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How Do I Know When To Euthanize?

Here, I explain various end-of-life situations and how they may be handled.

When our very old pet dies in their sleep on their own terms, this kind of death is a little easier to handle. We knew it was coming, it happened painlessly during sleep, and we didn’t have to make the decision.

When our very old pet is diagnosed with an incurable disease that has no treatment, the choice can be quite clear. The pet has a very bad thing. They are very sick, very depressed, and not eating anything. We see and hear the facts and can proceed to euthanasia with relatively high confidence that we are doing the right thing. The pet had a long, good life. We had to fix their obvious suffering.

It gets confusing when our pet is very old and debilitated but still eating well. We expect them to stop eating if they are truly in enough pain to consider euthanasia. This is often not the case. Animals are designed to accept and hide pain. We need to look for subtle signs of suffering even when they still have that sparkle and brightness in their eyes. Even when they greet us and wag their tail every day. Look at how they can’t get around very well at all. They are stiff and have a very short stride and limping gait. They pant intensely for a long time after only a little exertion. They may urinate and defecate in the house and have a hard time getting up and laying down. They fall. They don’t like slippery floors.

This pet really is suffering with advanced, debilitating, painful arthritis daily. Our pets want to be functional, mobile, and comfortable. Once our pets get really old, their muscle wastes away to nothing. Lack of muscle can cause arthritis pain to become extreme. They can no longer tolerate the pain and their mobility and function become very poor. This pet wants relief and doesn’t want to live like this.

There is no right time to euthanize this pet. Simply a period of time when this pet would really appreciate getting relief from this nagging, daily, painful lack of function and mobility. Daily arthritis pain meds can help mobility for a while but eventually old age wins out and becomes too severe for any med to be effective.

Another situation to discuss is…do you invest in bloodwork and x-rays and ultrasound and biopsies when you have an older pet who has major weight loss and is slowing down and eating less? Some people really need to attempt to find answers or they feel guilty. They proceed with a workup, otherwise the decision to euthanize seems impossible to make without more concrete facts. (Remember, our medical advancements have limitations. There are still countless unknowns.) Some people don’t proceed with a stressful workup in a very old pet because they are not going to put them through extensive treatments like surgery or chemotherapy anyway so what’s the point? They try simple treatments like antibiotics and daily pain meds until quality of life is poor.

What about those “gray area” situations where things can get quite complicated, making a very difficult decision almost impossible. Phone discussions with an end-of-life expert like our Pet Loss At Home vets can help guide us when faced with more complicated and vague circumstances.

I think the bottom line is, discussions and resources about signs of suffering, quality of life and when to euthanize need to be a lot more available and mainstream. The more we know, the better we can do for our pets.

From “Euthanasia Guidebook For Pet Owners” written by Dr. Karen Twyning, DVM, founder of Pet Loss At Home, a growing national network of compassionate veterinarians dedicated to private pet euthanasia in the comfort of home.