When do you put your pet to sleep?

Springville Journal article published June 2001.

by Dr. Scott G. Nachbar

"How will I know when it's time?"

The other day I was faced with a situation that all pet owners ultimately face one day: When is it time to let go of their beloved pet and longtime friend and put him or her to sleep? This is a subject that we would rather not think about, because it is invariably painful to our hearts and minds. Many hope that the decision will be made for them, that their pet may just die in his sleep. While this does sometimes occur, it is rare that this would happen without some degree of suffering of the pet in the days before. It is my goal today to give you some tools and guidelines that have helped my friends and clients to make that difficult decision when that time came for them.

First, always remember it is important to acknowledge your feelings about the situation and not to bury them or pretend that they aren't there, or that your emotions are foolish or silly since "it's just an animal". If you bury your feelings, they will only come out later and be harder to deal with. Many people tell me they feel sadness, pain, anger, frustration, helplessness, loss, and loneliness over making this decision. But the most common emotion they relate is GUILT. "How can I do this to my best friend?" or "I feel that I am letting my beloved pet down and abandoning him." It is natural for us to feel this way, since most caring people look inward to see if there is something they should have or could have done better or different.

To help with these feelings, you must determine your pet's quality of life as it is now and how it is likely to be in the future. In order for you to do this, you need an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition. Your veterinarian can play a big role in helping you to make this assessment, since he or she is skilled at interpreting your pet's physical condition and telling you how your animal really feels. I usually begin by asking about how your pet is behaving at home. Is she eating well? Is he alert and active or could he care less about what is happening around her? Does he still seem to know you and his surroundings? Can she keep herself clean or has she lost control of her bodily functions? How is he moving? Stiffly, limping, unable to get up? Has there been any weight loss? Does she rest and sleep easily or is she unable to get comfortable? By the answers to questions like these and the results of a thorough physical examination, we begin to see a picture of your pet's current state of being.

Diagnostic testing, like blood tests and X-rays, can be very helpful to further define the condition and tell us how severe it may be, and whether a good treatment is available. Some tests are easily accomplished, and some require fairly invasive procedures with anesthesia and possibly surgery. Some tests are inexpensive and some have a high cost both in time and money. When considering tests, it is important weigh the potential benefit of knowing the results to the costs of doing the test, both in finances and in costs to your pet, such as stress, pain, and risk of the procedure. There are very good methods to alleviate stress and pain and to perform testing in a minimally invasive way these days, and your veterinarian can help you to determine the cost versus benefit of any diagnostic tests.

Now with a clearer picture of your pet's condition, you must determine the likelihood of your pet's quality of life improving with the available treatment. Is the treatment likely to work? Are there side effects from the treatment or medicine? What is the short-term prognosis and the long-term prognosis? Is the cost of the treatment more than I could ever afford? Even though the treatment may potentially make things worse for a short time, is it very likely, somewhat likely, or not very likely to make my pet's quality of life better? Again, your veterinarian can help out here. He or she may know someone else with a pet with a similar condition and can relate how a certain course of treatment worked. Sometimes the condition is very complex or rare, and your pet may benefit from seeing a veterinary specialist in a certain field, such as surgery or internal medicine. Don't be afraid to ask for a referral if you would like another opinion.

Finally, knowing the answers to the above questions enables you to make an educated decision about what to do. Have I tried everything that is reasonable and within my ability to do? Is it working? Is my pet's quality of life acceptable to me now? Is it likely to improve or worsen in the near future?

Remember, your pet has looked to you for all of his needs throughout his lifetime, including food, shelter, love and affection, and freedom from pain. When her body is tired, diseased, or just worn out; when life is a great effort just to survive another day; when you know in your heart that you have done all you can reasonably do for her; then it is time for great courage and selflessness, time to provide that final rest and peace, time for reflecting on all the good times and joy you had together, time to let her go. You may feel all those other emotions, but you must not feel guilt, because you know in your heart you have done all you could have done and that your friend is now at peace. You have done the right thing at the right time.