A veterinarian’s insight on the most difficult question of a pet owner’s life.
Pets make our lives so much better. Whether you prefer to surround yourself with cats and dogs, horses and cattle, or rabbits and reptiles. I think we can all agree that they provide something we often didn’t even know we were missing.
Our pets stay by our sides through all of the ups and downs that we experience. They will celebrate your greatest accomplishments and console you after your greatest failures. So, it’s fitting that we should be there for their ups and downs as well.
We have the blessing of owning pets, but the curse of inevitably outliving them. We’re along for the journey as they grow from puppy (or kitten, or kit, or egg depending…) to adults. We see them in sickness and in health, and we strive to provide the best possible life to them.
However, there comes a time in many pet’s lives where a medical illness becomes too much to bear. It is at times like these where we must ask ourselves one of the most difficult and unanswered questions of all, “How do I know when it’s time? — Time to say goodbye to my hiking partner, my snuggle buddy, my best friend?”
The short answer is that there is no right answer. No ‘right’ time will apply across all situations. However, the longer answer includes some techniques that can help decide when the time has truly come.
First, we should define our purpose. The goal of caring for severely ill or debilitated patients is to preserve their quality of life as long as possible until we have passed a point of no return. This is when we must begin the discussion about humane euthanasia. The primary purpose of euthanasia, as it relates to our pets, is to alleviate animal suffering.
The difficulty arises predominantly in assessing the quality of life in patients that can’t communicate directly with us. Furthermore, animals are often excellent at hiding pain, and they frequently do not feel the same day in and day out. So, they may go through ups and downs that add difficulty to the decision making process. These three techniques can help make this emotional task a little easier.
Make a list
I counsel owners to seek to objectify the decision a little. This can be accomplished by sitting down with everybody who’s involved in your pet’s life and deciding on what makes that pet happy. Activities such as playing ball, eating, lying in the sun, and so on can all be on the list. Whatever your family deems important to your pet.
Your list can be as long or as short as you’d like. Once your list is completed, the next goal is to quantify how many of these items must go before you feel that quality of life is compromised. To some, it requires the inability to perform just one activity, but to others, it may require the inability to perform each activity on the list. Either strategy is acceptable, so don’t be afraid to do what feels best to your family.
Involve your veterinarian
This may sound biased, but it is with good reason. Your veterinarian will be the one performing the procedure. While they will also feel an emotional connection to your pet, they can provide valuable insight into tough questions such as whether your pet is in pain, whether there are medications that can help, and so on.
I have rarely if ever, told a client flat out that it is time to consider euthanasia. However, I will present it as an option when I think it’s reasonable, and to some clients, that is enough to consider it. Our goal as veterinarians is never to decide for you. Instead, we aim to guide you, as the owner, to make the best decision given all of the information available. Though you may feel nervous or embarrassed to ask this question to your vet, I assure you that they are willing and ready to help. So, I urge you to include your veterinarian in the discussion surrounding this difficult decision.
Listen to your pet
I have already mentioned the difficulty in knowing what your pet is truly thinking and feeling. However, I wholeheartedly believe that owners know their pets better than they give themselves credit for. I can’t count the number of times that a person has walked in on emergency for a euthanasia procedure, and when I enter the room they’ve said to me, “Doc, I don’t know what it was, but she just told me it was time.”
On the flip side, I’ve had just as many experiences where an owner has canceled a euthanasia procedure that they had previously scheduled. When I call to check in on them they tell me, “I don’t know what it was, but he just wasn’t ready today.”
So, give yourself credit. Listen to what your pet is saying. Usually, over the years you develop a means of communication with your loved ones even if they don’t necessarily speak your language. If you perceive that your pet is suffering or that their quality of life is gone, you’re very likely correct. Trust that what your pet is saying is correct, and reach out to your veterinarian.
Unfortunately, there comes a time in every pet owner’s life where they must ask themselves the age-old question — How do you know that it’s time to let your pet go? There’s no right answer, and the situation will vary for each person and pet. A list of activities your pet enjoys, involving your veterinarian, and taking the time to listen to your animal are three techniques that can make this difficult task a little easier.
I hope this helps, and thanks for reading.