The best way for an old dog to die would be the same as the best way for a person—peacefully, in his sleep, and suddenly, because of a stroke or some other incident that takes his life in a single moment. Unfortunately, as with people, most dogs don’t die easy. There’s a better-than-even chance that euthanasia is one of the choices you will make for your pet.
But how will you know when to choose it? You may not, at least not up front. Many conditions of older dogs that look like “the end” are in fact quite treatable. For that reason, you should never request that your veterinarian euthanize your dog unless a firm diagnosis has been established. You might be surprised to find that his time has not yet come. The veterinarians at Tufts Cummings School’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals have delivered that good news to many greatly relieved owners.
On the other hand, when a diagnosis of an ultimately terminal disease has been made, it’s important to recognize the point at which all quality of life for a dog is gone. Much of the time, dogs do not vocalize their suffering by moaning or changing their facial expressions. But with your veterinarian’s help, you can identify the crossover from living to merely existing in pain.
Sometimes a dog will stop showing interest in playing. Or he may stop eating or showing any enthusiasm for family members. A dog who feels sick enough not to eat or play is likely in a state of advanced physical distress. Those are your tip-offs that he is going through unbearable physical suffering. At that point, you shouldn’t have to agonize about the decision to put him down. Making him stay would be selfish. The decision whether to treat an illness, and to what degree, can be difficult because often there is no clearly correct answer. But once a grim diagnosis has been made and your dog exhibits telltale signs of extreme, unremitting distress, the correct decision about euthanasia should be clear, and if it isn’t, your veterinarian can help you with it.
There is often guilt about making the decision to end the life of a loved one, especially because it’s legal with animals and not with people. That makes it all very fraught for some dog owners. But the veterinary staff at the Cummings School believes the option for euthanasia when it comes to a pet is a good thing. By putting down a dog who is “done” instead of making him wait to die naturally is a way to spare him the agony of death. That is, it’s a tool to end the suffering. Euthanasia is completely painless. The dog is put into a deep sleep with a barbiturate and the respiratory system is depressed without him ever being aware.