When To Euthanize, Reader Question

When To Euthanize, Reader Question

Q: My 13-year-old dog passed away last month. I'm grateful I was able to be with him when he passed away at home. My buddy did have a full checkup two months before. The veterinarian had asked about any changes in the dog's behavior. While standing in the office, it was impossible for me to ask what I should expect and how much time I'd have with my dog. There had been signs he was approaching the end of his life, but I was unable to get much information about this process from Internet searches. Could you do readers a favor by identifying stages of natural death in our pets? -- B.M., St. Petersburg, FL

A: Most importantly, I'm sorry for your loss. Sadly, there seems to be a communication gap between you and veterinarian. You did the right thing by apparently expressing your concerns to the veterinarian, and it seems your veterinarian was right in asking about changes in your declining friend's behavior. Without having been present, I can't discern what could possibly have gone wrong. Were you both avoiding "the e-word"? In my opinion, euthanasia is a final act of love which should have been discussed.

Of course, a lifetime of regular veterinary visits provides preventive care, and allows for catching illness early. Another equally significant benefit is that your veterinarian gets to know both you and your pet.

By way of example, Lucy, our 15-year-old miniature Australian Shepherd, who had been declining, fell ill. We rushed her to an emergency veterinarian. After her release, I took Lucy to see our general practitioner. When I walked into her office, all Dr. Natalie Marks, of Chicago, did was give me a look, her eyes teared up, and she hugged me. Without saying a word, she told me "It's time." And I needed her "third party" perspective. I also knew she understood what was medically going on with Lucy. And clearly, there is trust and rapport between myself and my veterinarian. We communicated in a way which I gather you and your veterinarian weren't able to do.

In my opinion, one drawback of becoming so incredibly attached to our pets is that we have a hard time letting go, and frequently wait longer than we should to relieve their suffering. In fact, suffering can often be avoided. (Of course, I'm by no means suggesting this was true in your case, since I have no way to know if you waited "too long.")

I do advocate in-home euthanasia, at least as an option. Many people simply prefer the privacy and dignity of euthanizing in-home. Other people opt to not have their final farewell to their pet take place in the home. I do think pet owners should be given this option, when medically feasible.

To answer your question about stages to watch for...In part, that depends on what's wrong with your pet. Here's what to pay attention to: If your pet is in pain which can no longer be controlled; your pet is no longer interested in food or interacting with beloved family members, and is merely just existing rather than living, it may be time to euthanize.

Dr. Alice Villalobos offers a "Quality of Life Scale," which many pet owners find useful.

Still, while a Google search can offer some general tips, you won't learn about your own pet but your veterinarian can do that - when the relationship is right.

©Tribune Media Services, Steve Dale


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  • Thanks for this article, Steve. I have a 13 year old Doberman with some increasing physical issues. She has cataracts and doesn't see as well as she used to (also doesn't hear that well anymore either, though I suspect that's at least partially selective). She's had a hip problem that has gotten worse over the years. She has a profound limp and I have to assume she's in some pain -- but she carries on without so much as a peep about it.

    However, she is as feisty as ever, is in good physical shape otherwise, still has a big appetite, interacts with everyone, and is extremely excited to go on walks despite her limp. Of course, much to her dismay we've had to shorten those walks for her own good.

    Still I know that sad day is going to come, so I've tried to prepare myself for that. Your guidelines were very helpful.

  • Thank you for your note.. .feisty? Good! However, when you suspect pain, and when the dog is limping - likely there is pain. It doesn't need to be that way. I suggest you see your veterinarian to discuss pain relief, there are many options.

  • In reply to Steve Dale:

    Thanks again for the advice, Steve.

    We did get some pain relief. About 2-3 years ago, our vet prescribed an anti-inflammatory (the name escapes me right now) and Tramadol for when she looks like she's hurting a bit more. She has to have regular blood tests for the ant-inflammatory.

    And definitely feisty -- but very friendly. Maybe sassy is the better word :)

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    sassy - who could mind that? Hope your dog keeps going forever....as long as quality of life is there.

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    As said before thank you for this article. Five year ago my 13 year old boarder collie/lab was out on our deck and fell down, I did not know what was wrong, but I new something was definately wrong. I picked hom up into a standing position and he walked a few steps and fell again. I was not sure what to do, got him in the house and there he laid in the kitchen despite the fact he could not walk he was happy and kising us and yes eating. My sister and I got him into the frontroom and that is where we all slept that night. The next day I called our vet and told him what was going on. He said that he must have had a spinal stroke. He came the next day to put him down. Now the reason I am telling you all this is beause I could not agree with you more about putting them down at home. I did not think I could handle this because he was our third dog but he was my best friend, well I would not do it any other way, it was so paceful and of course I was crying as was my sister, I said what if I am making a mistake and our vet assured us that this was for the best and if he was going to get better he would have in the first 24 hours, but he gave us each a kiss and then he was gone. All my neighbors had already come to say goodbye to him the day before, yet they where all sitting on a neighors porch so they culd say goodbye one last time. ( I am crying as I am typing this), once the van passed with him in it the most amazing thing happened, our friends yellow lab went out into the street as if to say good bye.

    From that day forward I am a firm believer of having your pet put down at home. I am also a big advicate of Paw Print Gardens in West Chicago which is a creamatory and pet cemetary.

  • In reply to Doreen Clark:

    Doreen - you made me cry....

    thanks for comment and story....

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    We've had the misfortune of losing 3 members of our dog family in the last 4 years, so unfortunately, I have a lot of experience in this area. The hardest was our dog Tino as he didn't have any acute physical impairment, well other than the fact he was blind, but he'd been blind for 5 years. He was just slowly winding down, totally incontinent, barely eating, you could just feel it and see it. Making the decision to have him euthanized was incredibly hard, but I do remember one thing our very caring vet said to help us "You can never be too early when your dog is in this state, but you can be too late". I really took that to heart and resolved that Tino wouldn't have to suffer another day. He went peacefully in our backyard under his favorite tree.

  • In reply to SlimDoggy:

    "You can never be too early when your dog is in this state, but you can be too late".

    I have said the same thing....all this is making me weepy, though - you're right - and your veterinarian is too.

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    In reply to SlimDoggy:

    You're absolutely right. I tell families that are struggling with the decision to remember that euthanasia is used not just for ending suffering that is occurring at that moment, but also to prevent suffering from occurring at all. The guilt of knowing your baby was in a great deal of pain and you could have stopped it from happening at all is many times too much for families to handle - that is more common in my practice than the opposite.

    Dr. Robin Downing, a renown pain management vet, says "they don't deserve to suffer." So true!

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    Wonderful response Steve! You and I talked about this a few weeks ago; "how will I know it's time?" is the most difficult (and important) question a veterinarian has to answer in their career and it's much more complicated than "call me when he/she stops eating." The answer to when "it's time" is dynamic, subjective, and highly dependent on what disease process the pet is experiencing (as you said above) as well as what the family's wishes are for their baby. Some families are more comfortable waiting a longer period of time while others want to prevent any suffering from occurring at all. As long as pain is managed properly (this is the most important symptom to be managed in hospice care), there is no right or wrong answer here. Remember that choosing a veterinarian, especially during the end of life period, is no different than choosing a pediatrician - if you're not on the same page with your philosophies, desires, and approach to treatment, then find a doctor that better represents your wishes.

    Wishing you well B.M. & others!

    Dr. Dani McVety
    Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice

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