Caring for a pet means preparing for every stage of their life. We talk about the early stages often, the challenges of raising a puppy or teaching them good habits. Pet owners may be less prepared for the challenges of a sick or aging pet, including deciding when it’s time to say a final goodbye.
Determining when to euthanize a dog or cat can be tremendously difficult for pet owners. A veterinarian may recommend euthanasia, which is a humane death, when other options to reduce pain and distress are no longer helpful. Euthanasia may be recommended when you least expect it, such as if your pet is diagnosed with a terminal illness or if they’ve been in a debilitating accident.
Here are five things to consider as you determine your next steps.
1. What do you know about euthanasia?
First, ask yourself what you know about euthanasia. If you don’t know a lot, research topics like:
Which situations may require euthanasia
What the pet will experience
What you may expect during the process
Start by discussing euthanasia with your veterinarian. They can answer many questions, describe what the experience should be like for your pet, and help address concerns you may have.
If you’re the type of person who likes to plan ahead, The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center publishes a long, useful reading list about pet loss. These include resources that talk about the feelings you may experience before and after euthanasia.
Otherwise, the Lap of Love’s website has some great information associated with end‑of‑life pet care and euthanasia that you can read right now. Some of the highlights are cited with each of the following questions.
2. What's your pet’s quality of life?
A good quality of life looks different for each pet. Is your pet able to do the following activities? Are they likely to still enjoy these activities in the future?
Going for walks
Playing with toys
Responding to the presence of you and other pets and family members who share your home
Here are some behaviors that suggest your pet might be suffering:
Sleeping more than usual
Is your pet experiencing these things? Are they likely to get better in the future?
Assessing an animal’s quality of life is a good way to check in at all points in your pet’s life. It becomes even more crucial in an end‑of‑life situation. Pet parents want to give their pets the best life possible, which includes the difficult work of acknowledging when that’s no longer possible.
For example, in cases where an aging or injured animal may need a life‑saving medical procedure, you hope that their quality of life will return once they’re fully healed. If surgery and recovery time lessen the possibility of a good quality of life, you need to decide the next step in their treatment plan.
3. Is your pet in pain or anxious?
Dogs and cats do experience pain or discomfort, but they can’t tell us that they are in pain or discomfort. Their discomfort looks more like anxiety. In fact, anxiety is worse than pain in animals. Pets at a routine vet visit may be more anxious about being in the office than the ailment that caused the appointment. A trip to the vet clinic is temporary, so they’ll likely be less anxious when they get back home.
Your veterinarian’s goal is to make your pet as comfortable as possible. Sometimes that pain and anxiety can be managed through a treatment plan, sometimes it cannot. If you can see they are in visible pain, this may also be an indicator that your pet senses the end is near.
4. Can you provide long‑term care?
The loss of a pet is devastating, but the slow decline can be just as damaging—especially for the pet parent. If your dog or cat will require help to continue living a higher quality of life, ask yourself if you have the capacity to care for them physically and emotionally.
Your pet will need its caretaker more than ever. Ask yourself if you have the emotional and physical stamina to continue and be present in those moments. Can you realistically give the around‑the‑clock care that’s needed and be a witness to that process? If the answer is no, then it may be best to consider euthanasia.
5. Do you fear choosing too soon?
Knowing when to begin discussing end‑of‑life for a pet is just as difficult as making that ultimate decision. Many people find themselves enduring numerous trips to the vet. The pet might endure several painful medical procedures. This is because, as humans, we want to fight for every moment of our pet’s life.
Many veterinarians report that families often look back and regret waiting to authorize euthanasia for their pet as long as they did. Consider starting the discussion at the beginning of a pet’s decline instead of the end. This preserves good memories and lessens the potential of the animal suffering.
One colleague of mine whose business is to provide in‑home euthanasia services for those who request it once said, “It’s better to euthanize a pet a month too early than a day too late.” No one wants their pet to experience pain and distress, but sometimes you may not be ready to make that final decision.
There is no one perfect moment in time to make a euthanasia decision about your pet. But being able to make an informed choice when the time does come makes it easier on your pet and yourself.