Quality of Life. When is it time to say goodbye to your pet?

Anyone who has owned a pet in their lifetime knows that one of the most difficult decisions they've had to make, almost thought of as a burden of pet ownership, is knowing when to euthanize and cross that rainbow bridge.

Quality of life, for new, experienced and intended pet owners, is defined as a standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual. For our pets, this starts with an observation and conversation about how a pet's health, body, and well-being is doing.

One of the most common questions veterinarians get asked is "Doc, how will I know when it's time?" Owners struggle with this decision, the timing and want to know if they're doing the right thing. Some instances are very obvious; like a pet has been hit by a car and has serious injuries, but most cases are not so obvious. Pets can be young, old, debilitating, seemingly healthy but have now become very ill and may be helped with surgery or intensive medical care short-term or lifelong, which can be very expensive in the long run.

There are a few questions I encourage owners to ask themselves:

  1. Is my pet suffering? Is he or she in pain? Some pets will cry out and whimper when they are in pain, but most pets are more subtle. They don't move around as much as they used to, they sleep a lot, may not want to play or go for walks, have a decreased appetite or stop eating altogether. If your pet is on medications, are those medications making my pet more comfortable? Or are the side effects such as drowsiness, in a zone, or heightened anxiety more than the benefits of the medications?

  2. Can my pet walk? Is it painful for him or her to move around? If your pet is debilitated where wheelchairs are not an option, or  your lifestyle is such that it does not allow for the pet's comfort to be maintained, for example, you live in condo with multiple flights of stairs and your pet to too large to carry up and down the stairs several times a day, then euthanasia would be the humane thing to do.

  3. Is he or she fecally or urinary incontinent? Do they have control of their bodily functions? This is a big one, as leakage can cause scalding, sores, and repeated infections which can be painful. It also creates a lot of maintenance and cleanup for the household.

  4. Is my pet declining? How quickly? Will he or she get better? The rate of deterioration can certainly play into deciding when to euthanize. It may be sooner rather than later.

  5. My pet is very ill and requires more expensive procedures that are now outside of my budget and there is no guarantee that he or she will get better. In the decision tree for a family in this scenario, it is probably the most difficult decision to make. Finances are certainly a concern when dealing with long-term treatments, and expensive procedures. Unfortunately, that's the reality of the situation.  If you don't have pet insurance or other financial means to cover the cost, and surrendering your pet is not an option ( e.g. the pet may not be an adoptable candidate), then euthanizing is the most humane thing to do. Try to think of it instead, as you've done all that you can do to help them and now the next thing you can do for them is to not let them suffer.

  6. And the last question to ask yourself is; When I look at my pet, is he or she the same pet I recognize as my companion, and do they see the same thing in me? If the answer is "no" then the time has come to make that decision to say goodbye and let them go.

Our furry companions do not live as long as we do. The oldest dog lived until 30 years, and cat until 38 years! While pets are living longer healthier lives thanks to advances in research, food, awareness, disease prevention and cures, they are a long way from matching our longevity. These companions are at your side night and day, in your Facebook and Instagram posts, greet you at the door at the end of a hard day and loved you unconditionally in their lifetime. We owe it to them to recognize when it's time to let them go and not keep them around for our selfish needs.

It's always helpful to discuss this with your family, friends, and veterinarian. Choose a nice day, one when your pet is having one of his better days as you want the memory of it to be as peaceful and pleasant as possible. Euthanasia can be performed at home with house-call veterinarians, or in the veterinary hospital. It is usually a simple painless process that involves sedation and anesthesia during which the pet passes quietly. The remains can be buried, cremated or turned into glass.

Deciding to humanely euthanize your pet is always a difficult one. Know that you have support from your network of family, friends, and veterinarian. Grief counseling is also available, and in most states, it's free of charge.  See some links below.

Don't let this article deter you from Getting a Pet! While it is a daunting decision you may have to make one day; the joy, stress relief, improved quality of life for both you and your pet, and the memories you'll create together - is totally worth it! The resiliency of the human spirit and the human-animal bond is what keeps people getting pets over and over again.

This article is intended for pet owners and future owners contemplating euthanasia for a pet on the grounds of Quality of Life.

Here are some links that might also be useful:

SF SPCA Pet Loss Support

Pet Loss Support Group

Washington Pet Loss Resources

Published by Dr. Varsha Ramoutar, DVM MS


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