Fear-Free Certified veterinary practice. They will know techniques to help calm your pet and will be on board for any efforts you want to make to make things better for the animal. If you don’t have one locally, promote the program to the local veterinarians.
  • If the vet boards animals, and it’s affordable, pay for boarding every once in a while but do it for a very short period at first. Depending on the dog, this might mean starting at 5 minutes. Assume you will be paying for a day. Remember, it’s still work for vet staff to take your dog back to a kennel, load her in, and get her out for you, and you are reserving a space that could have accommodated another animal. If the practice offers a discount or lets you do it for free on a slow day, so much the better. But don’t expect or demand it.
  • If your dog is doing OK with the short “boarding” visits, take the option of dropping her off at the vet for them to work her in for an innocuous procedure—something they have done before and you have practiced with her. Anal check, ear check, an inoculation. I know, I know. I NEVER used to take the “drop them off and we’ll work her in” option. I hated the idea precisely because I didn’t want to leave my dogs in a noisy cage among strangers. But with some preparation, wouldn’t doing that every once in a while with a vet you trust be better than their first experience being when they are very ill and you may never see them again? Food for thought.
  • Stating the obvious, but crate train the dog. Get her used to all different kinds of crates, and take her and crate her in all different situations. Work up to noisy situations with dogs barking. Agility trials are good for this, but remember: that’s graduate school work. Your dog needs to be completely comfortable in a crate in general and in other challenging situations first. I always think of vet scenarios when people talk about not needing to crate train their dogs. You may be able to arrange your life at home so that you never crate your dog.  But…what about at the vet? From here on I will train any animal I have to be calm about confinement.
  • Ask your vet if there is a sedative that would be safe for your dog to take before surgery or other procedures. I talked to a veterinarian friend before making this suggestion. She said it could be an option in many cases. You may have to try it ahead of time to make sure it works as intended on your pet. Your vet can counsel you about this. I did this with two dogs: Cricket, and Clara, “practicing” under my vet’s instruction ahead of time with a sedative before they were to have a medical procedure. In Cricket’s case, the drug had a paradoxical effect, making her hyper and drunkenly wobbling all around. So we didn’t use it. In Clara’s case, the sedative had a calming effect, and she had some before she went in for a large set of X-rays.
Summer on a happy outing in 2010, a month after her hemorrhagic gastroenteritis

As a result of my experience with Summer (and dear Alex, all those years ago), I have started to take my dogs to the vet to get their anal glands expressed without me present. I did it for a blood draw once as well. I want them to learn that yes, sometimes they have to go with someone else and perhaps have something a bit unpleasant done, but then they will come back to me. I wait for them in the waiting room with the best goodie possible. Even though I trust my vet to treat my dogs humanely, carefully, and as fear-free as possible, I pay attention to the results. If the dogs are getting more sensitized, more afraid as a result of these experiences, they aren’t helping. Time to back up and do some less intense work at the vet as we are able.

I am going to do everything I can to be sure that my current and future animals are not terrified if they have to wait in a kennel for surgery. We don’t know if our dogs can think ahead in the way we do. But we do know that they learn that certain events predict others. It’s the basis of classical conditioning. And I want my dogs to know that a stay in the “back room” at the vet will be followed by returning to me and getting love. In this world or in my heart.

Related Posts

Both of these are on my dog dementia site.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

Thank you to my veterinarian friend with whom I discussed parts of this post. 

12 thoughts on “The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is on the Operating Table?

  1. I love your blog, because I really feel you get into some of the issues of pet ownership we often don’t (or don’t want to) consider. This post is a sad but wonderful reminder of the importance of cooperative care/husbandry training.

    My dog just had surgery a few weeks ago (thankfully planned, not emergency) and it was really hard dropping him off. I was so happy to hear from the vet tech after surgery that he’d not only done well with the procedure, but was also calm and happy in his crate—it made crate training feel so worth it, and definitely inspired me to work with my cats on getting them calm while confined too.

    I’m happy(?) that this surgery does require PT, so my dog gets to go to the vet weekly for fun exercises, tons of treats, and nothing scary. I hope it helps counter any post-surgery anxiety he has about the vet.

    1. Your response almost made me cry. What a wonderful gift to know that your dog was not upset as he waited. And thank you so much for sharing it here. So many of us aspire to that for our dogs.

      And yes, PT can be great. I too, little Zani for a visit with a rehab vet, and although we aren’t going to go for regular PT, just that one visit was so great for her. Lots of attention and treats, nothing ouchie.

      Thanks so much for your response. It made my day.

