Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

When you adopt or buy a new pet (no matter what age they are at the time) no one wants to think about the day they will have to say goodbye to their loving friend. It is an extremely stressful time for families, as many do not want to bear the burden of making that final decision to end a life. Although it would be nice if our pets just closed their eyes one day in their sleep and never woke up, the reality is that a death at home is rarely peaceful. Depending on your pet’s condition they can suffer for many days (often in pain) as the body slowly shuts down. Pet ownership does not just mean we get to experience all the best, fun times of that pet’s life; it also means accepting the responsibility of doing what is best for them when their body can no longer function healthily.

I have been a veterinary technician for over 15 years, and I firmly believe that euthanasia is a gift to our pets. What we wish to occur naturally at home (falling asleep and then peacefully passing away) we can provide for them in the hospital or at home, but with the assistance of specialized drugs. Euthanasia also means having control of where and when your pet will pass away, and that means family members can be present (if they wish) and your pet can be made as comfortable as possible.

One of the hardest questions the veterinary staff are asked is “how will I know it is time?”. There is not one easy answer for that, but there are some guidelines I will provide to help make that decision easier. One thing to note is that there may be signs present, but as pet owners, we may not want to recognize their significance. Even for seasoned professionals, our love for our pets and sadness at the situation can prevent us from being objective with what our pets are showing us. Talking with a friend or a veterinary team member is a great idea to gather input and see if there is more we can be doing to keep our pet happy and comfortable, or is it indeed time to let them go.

Here is a list of criteria for a healthy quality of life. Each sign on their own may or may not indicate a need for euthanasia, but certainly, all of them together can help pet owners in their decision.

Is your pet able to eat on their own? If they have a chronic condition and their appetite slowly drops off, but many other body functions are still working well, appetite stimulation drugs can help, as can alternative diets. However, if your pet has an incurable condition and stops eating that is a sign that the body is shutting down, and does not want to perform one of the most fundamental functions. Ignoring this warning or forcing them to eat is going against what their bodies are telling us.

Can your pet move around comfortably or independently get outside/to the litter to go to the bathroom? Mobility is a primary concern for senior pets and pain medication is often warranted to see if that helps their condition. If a pet cannot independently relieve themselves with dignity that can be very stressful for them after a lifetime of being trained in proper bathroom habits.

Is your pet in pain? This question is not always straightforward to answer. Pets are not able to speak for themselves, so we have to look at many factors. Differentiating between pain and anxiety, for instance, can be tricky, especially for senior pets. Owners often compare how they would feel if in a similar condition, but everyone tolerates pain differently, so that is not always reliable. Talk to your veterinarian about whether or not your pet could be in pain. Sometimes trying a pain medication and seeing if they improve is the only way to know for sure. If your pet has a condition where pain cannot be adequately controlled, then mobility and appetite can be affected, which in turn does not equate to a healthy quality of life.

Can your pet breathe calmly and provide enough oxygen to their bodies for normal energy levels? Or does your pet take rapid or shallow breaths, lie around resting, or does your cat breath with their mouth open? If any of these signs of abnormal breathing are present, please call a veterinarian right away. Not being able to breathe correctly is one of the scariest things your pet can experience, and depending on other health conditions could be a clear indication that a euthanasia decision may be necessary.

Waiting for a sign
Is your pet giving you an indication of some kind? Do they attempt to go on their favourite walk and then stop and go back? Have they looked at your differently as if they are trying to tell you something? Are they spending time in places in the house they usually never would? Many pet owners have said to me over the years that they did feel a definite sign or message from their pets that it was ok to let go; that the pet was ready. I have personally experienced this with my dog. It may not be evident in every case but do think about this as well. There is no medical knowledge or proof to back up this idea but personal stories from many clients over the years and my own experience leads me to believe that most pets will give you sign when they are ready – we just need to be aware to look out for it.

Euthanasia is the hardest thing that any pet owner has to go through, but it can also be the best gift that you can give your pet at the end of their life. If you have any questions about how to determine the quality of life, or how euthanasia is performed, please talk to one of our staff members.

Written by Stephanie Ferguson, RVT