When Is It Time?

Senior dog frolicking in water
Things to Consider When Making End-Of-Life Decisions for Your Pet

By Dr. Lori Elliott, DVM

Shady Grove Animal Clinic 

The price we pay for loving a wonderful creature with a lifespan far shorter than ours is the hurt of saying good-bye. The end of our pet’s life comes more often with our gentle help, than it comes naturally.  Natural death can be slow and painful to the pet and to the family.  However, advances in veterinary medicine allow control of a pet’s pain and anxiety while assisting in gentle passage from this life.  This is referred to as euthanasia.

There are two major categories of conditions that lead to consideration of euthanasia – chronic or longstanding and progressive disorders, or acute illnesses in which decisions must be made quickly.  Examples of chronic conditions are progressive heart disease, kidney insufficiency, geriatric debilitation, and many forms of slowly progressing cancer.  Examples of acute diseases include pathological fractures of limbs affected by bone cancer, ruptured internal tumors, and blood clots or stroke. 

With acute illnesses, often the pet is making the decision rapidly before our eyes.  To alleviate pain or suffering, the decision needs to be made immediately.   If we cannot successfully treat the illness now, we owe it to our pet to let them go peacefully, even though it is really difficult to say good-bye.

For chronic illnesses, the difficulty is the timing of euthanasia.  Should euthanasia be planned this week, next week, or next month?  Usually, there is no right or wrong answer.  However, in my personal and professional experience, we more often wait too long and later regret the delay. Again, it is really difficult to say good-bye.

For pets with chronic illnesses, it is important to look at the pet’s quality of life. Dogs and cats live for today – they do not have the ability to think of the past or the future.  I sometimes have families list all of the pet’s favorite things: eating, playing fetch, going for walks, following a family member around, grooming or keeping good hygiene, etc.  How many of these things are still enjoyable to the pet? 

Some people need a more analytical process to know when it is time.  For these folks, I recommend having two jars side by side in a prominent location.  One jar is labeled “good”, the other “bad”.  Each day, the family assesses the quality of the pet’s present status and drop a coin, marble, or candy in the jar representing the pet’s status that day.  When the “bad” jar begins to surpass the “good” jar in contents, it makes it very clear that the balance of quality of life has shifted, it is time to think of allowing a peaceful passage.

When faced with decisions for a pet with a chronic or terminal acute illness, it is essential to communicate with your veterinarian.  He or she will help guide you while helping to control your pet’s discomfort.  Your vet will discuss the actual process of euthanasia, answer your questions and discuss means of handling your pet’s remains; burial, cremation, etc.

The most difficult decision we make regarding our pets is when to say good-bye.  I frequently tell my clients (and I have told myself each time I personally face this loss) not to let the end of their pet’s life – this decision- be larger than the life shared.  As sad as the last day together seems, it is merely one day of the hundreds or thousands of days you shared with your pet.  Through the sadness and tears, celebrate all of the wonderful time shared and the true blessing your pet was to you!

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