  2. My toy poodle, Poppy, recently had to stay for an hour at the vet’s without me. I delivered her with her own familiar crate, a pot of extra special chicken treats, and a note saying that her absolutely favourite things in life were chicken and back rubs. I left her with great trepidation, as she is a velcro dog who gets very stressed away from her familiar people. When I collected her she was pleased to see me, but also rather keen to get back around the back to see the nice lady who had cuddled her and fed her a whole pot of chicken treats…

    I had not considered the difference it might make come the worst – I was more thinking that as similar tests are going to be part of her future for (I hope) many years to come, it was especially needful to make it as happy an experience as possible. But it is good to know that the staff at my vet practice have the expertise and kindness to take the time needed to relax my anxious little dog. I hope we will not need to face the sort of visit you describe, but should that day come I will know my animals are in good hands. I don’t think I could bring myself to make a game of preparations for euthanasia though. I would break down and we would all get distressed.

    1. Isn’t that wonderful to know about Poppy! And your vet staff sound lovely.

      Yes, we all handle this differently. The “euth games” are not for everybody. And I think you’re right that there would be no point if the human were too distressed about the whole thing.

      Thank you so much for sharing about Poppy. Your story warms my heart.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. Such good information. I really appreciate it. We have some upcoming tests, and I want to implement your suggestions. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

  4. Oh, Eileen, this post hit close to home. I’ve only ever had one cat, Cocklebur, who fell into our lives when we were looking for a puppy (when I lugged him home, my husband said “wrong species!”, but we kept him for the next sixteen years). I left him at the vet for a simple procedure, and he had a heart attack as they were prepping him. I had not thought to put a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on him, so they (properly) did CPR and cardiac massage to try to bring him back. He would have gone peacefully, but may have experienced a ton of fear and pain in the last few seconds/minutes. Tons of regrets!

    So your point of discussing “what could go wrong” in advance with the vet is REALLY important. As is making the vet office and behind-the-scenes as normal as possible. Training for cooperative care/handling has been invaluable for Habi and Obi. And teaching the dog that it can be left at the vet and you WILL come back – I had never thought of that.

    Thank you so much for sharing these difficult experiences and sharing your learnings from them too. Taking on big topics like this and opening them up to “how can we make these tough things easier” helps me look at them from a new perspective.

    Here’s to many more happy and healthy years for Zani (glad to hear that she has recovered so well from the spinal shock!) and Clara!

    1. Oh Chris, I’m so sorry. But that’s a really good point, and it’s so good of you to share. I have NEVER thought about a DNR for an animal. Such a good idea, especially for an elderly or at-risk one. Thanks for writing (and sorry for my delay in seeing this comment!)

  5. Hey, Eileen. Do you think it’s worth it to try to desensitize an old dog, who’s possibly going a bit senile, to crates for the vet when she has significant trauma around them from early life? I don’t want her to be afraid if we have to leave her there when it’s her time, but we never crate-trained her specifically because we figured out that she was terrified of them and she didn’t need them for potty training reasons anyway. When we got her, she was eight months old, extremely neglected and malnourished, and had been crammed into a cat carrier and left at the overnight dropoff. She comes up to about my knee. She is not cat-sized. I don’t know anything about her early life, but she is the sweetest, calmest dog. What we’ve done so that she doesn’t have to be crated for things like grooming or boarding is to take her places that will allow her to be out or in a larger room while she’s waiting. She currently gets groomed by a lady across the street from us, for example, and when she needs somewhere to stay while we’re gone, she goes and stays with my dad’s friends. So, basically, management. My other dog is the one with the big fear problem, so we’ve been working with her on things, but I don’t want Suki to be scared if we have to leave her at the vet now that she’s getting older. We haven’t ever had to in my memory. I just don’t know what I can realistically do to make that easier on her. I’d love to have actual behaviorist help with her, but I can’t make that decision since it wouldn’t be my money and my parents probably wouldn’t think it was something we should do at all. Thanks for reading this novel.

    1. Hi there!
      What a sad beginning your dog had, and how lucky she is to have you now! You mentioned senile—if your dog has dementia she may not be able to learn enough to change her emotional response to the crate. But if she is OK in her brain, you could maybe take some baby steps. Desensitization and counterconditioning are powerful things, and if you start easy enough, she might make some progress. My dog Cricket didn’t have trauma attached (as far as I know) but she hated crates and would never willingly go in one. I took one apart and started with just the bottom tray and literally built it up from there. She ended up thinking crates were fine and would choose to sleep in a crate on her own frequently.

      But that being said, there are some things that are very hard to recover from. I would probably be looking at the list of other stuff I mentioned and other ways you could make things easier if she needs vet care or help at the end of her life. Good luck, and bless you for loving and caring for this sweet dog.

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