Pet Euthanasia: When Is it Time to Let Go?

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One of the most difficult decisions any pet owner is faced with is knowing when to let go. Choosing the right time to euthanize your beloved fur-baby is never an easy one, but it’s unfortunately a necessary part of life, however heart-wrenching it may be.

Although there are a number of factors to consider carefully before going through the process, it’s important to remember first and foremost that you love your pet dearly, and putting your dog or cat to sleep when he or she is too sick to maintain a healthy and happy existence is the most humane and responsible thing you can do, even though it may not feel like it at the time.

Pet euthanasia is an extremely sensitive subject, and a personal decision that must come from within you. Although your veterinarian knows your pet’s overall health and what may be best for them, they will respect that it’s ultimately your decision to elect euthanasia as a last resort.

Putting your cat or dog’s welfare above your own happiness is one of the most selfless things you can do, because in the end, you’re preventing them from needless suffering. Below is a list of questions you may wish to ask yourself when considering this life-altering choice:

  • Is your pet terminally ill? When you schedule an appointment with your vet, be sure to ask him or her what to expect, and ask yourself if you’re prepared for the next phases of treatment or actions.
  • Are you able to afford adequate treatment, medications and/or operations? Although we cannot put a price on our pet’s unconditional love and friendship, end-of-life costs can be extremely expensive and can complicate the grieving process with the additional stress of debt.
  • Does your pet still have an appetite? A sharp decrease in appetite is a tell-tale sign that your dog or cat is nearing the end of his/her life.
  • Has your dog or cat lost his/her bodily functions? If your pet is experiencing any or all of the following, s/he is experiencing a very poor quality of life:
    • Chronic pain
    • Frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
    • Pet has stopped eating or will only eat if force fed
    • Incontinence to the degree that s/he frequently has accidents
    • Lack of interest in favorite activities (such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats, or receiving affection from family members)
    • Unable to stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk; incapable of climbing stairs
    • Chronic labored breathing or coughing
  • Is it possible that additional treatment will improve your pet’s quality of life, or simply maintain his current condition? If the latter, you will want to give his prognosis some thorough consideration.
  • Consider your pet’s best interest: If you’re extending your cat or dog’s life simply because you’re grappling with the sadness of saying goodbye, it is important to remember what the humane choice is, even though it may be a painful one.

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Searching for Answers: Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

While some dogs and cats pass away peacefully in their sleep, more often than not, pet parents will come to the realization that their four-legged friend is no longer enjoying the joys of life they once knew – and it’s up to us to make the right decision.

Our responsibility to our pets includes keeping them comfortable as they age, providing them with protection against pain and suffering, particularly if they develop serious health conditions or terminal illnesses. Despite the fact that modern veterinary practices have flourished in the past several decades, it’s not always in your pet’s best interest to prolong his or her life. So how do we know when it’s time to say goodbye?

Here are some thoughts, actions and contemplations pet owners may go through before making their final decision concerning the welfare of their beloved cat or dog:

Look for signs

Oftentimes, pet parents know when their dog or cat is approaching their last days – the bond you’ve shared with your cherished family member gives you an innate understanding of their behavior. Whether it’s a lack of appetite, an inability to stand up, or hiding out of sight, there are certain signs your pet will display to indicate the imminent future.

If you see that your pet is experiencing a drastically diminished quality of life, euthanasia may be the most merciful and dignified action you can provide to protect them from further suffering.

Consulting family and friends

It can be comforting to seek the support system available through your family and closest friends – asking your relatives for advice is a natural reaction when you’re not sure what to do. Sometimes we simply need a heart-to-heart conversation with loved ones to lead us in the right direction.

Going with your gut

Many pet owners get a gut feeling that it’s time to make that fateful trip to the vet. Although taking the moral high road can be a painful emotional journey, you’ll know in your heart you are doing the right thing.

animal hospital

Getting a second opinion

You’re also entitled to a second opinion – if you find yourself on the fence or in disagreement with your family vet’s advice, you may wish to visit another office to help clarify your decision-making process.

When you’ve reached a breaking point

At some point, you may find that it’s become too painful to watch your pet suffer and realize you have the power to help end your pet’s misery. Although we arrive at this phase after attempting every possible form of treatment, you will feel a sense of relief knowing your beloved pet will no longer suffer.

