Companion animals are such a blessing in our lives. They provide us with unconditional love. We laugh at their antics, and enjoy their company. Many of us post pictures of them on Facebook, celebrate their birthdays, and buy them presents on the holidays. They give us friendship when we are lonely, and comfort us in our darkest hours. In turn we adore them, feed them, clean their messes and allow them into our hearts.
It would be a wonderful world if dogs and cats died peacefully in their sleep. Unfortunately, very few of them do. Instead, we are left to make the difficult, heartbreaking decision to euthanize them. We give them the gift of a painless, peaceful death, but we still have to decide the time.
This is often an agonizing choice for owners to make. Many of them are worried about making the decision too soon. They will make up their minds and steel their resolve only to wake up the next day and find that their pet is having a “good” day. They desperately wish that their pet would pass peacefully in their sleep. They contemplate what life will be without their friend. For some, they look ahead to coming home to an empty house, with no wagging or tails or happy meows.
Owners often ask their veterinarian when and if they should put their pet to sleep. Most of us won’t answer this question. We know the power that our knowledge and experience wields, and we don’t ever want to have owners feel pressured into making such a crucial choice. We don’t want them to look back on it and feel that the vet made them do it. I know what a heavy burden this choice is, and although I will not make the decision for them, I often will counsel owners to help them know when the time has arrived. Here is what I usually tell them:
Trust yourself. You will know when it is time.
The main reason I will not make the choice for owners, is because I will never know their pet like they do. They have spent years with their dog/cat, and know their personality. They know when they are happy, upset, angry, jealous, afraid and sad. I also honestly believe that dogs and cats will “tell” their owners when it is time. It is a look they have in their eyes, or a certain energy that they give off. Through the years I have had many people tell me that they woke up one day and their pet looked at them and told them that it was time. I tell owners to trust themselves because their instincts are almost always right.
Make a list of what defines a good quality of life for your companion animal
Decide what makes your dog or cat who they are. What is it that they enjoy most in life? Contemplate this, and write it all down. Do they absolutely LOVE to eat? Write that down. Chase a ball? Put that on the list. Sleep in the sun…go to the lake…jump on your bed at night…put them all on the list. For example, if I was making this list for my cat, Tommy, I would write the following:
Eat. Have his chin scratched. Sleep in the sun. Torment the other cats. Chase fuzzy mice. Ruin toilet paper rolls. Demand his food LOUDLY at 530 every morning.
Once you have your list, use it to keep track of your animal’s quality of life. When you see things on the list disappearing, cross them off. This can help you in the decision making process. If you need guidance with this, ask your veterinarian. We will always help you evaluate your animal’s quality of life.
There will be good days, there will be bad days
Aging animals, and animals suffering from terminal illness will have waxing and waning health. There will be days where they act like the puppy or kitten they once were, and days that it is obvious they are in pain. It is very common that when you have decided to euthanize that your animal will have a “good” day. When this happens, ask yourself if one good day outnumbers the bad days. Consult your quality of life list. If your pet has one good day after a week of bad days, ask yourself how you really feel your pet is doing. Remember that dogs and cats live utterly in the moment. Unlike us, they don’t contemplate having another day, week or month of life. They know what is happening right now. If they are in pain, and their now moments are bad, the kindest gift you can give them is to relieve their suffering.
Remember that animals don’t always show us when they are in pain
A few months ago I saw an 18 year old cat. She had not been eating or really drinking, or moving for about a week. I diagnosed her with end stage kidney failure, and discussed the options with the owner. At that point it was to hospitilize her, knowing the prognosis was grave, or to put her to sleep. The owner was shocked I brought up the option of euthanasia. “But she’s not in pain,” she said “She is not crying or meowing.”
Animals usually don’t cry, whimper or vocalize, even if they are in immense pain. It is in their nature to hide signs of illness and discomfort to the very end. It is a protective mechanism…in the wild it is the animals that are obviously suffering that are easily spotted by predators. Animals that are in pain will do other things, like stop eating, become lethargic, vomit, drool, stop drinking, and stop doing other things on their quality of life list.
Remember that we veterinarians are solemn and serious about euthanizing animals. We never treat this lightly. If your veterinarian tells you that your animal is in a great deal of pain, trust them. This is as close as we often will come to telling you directly that the time has come to euthanize. We would never exaggerate or be dishonest about this.
Involve the entire family in the decision making process
Some of the most stressful euthanasias I have participated in where those where there were family members that disagreed with the timing or were left out of the loop entirely. Come together as a family, and discuss your pet’s quality of life. Unless your children are very young, I would recommend involving them as well. If you have a family member in complete denial, schedule an appointment with your vet to discuss quality of life. I do not recommend simply euthanizing the animal behind their back. Everyone needs their chance to say goodbye and you don’t want anger and resentment to be present during the grieving process.
It is rare that you will make the decision too soon
In my eight years of being a veterinarian, I have had one owner tell me she felt she euthanized her cat too soon. She really didn’t…the cat was comatose and non responsive. Her feelings came from the immense grief she went through after losing her companion. Other than that, I have never had an owner tell me that they made the decision too early. On the other hand, I have had several owners tell me they waited too long to euthanize. Once their animal dies a painless, peaceful death and their suffering is ended, the owner will look back on it and feel that they let it go on too long.
Even in these cases, I try to ease the owner’s guilt. This is a really, really hard decision. You are making a conscious choice to end the life of a companion you love. It shouldn’t come too easily.
I hope some of those suggestions help. There are numerous other resources that your veterinarian can provide to help you through this process. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. We will answer any questions you have about the euthanasia process. Bear in mind that by choosing to euthanize your pet, you are granting them one last loving gift of a dignified, peaceful death. It is heartbreaking and gut wrenching, and one last way to thank them for their years of companionship.