None of us ever wants to think about the day when we have to say goodbye to a pet. It's something that, eventually, all of who share our lives with pets will have to deal with. Euthanasia is also a very personal decision - one that's often filled with more questions than answers. Here are a few things to think when trying to decide if it's time.
Painful conditions like arthritis are common in older pets. Many other conditions can cause pain as well. In some cases, pain can be succesfully managed and pets can still lead a happy and mobile life. Unrelenting, serious pain, however, is a different matter altogether. Pets should be able to enjoy their lives rather than merely try to endure each day.
Many older pets start to see a decline in mobility. Sometimes we can accommodate our pets' reduced mobility using things like ramps (to get into the car) or steps (to climb onto the bed, for example). We can carry them up stairs if need be, or move litter boxes onto a different level of the house so that kitty doesn't need to do stairs. We can use mobility harnesses and slings to help them get around, or get them a wheelchair so that they can continue to move around and explore the world.
These measures don't always work. Imagine, for a moment, if you were stuck in bed. You couldn't move without help, even to do the simplest things for yourself - even changing position when you were uncomfortable. Or what if you could move a little, but it took such extreme effort that it left you utterly exhausted and frustrated. Doesn't sound fun, does it?
It's the same for pets. Pets who cannot move, or have to struggle to make the simplest movements, do not have a good quality of life.
Various illnesses can cause difficulties in breathing. Sometimes pets can be helped with medication or with treatment. Struggling to breathe is no kind of life; without being able to breathe easily, pets can't comfortably play, eat, drink, or move around. They simply try to survive.
Most healthy pets love to eat. A declining appetite, or total lack of one, is a sign that not everything is right in your pet's world. Your pet needs to be able to eat enough - and retain it (i.e. no vomiting) - in order to get the nutrients necessary to maintain health. If he doesn't want to eat, or has to be continuously coaxed, he may end up slowly starving to death.
Pets need to drink regularly to feel well. Some illnesses can cause pets to become dehydrated more easily. Pets who have a hard time moving around might also not get enough to drink because they're not able to get to their water bowls. Dehydration can lead to lethargy and depression, as well as loss of appetite.
A vet can administer subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate your pet. It might
end up being something that needs to be done regularly; in these cases, your
vet can show you how to administer fluids at home if you're willing and able.
This may be enough to get your pet feeling well and interested in life again.
If not, it's time to take another look at your pet's quality of life.
It's not uncommon for aging pets to experience dementia (senility). If the pet is still bright and alert and continues to enjoy himself, then it might not be an issue. This is much different from a pet that is anxious, fearful, or stressed, cannot seem to relax, and continuously wanders aimlessly.
What have been your pet's favourite activities? It could be going for walks, chasing a ball, cuddling in front of the TV, napping in a sunbeam... whatever they are, take note of whether or not your pet still enjoys these activities. It's generally not too hard to make a pet happy - so if you just can't seem to get their attention, if they just lie around uninterested in their usual activities or in interacting with family, do they still have a good quality of life? What if all they do is stare into space or pace anxiously around the house, never being able to settle?
If you suspect that your pet has dementia, bring him to the veterinarian for assessment. Sometimes it's just a matter of pets losing their sight or hearing as they get older; this, too, can cause confusion or anxiety. Lifestyle changes can be made to help accommodate a pet's loss of sight or hearing.
The odd accident here and there may not be a big deal. But what happens if your pet starts soiling him or herself, even lying in it? Pet owners can help pets stay dry with things like home protection pads. Some pets don't seem to mind much and take it all in stride, including the frequent bathing ... while others find the experience distressing even if we're able to clean them up relatively quickly.
Allowing a pet to pass naturally isn't necessarily an easy death. By having pets, we have already interfered with nature: we've fed them, given them shelter, and provided them with medical care when they needed it.
Allowing nature to take its course could mean that your pet spends its last days in tremendous pain; in distress from mental or physical discomfort; by suffocating if it can't breathe easily; by starving to death if it's not eating enough; and many other things.
Letting a pet die a 'natural death' is usually not the peaceful, pass-in-its-sleep that we wish for. It is usually difficult for both the pet, and for the family who is watching.
It is possible that treating an illness can cause a pet more distress than the illness itself. Many pets find going to the vet stressful, let alone repeated visits to the vet.
If the prognosis for your pet is positive and there's a good chance he or she will recover and lead a good quality of life, then you may want to hold off on euthanasia and give treatment a chance. However, if the treatment is going to be over an extended period or will be hard on your pet - and your pet is already near the end of its life - is it worth subjecting the pet to repeated vet visits or a long recovery?
Ask the veterinarian if medication or treatment is going to have to become a daily (or regular) thing; and if so, ask yourself whether or not it's a worthwhile trade-off for your pet. Some pets take medication easily; for others, it's an unpleasant struggle to get the medication into them. It's even worse if the meds have other side effects too, like nausea or increased thirst or hunger.
Regular vet visits in and of themselves can be plenty stressful for some pets. Even if it's something as simple as a check-up or bloodwork, the very act of being examined, poked and prodded, can be stressful.
Euthanasia is a difficult topic to address. As hard as it is, though, talking to your veterinarian about what to expect before the time has come is better than attempting to do this when you're in the moment and emotionally distraught. Ask about the procedure; about whether or not they are willing to do an in-home euthanasia; and about after-care (burial or cremation options).
Waiting until the very last possible moment can lead to a traumatic and stressful crisis for both your pet and for you. It may sound cold to plan a pet's euthanasia ... but on the contrary, it's a loving thing to be able to give our pets a calm and peaceful end.
We, as pet owners, have the job of trying to decide the right time to let our pets go. A veterinarian can provide another opinion as well - because we are so attached to our pets, we don't always see them with an unbiased eye. I have heard many, many times how pet owners wish they hadn't waited so long; they wished they had said goodbye earlier to save their pet from unnecessary suffering.
We need to think about our pet's well-being first, regardless of how much pain it causes us. It's our one last act of friendship we can offer the pets who have given us so much.