It’s one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make. The only sure thing about it is that no one wants to make the choice. No one wants to have to say goodbye to their best friend. So how do you know the right time to euthanize your pets? This is a question I have been asked more times than I like to admit, so I would like to share some of my insight on this subject, from both my personal and professional experience.
How to know the right time to euthanize
- First of all, know that there is no right time to euthanize. Before you start cursing me, hear me out. Too many people get hung up on the right time, but it simply doesn’t exist. The right time to euthanize is as elusive an idea as the quest for the Holy Grail. You as a pet parent have to decide what is right for you and your animal, and not worry about whether or not it is the absolute perfect time for anyone else. Don’t let other people try to bully or guilt you into making the decision, including your veterinarian. Just know that when you decide it’s the right time for you, it is.
- Use your instincts. Nobody knows your pet better than you. I have said this hundreds of times and I still completely believe it. I have also lived it when I had to make the choice to euthanize my own pets. You may not be a medical expert, but you are the expert of your animal. You are the one who searches for that perfect food. The one who shovels a path for your dog through a foot of snow, so that they can do their business. The one who lets your favorite feline sit on your newspaper while you eat breakfast. You are also the one who notices when Buddy no longer runs to greet you or Fluffy starts hiding and doesn’t want to be found. Trust your instincts.
- Use the quality of life scale. This scale was created by veterinary oncologist Alice Villalobos as an objective measure of a pet’s health. For non-medical professionals, it can be very difficult to objectively
evaluate how your pet is actually doing. Consequently, this quality of life scale can help tremendously. You can use this scale for a number of days in order to see if there is a decline in your animal’s condition. Here is the canine quality of life scale and the feline quality of life scale.
- Quantify good vs. bad days. This might sound silly and subjective, but it can be a powerful tool. You simply evaluate each day and decide if it was a good day or a bad day. I realize this isn’t as objective as the quality of life scale. Nevertheless, if you keep track, you will eventually see a trend toward the positive or the negative. This can help you with deciding the right time to euthanize..
- Your pet stops enjoying their normal activities. Sometimes this change can be so subtle that we don’t even notice at first. You think that Max is getting older and that’s why he just lays around instead of playing with his favorite stuffed toy. Or why Bella doesn’t meet you at the door anymore when you come home. However, these changes are not normal and can indicate a decline in the pet’s health. A pet will desire to continue with their favorite activities for as long as they are physically able to, such as taking walks or hanging out with the family. My previous dog Spencer loved taking walks and did so until his last day (when he was 14), albeit only 10-15 minutes vs. 30+ minutes in length. Do not mistake age for a disease as many do. Your kitty is not hiding in unusual places because he wants a new perspective in life. No, it’s because there is something wrong.
- You realize that you’re only keeping your pet alive for you. No judgement here. I understand how hard it is to decide on the right time to euthanize. However, keep in mind that your pet doesn’t want to live forever, especially if they are in pain or feel sick and weak. Animals don’t have a fear of death like we humans do. They live for the moment until the very end. Think about that when your pet is lying there and unable to stand or eat or drink. Are you keeping them alive in order to make yourself feel better? Or because they are truly still enjoying their life? I have euthanized many animals that are reduced to nothing but skin and bones and it’s not pretty.
- Know that fear and guilt don’t have to be part of euthanasia. It seems to me that a lot of people put off euthanasia due to fear of the unknown (death). Maybe they heard about a horrible experience from their neighbor’s groomer and swore to never experience that. Maybe they feel like their furbaby will blame them for ending their life. It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be afraid of death, as it is a natural part of life.
I adopted my first pet ever in veterinary school (Raven in the above picture) and she became my little companion. I had her even before my husband and children and she gave me great comfort during those grueling times of vet school. We used to play a little game of hide-and-seek where I would hide behind a piece of furniture and she would run and find me and chirp at me (yes, cats will play games too). As she grew older, she did slow down, but we still played our fun game. However, over time, Raven developed kidney disease, as many cats do, and I noticed her desire to play grew less and less. She started hiding, eating less and grew weak and dehydrated from her declining kidney function. I gave her fluids under the skin to help for a while and a special prescription kidney diet, but eventually there wasn’t anything else I could do, even as a doctor. I knew the time had come to make that heartbreaking decision. I planned it for the weekend, so that we wouldn’t be rushed. As a vet, I was able to euthanize her at home with the family. Some vets will perform house calls, so you can do this too if you choose. I put her in her bed and gave her the first injection to sedate her. Sometimes this can sting, but only for a few seconds. Raven was too weak to care at that point. The sedative injection makes them blissfully unaware of any pain or discomfort and relaxes the body. After the sedation, I shaved a small area on Raven’s back leg and injected the euthanasia solution into her vein to stop her heart and breathing. She didn’t move during the entire procedure and peacefully drifted off in her bed. Sometimes, an animal might have some last deep breaths that can be startling, but are only a reflex of the air leaving the lungs. Afterwards, we were able to sit with Raven and say goodbye, including my daughters who were two and six at the time. I fully believe that children can be involved, as long as they know what to expect. It’s much less confusing for a child to see a euthanasia and know that the animal died and to be able to ask questions, than to tell them your pet went to a special farm or was lost or was “put to sleep” (the most bewildering euphemism for a child). I feel very fortunate and thankful to have had such a calm, quiet experience with Raven.
Obviously not every euthanasia can be planned, especially when trauma is involved (such as a hit-by-car). In spite of that, euthanasia can be peaceful and smooth with proper sedation and technique. While it is always an emotional and sad experience, euthanasia can be the last gift we give to our precious pets, an act of compassion and mercy.
Here are some resources if you’re struggling to decide the right time to euthanize or after the euthanasia of a pet. You can also leave comments below with your story and I will respond.
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
- A listing of pet loss hotlines (please note that these may not be staffed by trained counselors)
- Pet Loss Help
- The Pet Loss Support Page
- My post on dealing with grief
The Rainbow Bridge
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….