No pet owner wants to ever think about the day when their companion may have to be euthanized. In Maine it is legal to euthanize your pet at home by gunshot. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

It’s a decision pet lovers dread. That moment when the animal’s health or quality of life has reached a point that the best course of action is euthanization.

Ideally, that means taking your pet to your veterinarian, who has the skills, equipment and drugs to painlessly end your pet’s life. But if that option is not available, it is legal in Maine to euthanize a pet yourself.

Maine’s animal welfare statute has a provision under which an individual may end the life of a pet using the emergency method of a gunshot — under very specific conditions — according to one of the state’s top veterinarians.

“You either need to be the owner of the pet or give someone permission to shoot the pet,” said Dr. Rachael Fiske, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “The shooting must be performed by someone who is trained and highly skilled in the use of firearms and the ammunition must be an appropriate caliber and it causes instant death so it’s a one-shot deal.”

As distressing as this may sound to animal lovers, Fiske said when done properly and in accordance with state statute, it is a merciful and quick way to end an animal’s life.

A licensed veterinarian uses a lethal injection to euthanize a pet, according to Fiske. To do so the veterinarian must hold a valid United States Drug Enforcement Administration license.

Fiske, who possesses that license, injects a large dose of sodium pentobarbital into the animal. The drug quickly renders the pet unconscious and steadily slows its heart and brain functions until they cease altogether.

“I have witnessed livestock being shot and to be quite honest it’s quicker to euthanize an animal with a gunshot versus me injecting it with drugs,” Fiske said. “It can be up to a minute before I pronounce the animal dead and certainly a well-placed gunshot can be faster than that and when it’s done by someone with an understanding of animal anatomy and of guns, I consider it completely humane.”

At the same time, Fiske understands many people can’t handle shooting their beloved pet. It often comes down to a balance between what the owner is comfortable doing and what is best for that animal.

Reasons pet owners might face such a decision include owning an animal that suffered a serious traumatic injury, an illness that is impossible or too difficult to treat, and simple old age.

“The animal will tell you when it’s ready,” Fiske said. “I recommend making a list of the things that you know makes your pet happy and constitutes them having a good day.”

When the animal is unable or lacks interest in those things, it may be time to seriously evaluate its quality of life and consider euthanasia, she said.

Fiske said people may be forced to make a decision to euthanize their own pet by gunshot because they can’t afford the costs associated with a veterinary lethal injection or can’t get to the veterinarian. In such cases, there are other options.

“One of the things I would urge people to do is reach out to their town’s contracted animal shelter,” Fiske said. “Sometimes those shelters may be able to take that animal in as a surrender and have a licensed veterinarian on staff administer the lethal injection.”

The animal has to be surrendered, Fiske said, to avoid any legal ramifications that would come with a shelter euthanizing a pet that has an owner.

Fiske said there is no real way to know how prevalent the practice is in Maine, but added it is her impression that it’s not uncommon.

“From my time in private practice I know that the decision to euthanize a pet is the hardest part of the process. After that, everything else that comes with it has its own level of difficulty,” Fiske said. “Pets change our lives for the better and they are part of our families.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.