How Do You Know When It’s Time?

A note from Dr. Robyn:

As a veterinarian, I’m often asked the difficult question “How will I know if it is time?” I’ve been asked this question by clients, friends, and family. I always answer it the same, “it’s a personal decision, only you can make it and you will know in your heart.” And every time, after the decision has been made, I’ve been told I was right.

Making the painful decision to euthanize your pet is heart wrenching. At a very emotional time, you have to step back and ask yourself if delaying the decision is the best choice for your pet or for you.

By the time you are considering this, you have spoken with your veterinarian who can advise you on the medical conditions and the prognosis. Your veterinarian cannot make the decision for you, they can only provide you with the facts and potential outcomes based on their knowledge and experience. It is an entirely personal decision, although your veterinarian can help you through the decision making process. There is no right or wrong answer and you must be comfortable with your decision.

The questions I ask someone faced with this decision:

  • Is your pet still enjoying life?
  • Are they able to walk, eat, eliminate, and rest comfortably?
  • Are they in pain? If so, can their pain be alleviated with medication?
  • Are the bad days outnumbering the good days?
  • Is your pet’s condition causing you undue stress (either due to financial or emotional costs – and yes, sadly, finances sometimes need to be considered)?
  • Try to take the emotion out of it, what is the right thing to do even if it is the hardest?

Remember that pets “live in the moment”. I often quote from an article written by Bernard E. Rollin (“Euthanasia and quality of life” in JAVMA, vol. 228, no.7 April 1, 2006):

“It is equally evident that an animal cannot weigh being treated for cancer against the suffering it entails, cannot affirm a desire (or even conceive of a desire) to endure current suffering for the sake of future life, cannot understand that current suffering may be counter-balanced by future life . . . “

And at some point, I tell my friends about “The Dog’s Plea” sometimes attributed to Beth Harris. It is a fitting, poignant statement about the human/animal bond and is equally applicable to cats.

A Dog’s Plea

Treat me kindly, my beloved friend, for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than the loving heart of me. Do not break my spirit with a stick, for though I might lick your hand between blows, your patience and understanding will more quickly teach me the things you would have me learn. Speak to me often, for your voice is the world’s sweetest music, as you must know by the fierce wagging of my tail when the sound of your footsteps falls upon my waiting ear.

Please take me inside when it is cold and wet, for I am a domesticated animal, no longer accustomed to bitter elements. I ask no greater glory that the privilege of sitting at your feet beside the hearth. Keep my pan filled with fresh water, for I cannot tell you when I suffer thirst. Feed me clean food so that I may stay well, to romp and play and do your bidding; to walk by your side and stand ready, willing and able to protect you with my life should your life be in danger.

And, my friend, when I am very old or I no longer enjoy good health, hearing and sight do not make heroic efforts to keep me going. I am not having fun. Please see to it that my life is taken gently. I shall leave this earth knowing with the last breath I draw that my fate was always safest in your hands.

The actual process of euthanasia is quick and painless. It is accomplished by an injection into a vein and the pet quietly dies. I can honestly say it is a beautiful way to go – that may sound morbid but although we wish that our pets would die quietly in their sleep when it is their time; that rarely happens. Being able to end your pet’s suffering is a privilege and no veterinarian or owner makes the decision lightly. It is a serious, painful decision but may be the kindest one you can make for your pet.


Coping with Pet Loss

If you are having a difficult time accepting your pet’s death, you may want to discuss your feelings with someone trained to understand the grieving process such as a grief counselor, clergyman, social worker, physician, or psychologist. The Anti-Cruelty Society offers a pet loss and grief support group. Click here for more information.


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