How Do You Know When It’s Time to Say Goodbye?

Euthanasia is one of the most difficult topics to discuss, as it is a topic that is often ignored until a crisis arises. It’s incredibly stressful and sad to think about saying goodbye to your pet. It can be very useful to think ahead and get an idea of what the whole family wants for your pet before the time comes to say goodbye. Our furry companions are living longer and longer as medical technologies improve, but unfortunately, our beloved pets lifespans are not nearly as long as we would like them to be. As their caretakers and advocates, it is our responsibility to ensure our pets get to live with as little pain and as much dignity as possible for as long as it is reasonable.

One of the most difficult aspects of making end-of-life decisions for a beloved pet comes from determining what is reasonable. Everyone has a different idea of what “reasonable” means, and there are often many emotions such as fear and grief that may cloud judgement. If your pet is diagnosed with an illness that will only progress over time or is just showing the effects of ageing, it is important to talk to your veterinarian about what your options are as soon as you notice any changes in your pet’s behaviour. Your veterinarian can’t make any decisions for you, but they can answer any questions you may have about your pet’s illness, inform you of the cost of treatments, what the expected quality of life would be if the treatment options were pursued, and the life expectancy for pets undergoing treatment versus living with the conditions.

Questions to ask before making end-of-life decisions:

  1. Is there medical treatment available? Do you understand all your options?
  2. Is the treatment financially accessible?
  3. Will this treatment improve my pet’s quality of life? How long will this treatment be beneficial?
  4. Do you have the physical stamina to provide the treatment? Can you give your pet medications? Can you assist your pet if they need help walking?
  5. Does the treatment affect your family’s lifestyle or other obligations?
  6. What do you believe about euthanasia? Is there anyone you can talk to that may help you work through your emotions?
  7. Are there any family members or friends who may want to take part in the decision making the process for your pet?

If medical treatment is not feasible or no longer beneficial, it is critical to evaluate the quality of life your pet is living. Many people want their pets to pass peacefully at home, but it is very rare for that to happen. A common regret families express is that they waited too long and allowed their pet to suffer beyond what they believe is acceptable. There are no easy answers, which is why it’s important to think about end-of-life decisions before there is a decline in your pet’s health which may make you feel rushed and allow emotions to cloud your judgement.

Here are a few things to consider when evaluating your pet’s quality of life:

  1. Make a list of 3 things your pet used to enjoy. Does your pet still enjoy those things?
  2. Are they eating and drinking well?
  3. Can your pet move around on their own?
  4. Does your pet seem like they are comfortable? Are they experiencing pain?
  5. Is your pet urinating and defecating normally?
  6. Is your pet having more bad days than good?
  7. Look back at old pictures or videos. Sometimes changes are gradual and it’s hard to see how much your pet declines over time.

Filling out a quality of life survey such as this one: Quality of Life Checklist may help you develop a clearer picture of your pet’s overall wellbeing. Make sure you are as honest as possible when you answer the questions, you will not be doing your pet any favours by ignoring signs of pain or discomfort. It may be helpful to fill out a survey like this multiple times, such as once a week or once a month, and to get everyone in the family to independently fill out their own survey to try to get a more objective view of how your pet is doing.

There are no universally correct choices when it comes to end-of-life care for our beloved animal companions. Veterinarians can help answer your questions, but all the difficult decisions come down to the pet’s caretakers. Try to think about what value your pet is getting while continuing to live with the quality of life they are experiencing, and be selfless when evaluating whether or not you are artificially extending the life of your pet for your own benefit rather than theirs. Ask questions and try to make your decisions based on feelings of love and compassion. It’s okay to feel sad, or guilty, or any combination of emotions, just take time to recognize your grief and be kind to yourself during this challenging time.

If you have recently experienced the loss of a pet or may soon have to make that decision for your pet, please look through the resources provided by the Honoring the Bond program, which is facilitated by the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.

Honouring The Bond Program is a very helpful guide through one of the most difficult times experienced by pet owners.

Written by: Alicia Naundorf, RVT