One of the sad parts of our work is walking over to the clinic from our offices and seeing someone sitting outside on a bench, crying. We know what has just happened.
Of course, the best way for a dog to die would be the same as the best way for a person — peacefully, in his sleep, or suddenly, because of a mishap that takes his life in a single moment. But it’s more likely that you’ll eventually have to choose euthanasia for a pet you love.
It makes sense. People don’t want their dogs to suffer when their quality of life has reached a tipping point and their moments in pain have overtaken their moments in relative comfort. But folks often worry that they won’t be able to determine when it’s time. Is there a way to know?
Don’t make the decision on your own
It can sometimes be hard to determine whether a dog is done living. A number of canine conditions that look like the end of life, especially for older dogs, are very treatable. Consider that on quality-of-life scales, an inability to breathe comfortably is a red flag. But in an older dog who keeps panting, it could be a sign of laryngeal paralysis, which is fixable with a relatively simple surgery.
That’s why you should not make a choice to euthanize your dog without talking with your veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis — and a prognosis for a return to health and comfort with medical therapy. You might be surprised to find that your pet’s time has not yet come. We’ve delivered that good news many times over.
Your dog’s quality of life
When it’s clear that the illness is terminal as well as painful, you want to be able to recognize the point at which a life worth living is over. Keep in mind that dogs often don’t vocalize their suffering or change facial expressions, like people. But the following signs
- The dog can no long breathe without struggling for air, even at rest.
- The dog stops eating.
- The dog refuses to play even his favorite games.
- The dog stops showing any enthusiasm for family members, not even lifting his head when a loved one comes through the door.
- The dog is so weak or uncomfortable that he cannot go from lying down to standing without great exertion, and he no longer wants to go for walks.
Simply put, a dog who feels sick enough not to eat or engage in any play or routine activities is in physical distress. Those are your tip-offs that his suffering is unbearable, and at that point you shouldn’t have to agonize about the decision to put him down. It will be easy to separate what you want — to have your dog with you for as long as possible — from what your pet wants, which is to be relieved of relentless suffering.
Choosing the moment
Some people insist that a suffering pet remain alive “until his next birthday” or “until after Christmas” or some other occasion that is meaningful for people. But those dates have no significance for a dog. Do not selfishly prolong a pet’s pain so that he can reach a certain milestone on your behalf.
At the same time, you don’t have to feel bad about picking a time within a window of a couple of days so that you will be able to cope better. For instance, if you make the decision on a Wednesday, it’s probably okay to wait till Friday so you will have the weekend to tend to your feelings before heading right back into your routine.
Bear in mind through all of this that you might feel guilty about ending the life of a loved one. Because euthanasia is legal for animals and not people, a degree of uncertainty may tug at some dog owners.
But we believe the option for euthanasia when it comes to a pet is a good thing. Putting a pet down instead of making him wait to die naturally spares him the agony of a drawn-out death. And euthanasia is a painless tool to end the misery; the drug that stops the dog’s heart makes him fall asleep first so he has no awareness of what is happening.