Euthanasia: How Do I Know When the Time Is Right for My Pet?
Making decisions on behalf of our pet can be impossibly hard.
Posted Feb 25, 2017
Euthanasia. The word carries immense emotional impact for many loving pet owners. Chances are if you’ve opened your heart up to a pet, you’ve most likely had to make the decision to euthanize a loved companion animal.
Making such a hard decision can seem impossible. We second guess ourselves. We can push back, attempting to get more time with our pets. We fear that we are “killing” are pets or possibly taking their lives prematurely.
The levels of guilt after making such a decision can appear immense. Why, however, are some at peace with the decision and others are not? This article will explore why a pet parent is the best one for making such a difficult decision, and how to get through it.
You know your pet the best, even if you don’t think so.
Countless time loving pet parents will say something along the lines of, “I just wish they could speak and tell me what to do.” The fact is; however, that they can speak and are speaking to you constantly, just not in a verbal manner. You know your pet more than the veterinarian, more than your friend, more than you think you do.
Pet parents can chronically doubt and second-guess whether they are doing the best thing for their animal. It can be easy to prolong the decision of euthanasia in order to spend more time with our pets. Even the best-intended animal lover might look towards decision making that allows for more time, naturally so. We love our pets and many of us consider them to be family members, no different than a human child. Looking for an opportunity to spend more time with your pet at end-of-life is fine and healthy... only if it is not prolonging the experience of suffering.
Take, for example, having to make a choice to treat your animal with a new form of chemotherapy that may be highly effective, versus allowing a natural decline and most likely leading to a euthanasia choice of your pet sooner. Some pets might absolutely love visiting the animal hospital on a daily basis. They might wag their tail, looking forward to the car ride with excitement, and love to greet everyone and give them kisses. Other pets might consider even one trip to the animal hospital pure terror. Their tail is tucked, they are shaking and present with wide eyes wanting nothing to do with the experience.
The example raised above is to acknowledge and recognize that the individual quality of life for our pets during end-of-life and throughout a disease process is extremely important. As the person that knows your pet and what brings them the most joy, or pain, this should be integral to a decision regarding euthanasia choices.
Does my pet continue to enjoy the things they love?
One of the biggest pieces of advice I give time and time again is one of the simplest. Make a list of the five things your pet enjoys the most and makes them who they are. For example, my dog likes to:
- Meet me at the door every day when I come home, tail wagging in excitement.
- Loves to play fetch every chance they get.
- Maybe loves eating more than they love to fetch.
- Plays regularly with others dogs, especially with our neighbor's dog.
- Enjoys our nightly walk around the neighborhood.
These five things define beautiful and unique characteristics about our pet’s character and personality. It shows us what they enjoy on a daily basis and brings quality into their lives. It could be said that these things (and more!) make them who they are, just as similar characteristics define our unique characteristics as humans.
When we start noticing either because of age or illness that our pets can no longer enjoy the things they love, it gives us a better sense of the conversation to start having with our veterinarian.
If my dog is no longer meeting me at the door after work because they are too painful to get out of their dog bed, that’s an important red flag about our pets health. Maybe my pet is showing quality of life in other areas, so I work towards pain management. When my pet can no longer greet me at the door, play fetch or go for a walk outside, what quality of life is present within my companion’s life? If what my pet most enjoyed more than anything in the world is declining or difficult, they are telling us, without having to say it verbally, that they may be in the final steps of their journey.
It can also be helpful to keep a simple calendar and track how your pet is doing on a day-to-day basis. Since we are so close to our pets and we want the best for them it can be extremely hard to take a step back and assess. Recording our observations can help us to step back and see the "bigger picture." It can be helpful even to split each day into morning (or before noon) and afternoon or evening (or after noon). Our pets may do better within certain time periods before losing energy or showing any change in their pain levels, for example. Recording in such a way allows us to assess and show evidence of where my pet may be. How many good days are present? How many bad days? When our pet is experiencing more days with a low quality of life we must take that into consideration with our choices.
Is my animal suffering?
The definition of suffering is that of “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” It can be argued that our pets do not have the ability for abstract thinking as we can as humans. Our dog, cat, or horse cannot step back and say “this experience may be painful but it’s for a purpose.” They don't lay down to sleep wondering how or when they may die, either. Our animals give us beautiful reminders of the day-to-day experience and mindfulness that we commonly forget.
If your animal is actively experiencing high levels of chronic pain that the Veterinarian expresses cannot be controlled, then typically we know the next steps we must take. If our pets quality of life is extremely poor and they no longer have their passion for life they may also be showing us the next steps to be made.
Seek advice from others, but trust your gut.
It can be incredibly important to seek the advice of your Veterinarian and pet’s medical community. They are trained and able to explain levels of disease progression, medical projections, and other very important considerations when it comes to end of life with our pets. It can also be helpful to seek guidance from friends and family members that are understanding with opinions we trust, even if we may disagree with them. It can be very easy to ignore direct signs as we are so close to our pet, and at times our friends are able to see a bigger picture.
It’s important to always recognize that the opinions of others should be paired with our intuition and what we believe is right for our pet, as long as we listen. If we are actively listening to our companion animal throughout the process they tell us by their actions what the next steps to take may be.
The process is never easy, and it is certainly never the same. What is the right choice for one pet may be the complete opposite choice for another.
The guilt of euthanasia.
The most common theme among pet owners after euthanasia is guilt. Guilt for making the choice to “kill my pet.” As we explored in Nine Myths About Pet Loss And What The Truth Really Is, is it common place to want to place blame when we are grieving, even if that blame is upon ourselves.
The hardest choice, the one of euthanasia, can actually be the most kind and loving gift that we give to our companion animals that share our hearts and our homes on a daily basis. The ability to end suffering in end-of-life is seen as a gift by many.
That certainly still doesn’t make the choice easy, but it’s important not to beat yourself up for making it. Our pet isn’t placing the blame on us. They won’t hold a grudge. They trust that you are making the best decision for them, and they are helping you with that decision when you’re listening. Our pets place their paws in our hands on a daily basis, teaching us and showing us what it means to love unconditionally and live within the moment. The least we can do is to return that love, no matter what that choice may be.
Adam Clark, LSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Adam focuses his work on the psychology behind the human-animal bond, specializing in endings and transitions. He is passionate about reducing the cultural stigma associated with pet loss, supporting pet owners, and educating veterinary professionals. Additional information on Adam and his current projects can be found at www.lovelosstransition.com, or he can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.