Saying Goodbye: The Right Time to Euthanize Your Pet
One of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make is deciding to euthanize your dog or cat. Just how do you know that the right time to euthanize your pet is now? Of course we don't want make the decision too early but far worse would be to leave our pet's suffering too long. Delaying any decision for our benefit, having our beloved pet in our lives for longer, rather than it being in their best interest.
It is a fact of life that unfortunately our beloved pets very rarely pass away peacefully in their sleep without having been suffering from a serious illness for some time. This means as owners we are likely to be put in the difficult position of deciding when the right time is to euthanize, or "put to sleep", our cat or dog.
Our pets quality of life is paramount and the moment this starts to slip we need to strongly consider what is best for our individual pet. It can be very difficult to know when the right time is and ultimately every animal is different so there are no definite rules.
There are however a number of questions we can consider to help give us a better idea of our pets quality of life. And so decide if they are doing well or suffering. Helping guide the realization that now might be the right time to euthanize your pet or not.
Are they in pain?
Is your dog or cat in any pain? Are they on pain killing medication and if so how well is this controlling the pain? Being in constant pain is a terrible situation to be in. It may well be that currently your pet is pretty comfortable with whatever medications and management strategies that you have put in place but we must be mindful of the fact that any chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis, only tend to get worse with time.
It may be that additional treatment is available but if reasonable pain is a constant feature with no realistic potential for improvement then we must consider if it is fair to put our pet through this.
Is your pet eating?
For many people, if their dog or cat is eating we consider that they must be reasonably happy and comfortable. This is not always the case so I would caution you against using your pets appetite as the only judge of whether your pet is OK or not.
That being said you can consider if they are eating well or not. Instead do they need encouragement? What about hand feeding or are you actually having to syringe food into your pets mouth or through a feeding tube?
If a reduced appetite is the only issue then these tips can help get your pet eating more.
Is your pet drinking AND well hydrated?
Couple with eating well, often an animal felt to be drinking well is felt to be a good thing. In fact the opposite can be true as many illnesses can actually cause a big increase in the amount your pet drinks. These include kidney failure, diabetes, hormone abnormalities and many more.
Instead we should consider if they are able to remain hydrated or not. If they are becoming dehydrated either despite drinking lots or because they have stopped drinking then it is imperative we act quickly. Dehydration is likely present if your pets gums are dry or if their skin stays standing in a tent after being pulled away from the body. This intervention might be to start other management strategies to get your pet to drink more, change treatment strategies or it might be to decide that the time has come to say goodbye.
Is your pet able to keep clean and toilet appropriately?
Is your pet incontinent? This in itself might not be too much of an issue if you are able to deal with the mess produced. If they are not able to be kept clean or if they end up lying in their waste for long periods they are likely to be suffering. They may develop skin sores or matting. They are more likely to develop urinary infections and other complications.
Does your pet seem happy?
This question is much more subjective. You know your pet the best. Do you think they are happy? Are they interested in what is going on around them. Do they still look forward to meal time or going for a walk? Do they enjoy interacting with the family and other pets in the house?
Instead do they seem stressed, bored, scared or lonely? Are they even aggressive? Our pets are capable of feeling all of these emotions and they should not be ignored. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for your vet to know if your pet if feeling any of these emotions so go with your gut feeling here. What meed is your pet in the majority of the time?
Is your pet mobile?
Can your pet stand up by themselves? how well do they move? Can they still run or does every step look like a struggle? Do they regularly stumble or fall over? If they need help are you able to provide this for them as often as needed? It can be very difficult to help a large breed dog who is unable to get up by themselves or can't climb the front steps to get back into the house.
Pain clearly might be a factor here but there are other conditions that can also cause mobility problems that are not in themselves painful.
Any other concerns?
Do you have any other concerns about your dog or cat? Are they breathing easily? Have they started having seizures or vomiting on a regular basis?
Are there more good days or bad days?
Answering all of these questions gives us a snapshot as to how our pets are feeling and what their quality of life is at that particular moment. Clearly this will change over time. Some days they might be better and some days they might be worse.
If the number of bad days outweigh the number of good then euthanasia may very well be the best decision you can make for your pet.
What disease or health concerns does your pet have?
This is also an important consideration. If your pet has a long standing disease that is never going to be cured (such as kidney failure or arthritis), and their quality of life is slowly getting worse despite all of the treatment options available to them being implemented then we need to be realistic. Your pet is only going to continue to get worse.
I know that many pet owners I have spoken to have serious regrets about holding onto their pet for too long and when they look back they wish they had made the decision to end their suffering sooner than they did.
If your pet is suffering from a condition that can potentially be cured or greatly improved (such as a serious infection or traumatic event) then it may be more acceptable to monitor for improvement in the short term even if your pets quality of life is currently compromised.
There are a lot of questions here which just highlights how difficult it can be to know if the time is right to euthanase your cat or dog. Your vet will clearly try and help guide and help you in this decision but ultimately it is up to you to make the final call.
If all of the above has only made you more confused then I have 3 simple statements that might just help:
It's better to euthanize a week too early than a day to late
If you are thinking that it might be time to say goodbye then very often it is. There is clearly something significant going on that is making you think seriously about it.
Euthanasia may be the last final act of kindness you can show a sick pet by ending their suffering.
Looking after a sick pet and making these decisions can also be hugely detrimental to YOUR health. I've got a separate article that might help, all about helping you cope looking after with a sick pet.
So you've made the decision, what happens next. Clearly this can be discussed with your veterinarian ahead of time. It may be possible for them to visit your pet at home so they don't have the stress of a car journey or busy clinic. It may be that you can schedule an appointment for a quieter time of day. Can you pay the day before or after so you don't have to think about this at the time when you will clearly be stressed and upset? Also you will need to think about whether you want to take your pet home with you afterwards or maybe you feel that cremation is something you'd like for your pet.
It's far better to make these decisions ahead of time rather than rush into anything at the time of euthanasia.
The procedure itself is generally very quick. It involves injecting a large overdose of an anesthetic agent into a vein in the leg. If your pet is nervous or very uncomfortable they may be given a sedative injection first to help them relax. They may also first have a catheter placed into their vein to ensure the injection itself is felt as little as possible.
If you are anxious about the euthanasia procedure, again ask how your veterinarian will perform the euthanasia ahead of time. The whole procedure will also likely be explained to you at the time before it is carried out.
Once given, the euthanasia drug acts very quickly, with your pet first falling into a deep sleep before the heat stops beating. Once the heart has stopped beating and your pet has passed a number of things can happen. They may take some big gasps, they may loose control of their bowels and they may stretch or twitch a little. This is the body letting go and is not a sign that your pet is still alive or in any form of distress.
Many people feel guilt after making the decision to euthanase their companion. You may feel anger at having been unable to help them get better. In fact we grieve for our pets in the same way we deal with the loss of any family member or friend. Going through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
You should also never feel ashamed or embarrassed about grieving for their loss, our pets are after all an integral part of our family. If you are struggling with the loss of your dog or cat then reach out to your vet team, friends, family or seek professional help. That extra support can be vital for helping us deal with the loss of a beloved family member.
I hope this helps answer the questions you had. Remember that the quality of life of your pet should guide all of our decisions about treatment or otherwise. Do what you feel is best for them and you wont go wrong.
Take care of yourself and your pet