Euthanasia: Knowing When

As much as you try to extend your pet’s life through first-rate medical care, there comes a time when euthanasia is the most caring gift left to give your animal companion.

Approximately 70 percent of owners opt for euthanasia when the pet is suffering from an ailment that significantly compromises its quality of life.

Choosing euthanasia for your pet is an incredibly difficult and emotionally grueling decision to make, but it’s often more humane than letting your pet live with a poor quality of life or in pain. Many clients ask how likely it is for their pet to pass away on their own without the help of euthanasia and unfortunately this is less likely to occur than choosing euthanasia. This is because we choose euthanasia for our pets when their quality of life reduces and pain is unmanageable. If your pet is gravely ill or has been so severely injured that the prospect of recovery is slim, and euthanasia looks like the kindest option, then the next big question becomes how to tell when is the right time.

Can my veterinarian decide for me?

Your veterinarian can help you with the decision, but most vets will leave the choice of timing up to you. When my clients ask me, “How will I know when it’s time?” I always tell them that they will get cues from their pet, if they look their friend in the eyes and try to read what they are thinking. Most clients will innately know when it is time. If a client does not think it is time, then it usually isn’t.

Does this all sound like touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo to you? Maybe you’re looking for a hard-and-fast answer about when euthanasia is appropriate? Unfortunately, there is none — but there are parameters for assessing the quality of an animal’s life. If you’re worried that you won’t instinctively be able to figure out when the time is right, review the following inventory of questions to help you get a better sense.

Questions to ask yourself when considering euthanasia for your pet

1. Does your pet maintain his usual routine?

Does your pet maintain his usual routine – getting up, going outside, eating, sleeping, and playing, as it has throughout his life? Do you still get greeted at the door with a big, sloppy kiss hello? Animals are creatures of habit. When the daily routine is lost, consider that a sign that life just isn’t the same for your pet. Since this can happen in cases with cognitive decline (senility), it is important to have your veterinarian evaluate your pet to see if there are treatment options for the signs you are seeing.

2. Is your pet in pain?

If so, can the pain be treated with medication, or is there nothing that will resolve it? If the answer is the latter, then it might be more humane to end your pet’s suffering. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if a pet is in pain. I tell clients that pets don’t typically cry in pain but may show signs of not being able to move around freely, pant excessively or change their posture or show a decline in their appetite, to name just a few possible signs.

3. Is treatment available or does your pet’s condition require extraordinary levels of care?

Does your pet’s condition require extraordinary levels of care? Are they in discomfort and there is no treatment available?  If the treatment is extremely expensive, consider whether the discomfort or reduced quality of life will be treatable. Chronic and progressive diseases can be taxing, physically, emotionally and financially.

4. Who are you making this decision for?

Ultimately, the real question is whether you are keeping your pet alive for yourself or for the pet.

It is always difficult to make the decision to euthanize, but if your pet is suffering, unable to live the life he’s always lived, or requires a treatment regimen that is not only expensive, but also won’t resolve the disease, then a humane euthanasia may be the right choice.

For more information:

To learn about the actual procedure of euthanasia, read the VetCentric magazine article, “Euthanasia: What to Expect When Your Pet’s Time Has Come.”

“Letting go” can be a wrenching experience for pet owners. For information on pet grief counseling, read these VetCentric articles: “Dealing With the Death of a Pet, Part 1: Pet Cemetery” and “Dealing with the Death of a Pet, Part 2: Grief Counseling.” Both these articles contain links to pet grief counseling services.

Lisa Beagan

Lisa Beagan

Dr. Lisa Beagan is a 1995 graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. After working in an equine practice then a small animal clinic, she opened Mobile Pet Vet in 2003. Dr. Beagan has also completed a veterinary acupuncture certification through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society.

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