Circumstances beyond our control

Sometimes, we may find ourselves in situations where the decisions in life are made for us, even though they may not be of our choosing or preference. In crisis scenarios – such as your pet’s operation revealing the cancer is in its final stages – we are forced to choose the most humane course of action.

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Once you have come to terms that your pet’s quality of life is declining and that you have the power to provide him with an act of mercy, it’s okay to embrace all of the emotions that come with your decision – euthanasia can be a relief to both you and your pet, because your dog or cat will no longer be in pain.

Preventing additional pain and suffering

When you realize that no matter what you do to alleviate your pet’s suffering, they’ll still be in pain and misery, it becomes a bit easier to accept euthanasia as the best option. Waiting until your dog or cat is completely incapacitated is far worse than taking a humane approach and letting them go with dignity and grace.

Ask your vet

For those who have established a good rapport with their veterinarian, it’s common for pet owners to ask them for their personal opinion – not just a medical recommendation, but actually asking them point-blank, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Nearly every vet has had similar experiences with other pet parents, so don’t be afraid to be candid if you feel it will help to have a conversation with them.

Additional Factors to Consider: Keeping Your Pet’s Best Interest in Mind

As is the case with any life-altering decision, there are many factors to be taken into consideration when coping with the possibility of euthanasia. In some instances, you may be part of a couple where one partner is having a more difficult time than the other at ‘letting go’. In this scenario, it’s essential to have a calm and rational conversation to decide what’s the most humane choice for your pet.

When looking to your vet for guidance concerning your pet’s future, it’s important to remember that although vets are trained to save lives, they can only make certain decisions with your consent. When your pet’s health is beyond saving, you will know what the right decision is – don’t be pressured to put your pet to sleep if you believe your cat or dog still has some good years left.

putting a dog down

However, be vigilant when weighing the pros and cons regarding your pet’s overall quality of life, and base your decision on that alone. Even if you can afford treatments to extend your fur baby’s life, ask yourself if it’s truly in his or her best interest.

Some people may ask the question, “Am I playing God by choosing euthanasia?” Although that is a moral question that is subjective to your personal belief system, providing medical treatment to save your animal’s life may be viewed the same way – so you’ll want to give this decision some heavy contemplation. Because you may choose to be present when your pet passes so that he’s not alone, consider your reaction – if you’re unable to remain calm, you will spare your cat or dog additional trauma by remaining in the waiting room.

Don’t forget this simple fact: your pets live in the moment. Unlike our predisposition to reflect on the past or anticipate the future, your cat or dog is enjoying the present – and with that said, if they’re not happily ‘living in the now’, it’s important to assess their quality of life. Since our pets are unable to verbally tell us how they’re feeling, it’s essential to pay attention to their body language. If you know your pet is ill and notice their condition is steadily growing worse, be mindful of their behavior.

One of the surest rules of thumb to determine their overall well-being is to write down their five favorite things – whether it’s socializing with other animals, eating, or going for a walk, if your pet is no longer enjoying his or her favorite pastimes, you may want to consider talking to your vet and seeing if euthanasia is a merciful option.

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In addition, keep track of their routine – take notes to see how many ‘good’ days versus ‘bad’ days your cat or dog has over the course of a few weeks. If the bad days outweigh the good ones, you should have a fairly clear indication as to the next steps for your pet.

Once you have made your decision, be sure that all family members have a chance to say goodbye to your pet before the procedure takes place. For families with young children, gently explain what is happening and prepare them for the loss of your pet. Since it may be your child’s first experience with death, it’s important to assist them through the grieving process. There are many children’s books available to open up a dialogue and help your child cope when dealing with this difficult subject.

Most of all, keep in mind that every situation is different – what may work for one pet family may not be feasible for yours. In the end, it’s up to you to trust your instincts, consult with your veterinarian, talk to loved ones, and do your research before arriving at your decision.

Although you’re losing a member of your family, administering euthanasia to terminally ill pets is actually a gift of sorts – by providing a peaceful passing for your cat or dog, you’re honoring the life you shared together and respecting that life by removing additional pain and suffering.

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