Pet Euthanasia: Knowing When “It’s Time”

Medical articles
Knowing when it's time

I’d always heard experienced pet parents say that when it’s your pet’s time to go, “you’ll just know.” But how? How will I know?

In 2011, when my Tahlula was showing signs of a brain tumor, we were tentative about her recovery. But it was only a few days into her illness that I awoke one night to hear her crying because she’d fallen out of her dog bed, had an accident, and couldn’t get up. I hugged her, wet her fur with my tears, and the next morning made a difficult call to the vet. It was apparent that her quality of life was diminished, and that it was my duty as her caregiver to see her eased out of her pain.

But still. How do you know? Today, I find myself wondering if there will be that “it’s time” moment with Lyger, who has hit 13 (and a half) and is seeing his frailties starting to catch up with him. He’s survived mast cell cancer, has terrible arthritis in his hip, deteriorating discs in his back and is losing his sight and hearing. Furthermore, the cute little lipoma that I had removed when he was 2 or 3 is back with a vengeance. While vets discouraged me from having it taken off as a cosmetic issue when he was younger, it now weighs roughly 8 pounds and causes him some difficulty, but surgery to remove it would be quite traumatic.

Do any of these individual illnesses mean “it’s time” for my old man? Not necessarily. Collectively though, they could tell a different story. I’m starting to think that this will likely be the last hot summer he has to endure, that I need to spoil him a little more this Christmas, and that I should cut him some slack when he’s eyeing up my beef pot pie.

So while I don’t really know how I’ll “know,” I do have an action plan for helping my future, grief-stricken, fearful self know when it’s time.

Take Notes

With everything going on with Lyger’s health, his temperament has taken a bit of a turn. It took him snapping at our toddler to make me realize his pain has been increasing gradually over the past few years and that his NSAID wasn’t working anymore. While I now supervise their interactions with an eagle-eye, it was a wake-up call that could have been avoided if I’d taken the time to compare notes and see that he was less enthusiastic about affection overall.

Jot down any instance where your dog demonstrated pain or discomfort. Take a few seconds every few months to note how he responds to being patted, called, or moved. What has gradually become your dog’s normal may not really be acceptable.

Make a “Must Have” for Quality of Life List

I always told myself that I would not allow Lyger to show aggression toward my child as a result of his pain--but now that the pain has been managed and they are kept under close watch, he’s granted reprieve. Similarly, my plan had always been that once Lyger could no longer manage stairs safely and be close to the family at all times (as is his main goal in life), that it would be time. But that time has come and gone and he’s seemingly content with spending time with us on the first floor.

So what is my cut off now? Where do I draw the line? Obviously these “cut off” points are easier to designate when your pet is healthy and you’re not feeling so sad about the impending loss. So why not take a few minutes now to jot down your pet’s “must haves” for quality of life list. It’s different for each pet, but these are some changes that might mean your pet is in need of serious intervention, if not euthanasia:

  • unable to walk without assistance

  • blind, deaf or experiencing other cognitive troubles

  • unable to defecate comfortably when appropriate

  • unable to eat, drink, and enjoy mealtime

  • experiencing unmanageable pain

  • fearfulness, aggression, or other changes in personality

Get Perspective

Think through your list of pet-loving friends and narrow it down to one or two people that you feel have similar values and perspective on quality of life and animal care. Ask them to let you know if they think your pet may be having more bad days than good or go to them when you’re struggling. It’s crucial to have some outside perspective from your friends, family, and veterinarian when things get rough. If nothing else, they might provide a comforting reminder that you’ve done all you reasonably could.

Be Committed

I’ve come to recognize that any care Lyger receives will be palliative, easing pain and confusion. I’ve also decided that any further treatment of new or existing illness would only cause him stress exceeding any potential gain. For this reason, I’m committed to saying “no” when treatment options come up.

I’ve had Lyger since I was a teenager (thus the goofy name), and he’s now my daughter’s dog. Losing him will be the end of an era spanning 3 decades, and I will be heartbroken to lose my “buddy.” But I feel more at ease knowing that we have a plan and can try to make a caring decision based on logic, instead of avoiding one due to raw emotions.