When It Is Time to Say Goodbye: How to Know When to Put Your Dog or Cat Down

Dr. Jacqueline Brister

sad looking dachshund

Euthanasia, also known as ‘putting a pet down’ or ‘putting a dog or cat to sleep,’ is a peaceful way to end a pet’s suffering and allow them to pass away with dignity. Veterinarians and their staff are trained to do this in a manner that is both kind and gentle whenever possible. Euthanasia lets your pet pass on before their suffering becomes too extreme. But how do you, as their owner, know when it is the right time?

Cats and dogs are amazingly resilient creatures. They don’t seem to experience the depression and emotional distress the same way that we do when dealing with a chronic or painful illness. They naturally strive to endure and hide any illnesses. They will keep going no matter what, until their body finally gives out. This is why many owners are often not initially aware their pet is sick or in pain. Amazingly, pets will try to walk around on a broken leg, eat even with tummy troubles, and purr through infections from bite wounds. This is part of why making the decision to euthanize a pet is so difficult – this resiliency often gives the false appearance that things are not as bad as they truly are.

Listed below are some common ways to help you determine if it is time to say goodbye to your pet. This decision should always be made with the help of your veterinarian. A veterinarian is taught to recognize many signs and symptoms of disease and pain that you may not be able to detect. They will be able to help you decide if it truly is the right time to let your pet go. This list does not cover all the signs, and you should keep your pet’s overall health in mind. Be aware that in many pets, one single sign doesn’t necessarily determine when the time is appropriate for euthanasia – they often display multiple signs at the same time:

  • Weight loss: Pets that lose a significant amount of weight are often fighting a losing battle with a disease such as cancer or organ failure. Even if they continue to eat somewhat normally, wag their tail, purr, or still want to play, losing a large amount of weight is a strong indicator that the time to say goodbye may be soon.
  • Poor appetite: Not wanting to eat is not as common as most owners would think, but a pet that is consistently unwilling to eat needs to be checked out by the veterinarian as soon as possible. This is often another strong indicator that it is time to euthanize. Keep in mind that many pets will try to eat even in extreme pain or with severe disease. When they stop eating, it often means they either can’t eat or they have given up on life. Just because your pet is still eating doesn’t mean that it isn’t yet time – letting them go before this happens means you have preserved some of their dignity and prevented them from suffering to such an extreme degree.
  • Unwillingness to walk around or play: If your normally boisterous pet no longer wants to play, or if he or she is difficult to coax up to eat or use the bathroom, it may be time to say goodbye. Not wanting to move around at all often means they are either suffering too much to move, in a lot of pain, or in the process of giving up.
  • Behavioral change: If your pet has had a major personality change recently, such as going from sweet to snappy, or sociable to hanging out by themselves, you may need to discuss euthanasia with your veterinarian. Mood or personality changes sometimes mean that they don’t feel well enough to participate normally with their family, or that they are experiencing too much pain to interact with loved ones.
  • Worsening of disease symptoms: If you know your pet has a chronic disease such as cancer or kidney failure and the symptoms are difficult to control, or they continue to worsen, it is likely time to consider euthanasia. The gift of euthanasia is that pets don’t have to suffer to the point of their bodies giving out. We can allow them to go before their suffering becomes too great, letting them pass on peacefully. Knowing they are experiencing a disease that is not going to get better can actually help make the decision easier because you can monitor them for the symptoms associated with the disease. When they can no longer be kept comfortable, it should be time to let them go.

Always remember that your veterinarian is available to help you with this momentous decision. He or she knows how your pet’s body should be responding to pain and disease. This means that your veterinarian will be able to evaluate the changes you are seeing in your pet at home through a good physical examinations and tests. He or she can let you know if there is anything more that can be done or if the time to say goodbye has come.

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