Every pet parent hopes their pets die peacefully in their sleep. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Many times, the decision of when it is time to euthanize a beloved pet is placed on the family, the people that love them most.
Sometimes the decision is obvious. The pet may become so sick that euthanasia is the only humane treatment. But other times it’s not so clear cut and families are left with determining when it is time.
As a veterinarian, I get asked this question a lot “How will I know when it is time?” I tell them to sit down as a family. Include everyone that has been a big part of the animal’s life. Even if your child is grown now and has moved out, I recommend including them in the discussion so that they aren’t questioning why the decision was made.
The best time to have this conversation is before your pet is sick or significantly failing. Talk about your pet and what makes them happy. Write this down as a list.
It may include things such as:
- Timber always greets us at the door.
- He loves to chase the ball.
- He enjoys going for walks.
- He gets excited when he hears the crinkling of the treat bag.
- He loves it when we scratch him behind the ears.
- He starts at the foot of the bed but ends up taking over the whole bed by morning.
- Chloe is always outside my door meowing for food at 5 am.
- She loves to sit in my lap on the couch and lets me pet her.
- She likes to chase the laser pointer.
- She sits at the window and watches the birds at the feeder all day.
- She is always well-groomed and never lets herself get hair mats.
Think of five to ten things for each pet. Keep this list in a place where you can find it. Take it out periodically and read it. You may realize that Timber no longer goes up the stairs to sleep in your bed. He hasn’t picked up his ball in months. He doesn’t seem excited when you come home anymore. He goes on walks, but only half as far as he used to, and then he sleeps for a day.
Chloe’s fur is very matted because she never grooms herself anymore. You have to find her in the morning to feed her. The birds no longer interest her.
As you see them no longer doing things they love, you may realize they no longer have a good quality of life. Or you may see that they are still doing some of the things they love and still seem to be happy. Maybe sometimes they do the things they love, but not every day. You can watch them for a couple of weeks. Is your pet having more good days than bad days or vice versa?
A personality change may also be an indication. Both dogs and cats can develop cognitive dysfunction, similar to dementia in people. They may become anxious or confused, pacing all night and sleeping all day. They can develop loss of vision and hearing, also contributing to confusion.
Some animals will become more aggressive as they get older. They may growl or try to bite when you pet them. This may be due to arthritis pain. Ask your veterinarian if there are options for pain medication. If the pain options have been exhausted and your dog no longer tolerates being touched, it is probably time to say goodbye.
When cats aren’t feeling well, they often hide. Maybe you haven’t seen Chloe in a few days, other than the five minutes she comes into the kitchen to eat twice a day. She may growl or be scared when you try to take her out of her hiding place.
“But they are still eating and drinking”. I hear this from pet parents a lot. Yes, if they stop eating and drinking, that is a sign that something is wrong. But not every animal loses their appetite when they are unhappy. Some animals, especially dogs, will continue to eat normally even if they are miserable. Do not let this be the only indication of when it is time to say goodbye.
Another issue to look at is your relationship with your pet. Your senior pet may have health problems that can be treated. But is the care and treatment affecting your bond with them? Maybe your cat needs medication twice a day. She won’t take it in food, and you have to chase her around the house to force the pill down her. She is now hiding from you. You are getting bit and scratched and frustrated. You may realize even though the medication would give you more time with her, it is not the quality of time you want and it’s best for everyone to say goodbye.
Maybe your dog has become incontinent. You are finding stool droppings all over the house and stepping in puddles of urine. You know he can’t help it, but you still find yourself yelling at him as you clean up the mess.
If you are starting to resent the care of your pet and feel that it is a burden for both of you, euthanasia is a valid and fair option for all parties.
Again, this decision may be one of the hardest you ever have to make. There often is no black-and-white answer as to the appropriate time. Your idea of a good quality of life for your pet is different than your friend’s, and that is okay.
Our pets bring joy to our lives. When they can no longer do this, they have fulfilled their purpose and deserve a peaceful goodbye.
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