It's tough see your dog or cat grow old or get sick, but it's even harder to think about putting them to sleep. Something just doesn't feel right when you know your pet's "death" is scheduled via an appointment with their veterinarian — and you had to make that call.
While the intensely personal process for making an end-of-life decision for your pet is rife with the complexities surrounding death and grief, it's a decision that you simply can't ignore. But how do you know when the time is right?
Knowing when to euthanize a pet is "rarely black-and-white," Sarah Nold, a staff veterinarian at Trupanion, says in an email. "It may be different from person to person and even from pet to pet."
Your veterinarian can help guide you in the process, but as a pet parent, you'll still need to make the tough call. As you consider the "ifs" and "whens" of the decision, you'll likely straddle the line between confronting your own feelings of loss and ending your pet's suffering.
There are, however, certain signs that may signal it's time to say goodbye to your pet.
"I find it helpful to think of a few things that you feel makes your specific pet happy. Maybe it is eating. Or playing ball. Or jumping up on the couch to watch TV with you. Or a long list of other activities," Nold says. "Can your pet still do these activities? Does your pet still want to do these activities? Maybe he does it sometimes and not others but used to never turn this particular activity down."
These gaps — how often your pet still wants to fetch the ball and how often he doesn't — can make it hard to tell whether his quality of life is suffering, but keeping a simple record can help.
"Consider putting on a calendar a happy face for a good day and a sad face for a bad day," Nold suggests. "Take into consideration such things as their level of pain, appetite, whether they are able to clean themselves (particularly with cats) and their ability to move around. If the bad days are out numbering the good days, this could be an indication it may be time to consult with your veterinarian."
Know the Signs of Disease vs. Aging
While it's normal for pets to slow down or become more sedentary as they age, major behavioral changes can also be a sign of disease. Knowing the typical signs of aging versus symptoms of disease can help you know whether your pet's behavior is normal or a red-flag symptom of something more serious.
"This is why it would be important to make sure you have tests done to get a diagnosis," Dwight Alleyne, a veterinarian in Marietta, Georgia, says in an email. "Some diseases can have a good prognosis after treatment while others have a poorer prognosis."
If disease is present, the next question you need to answer is: Can it be managed? If the answer is "yes," then you can work with your veterinarian to provide medications or modifications for your pet as long as they're feasible and effective.
For example, if an elderly dog is diagnosed with arthritis, the disease — which can take years to progress — often can be successfully treated with medication and environmental modifications like nonslip surfaces. Chronic kidney disease in cats also can be treated with a special diet, and cats can eat it can live for years.
"When dealing with aging, pets may just be slowing down and starting to lose some function of their senses," Alleyne says, "but overall, they tend to maintain their normal behavior at a slower pace."
What Happens When It's Time?
If you're growing more concerned about your pet's condition, many veterinarians suggest you consult the Quality of Life Scale. It was developed by veterinarian Alice Villalobos, and you simply rank your pet in seven different areas with a score of 0 to 10 (0 being worst):
more good days than bad
If their total score is 35 or more, they likely have an acceptable quality of life. Anything lower may mean it's time to talk to your veterinarian.
When you do have to let your pet go, it's common to wonder if you're making the right choice.
"The decision is often accompanied by shame and guilt," Linda Simon, a member of the veterinary consult team for Pawleaks, says in an email. "However, we should look at euthanasia as a 'final kindness,' something we can offer our pet, to prevent [their] suffering. While it can feel alien to book an appointment for this, I always tell my clients it is better to say goodbye a day too early rather than a day too late."
The actual process is usually very peaceful for a pet and in some circumstances, can even come as a relief.
Some veterinarians will provide the services at your home, but nearly all veterinarians offer end-of-life pet services in their clinics. If you do choose to go to your vet's clinic, they may have a special area or grief room for your family.
"Your pet will be brought right away into an exam room and made as comfortable as possible," says Megan Conrad, a licensed veterinarian living in Oregon and working as a member of Hello Ralphie, a telehealth company providing virtual care to pet parents across the U.S. "Depending on your pet's health conditions and discomfort level, they may be given a mild sedative first by the vet."
Typically, you're given plenty of time to love on your pet as he gently relaxes. Then, as you caress him and give him words of affection, your veterinarian will give him a final injection "of what is basically an overdose of a sedative," Conrad says. "This slows down the heart until it stops." He feels no pain.
You should be prepared to either take your pet home for burial or to ask the veterinarian for recommendations for cremation or burial services. Most vets also will preserve a lock of hair from your pet or create a mold of their footprint for your remembrance.
Now That's Interesting
In most of the United States, it is legal to bury a deceased pet in your yard. However, most states require this burial to take place within 48 hours of your pet's death and to a minimum depth of 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters). An alternative is to have a pet buried in a pet cemetery, a cost that can range from $500 to $5,000.
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