Making the decision to euthanize your pet is difficult, here are some thoughts from an Emergency Veterinarian on how to know when the time is right to let you pet go.
Our pets are such a joyous part of our lives, and as owners, we embrace them and love them knowing full well that their lifespan will be much shorter than ours. At some point, we will have to say goodbye, and often we may face the difficult decision of euthanasia.
One of our Emergency & Critical Care veterinarians, Dr. Laura Lefkowitz, has been helping owners through this difficult time for nearly 20 years. She shared some great insight to help owners with a senior pet.
Common medical or behavior changes due to age. As pets age, many symptoms are slowly progressive and it’s easy to attribute them to ‘just getting old.’ Pet’s bodies age at a rate of about 7-10 years for every one year of our own, but it is important to understand that “age itself is not a disease, the disease is actually a breakdown in specific areas of their body such as their joints or internal organs,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “Many times we can intervene and help to slow down these aging changes and make your pet more comfortable in his geriatric years.”
As pets reach middle to geriatric ages, yearly veterinary exams, and routine screening test become increasingly important in detecting medical problems.
You may notice that your pet is less active or less mobile than it used to be. These may be symptoms that your pet is having discomfort in its joints or spine. This discomfort makes them less willing to move. Owners expect that their pet will let them know when they are painful by vocalizing in some manner, however, the truth is that most animals are more likely to express pain by withdrawing from activities, sleeping more, or becoming more irritable. Limping or abnormal gaits are also signs of pain. These changes in activity level happen slowly, over time, so we are less likely to notice them.
“The simple act of adding anti-inflammatories, joint supplements or physical therapy exercises may drastically improve their ability to move. People are often amazed that their once inactive dog is now able to go on hikes that they haven’t done in years once they start these therapies,” notes Dr. Lefkowitz.
It is a good idea to keep a notebook of your middle age or older animal to record things like their willingness to play or the distances they can walk. This will allow you to look back and remember the normal activity level.
Also, charting things like your pet’s weight and the amount of water he consumes will allow you to observe trends over time that you would not otherwise have noticed. Slow declines in weight, decreased interest in food, or a progressive increase in how much they are drinking are indicators of medical problems such as kidney disease, liver disease or painful dental disorders. Simple things like a dentistry or teeth extraction or changes in their diet may significantly improve your pet’s comfort level and may slow down the progression of a debilitating disease.
Another common problem we see in older dogs is changes in their breathing patterns. You may notice that your geriatric dog is making louder noises as it breathes. In the smushed face dogs, like pugs or bulldogs, this may be due to changes of structures in their mouth which blocks their airway. In longer nosed dogs, such as Labradors, this may be caused by the larynx failing to open normally.
“In both cases the loud breathing noises are telling you that your pet simply is not getting enough oxygen and this is what makes him unable to exercise like he used to,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “It breaks my heart when I hear dogs breathing in this manner because I know that with a short, routine surgery they could be running around again and will no longer be struggling to breathe.”
The quality of Life Assessment. There comes a point in time when you recognize that your pet has a finite period of time to live. This may be because of progression of a disease process that it has or because of his inability move around normally. Many animals may slowly lose the ability to stand up and may be immobile enough that they become incontinent. This is the point when you need to start assessing his quality of life.
The quality of life assessments for animals include factors such as appetite, pain levels, happiness, activity level, incontinence, interaction. There are worksheets available that allow you to assign a numerical value to factors involved in these categories. (One that is particularly useful may be found HERE.)
Making this assessment on a regular basis will help you to notice more subtle declines in your pet’s health. Comparing these assessments to your previous notes will help you to determine your pet’s health status more objectively.
Here are some signs of declining health which should prompt you to seek humane euthanasia for your pet:
- Pain which is unbearable or which you are unable to alleviate with medical or surgical interventions
- Inability to breathe normally despite medical therapy
- Inability or unwillingness to eat
- Inability to stand or walk
- Difficulty urinating/defecating normally
- Losing interest in activities or interactions with people.
Pick endpoints early on which will help you to definitively make that final decision. Examples of endpoints may be ‘When my pet will not eat I will make the decision to euthanize’ or ‘when my pet can no longer get up on his own I will make the decision to euthanize.’ Having these statements written down will make it easier to follow through when you are questioning your decision.
Try to make the decision to euthanize before it before it becomes an emergency situation. You want to be able to say goodbye to your pet in a peaceful, safe environment and not unexpectedly in the middle of the night at an emergency hospital
Remember that it is not just your pet’s quality of life to consider, but your own quality of life as well. Pets who are suffering from progressive diseases may be overwhelming due to the owners own physical limitations, or due to time, family or financial constraints.
Dr. Lefkowitz goes on to say, “While it is common to feel guilt about this decision, keep in mind that you have done the best you can throughout your pet’s life and even at this difficult point you are still doing the best that you can for your pet. It is only because of all of your interventions and care throughout his life that he has made it to this geriatric age. Rather than feeling guilty you should feel proud of how well your pet has done all of these years because of your efforts.”
Preparing for euthanasia.The decision of “putting your pet to sleep” or euthanizing is one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make. For both pet owners and veterinary professionals, determining when that time is right is extremely difficult. It is often a decision based on many combined factors. While it would be ideal for senior pets to simply slip away while they sleep, this, unfortunately, doesn’t happen very often. It is best to try and prepare yourself for the possibility of euthanasia.
The following are a few things you may want to consider:
- Decide where you want the euthanasia to be done. Contact your family veterinarian to discuss the options they offer.
- If it is important for you to be home with your pet for the euthanasia, you must plan this in advance. Several years ago Dr. Lefkowitz started a Treasure Valley home euthanasia service called Gentle Goodbyes so owners could remain with their pet in a familiar environment during their last moments.
- Second, decide if you and/or other family members want to be present. Animals look to their owners for comfort, for this reason, you should consider being present with them. Very young children or exuberant family pets may distract you from this important moment with your ailing pet.
Finally, consider the aftercare options. You may choose to bury your pet in a special place, or if that is not feasible then cremation options can be arranged by your veterinarian. Crematoriums offer the option of returning your pet’s ashes to you which allows you to keep your pet’s remains in an urn at your home or which allows you to bury or scatter their remains at a later time. Be sure to inquire ahead about the costs involved in cremation.
The euthanasia itself is usually performed by giving an injection which first produces a deep sedation and which then allows the animal to progress peacefully to death. Veterinarians strive to make the euthanasia process as gentle and peaceful as possible. In retrospect, most people express that they are grateful to have the option of this comfortable way of dying for their beloved pet rather than having to watch them suffer through a painful disease process.
Watching your pet age is a difficult part of being a pet owner. The best we can do for them is to keep them healthy and pain-free for as long as possible and to relieve their suffering when we can no longer keep them comfortable.