When Should You Euthanize a Pet?

How do we know when it is the right time to end their suffering?

Posted Feb 16, 2012

The issue of timing is one of the most excruciating for pet owners considering euthanasia for a suffering animal. People agonize before the fact, and long after as well. And this, I think, is just part of the experience of choosing euthanasia: you can never know for sure, and simply have to do the best you can for your animal.

You often hear "Your animal will tell you when its time." But I'm not particularly comfortable with this assurance, because it places responsibility on the animal, and removes responsibility from us. Our animal may indeed give us signs that they are suffering (refusing to eat, withdrawing into themselves), but it is we who must read the signs, and the signs can be obscure. It is not easy to interpret pain in animals; we don't know their behavioral language, unless we undertake the sustained work necessary to understand it. And our interpretation of their "signs" is, as often as not, clouded by our own interests, presuppositions, and ignorance. And, yes, by our love for them.

I think we need to set aside the notion that there is a Right Time—some target that we need to hit precisely. Our goal is not to pinpoint, but to find a golden mean between too soon and too late, between premature and overdue. Working with a veterinarian, we can seek to understand our animal's illness or injury, to know what kind of deterioration or changes they might experience. Particularly if we shift into a hospice mindset, we can define treatment goals (using a kind of advanced directive: what does your pet value? What do you value?); we can decide what the options are (different kinds of treatment, palliative care, benefits/burdens of each option, as much as these can be discerned); we can weigh quality of time left against quantity of time left. Perhaps there is a watershed event that shifts the balance, when an animal crosses some invisible boundary into suffering and into a realm of "anytime now would be good."

A common refrain in the pet end-of-life literature is this: too soon is far better than too late. And as a popular saying in veterinary medicine goes, "I'd rather help my friend a month too soon than an hour too late." This is because "too late" can be really awful for the animal. I asked one of our local vets whether he thinks people wait too long. "Yes, very much so," he answered. "Sometimes you just have to say to an owner that they are being selfish and that they need to let the animal go. Most people, once you point out how much pain an animal is in, will comply."

We don't know and they can't tell us—and no matter what, we will agonize over whether it was too soon or too late. We may wonder whether it is wrong to set a time for death, and whether this awesome responsibility shouldn't rest always in the hands of some greater power, someone who doesn't suffer from the same limitations and blind spots. Am I certain about my timing with Ody? Not at all. More than a year later I still wonder whether I made the right choice at the right time. I worry that I acted too quickly; friends, family, and several veterinarians insist that, if anything, I waited too long. I hope that Ody knows I did the best I could.