Saying Goodbye: Making the Difficult Decision to Euthanize a Beloved Pet

by Jennifer Barrows

Our pets are important to us – they offer companionship and comfort and often are considered a member of the family. We don’t like to think about it, but eventually the time will come when we have to say goodbye. Some advance preparation can make this difficult decision a little easier.

If we are lucky to have a long-lived pet, the most likely scenario at the end of their lives is to have organ failure, cancer or some other untreatable illness. The time at which a disease is declared terminal is usually the time when a pet owner’s grieving begins. In human hospice care, this is called “anticipated grief,” meaning we are coming face-to-face with the prospect of death and anticipating how we will feel at the time of actual loss.

Unless your pet is in pain, there is probably no reason to seek euthanasia immediately just because you receive a terminal diagnosis. Your veterinarian can give you information that can help determine your next course of action, and if there’s any sense of urgency. If the animal is suffering, timely euthanasia is probably the most loving thing you can do for him/her.

Being afforded a window of time together (anywhere from days to weeks or even months) can make the eventual loss of a terminally ill pet less shocking. Knowing that your time together is limited, you may wish to take your pet to his/her favorite places and give them lots of extra “together time” and special treats. Again, in human hospice care, this transition period is considered an important time for closeness and closure. Animal end-of-life care, to an ardent pet lover, is no different.

As lovely as this time can be, it is obviously not easy to witness a pet’s decline. So how do will you know when it may be time to assist your pet in making their final transition? Look for a few key changes, to help you decide, and of course, seek regular advice from your veterinarian.

If the pet seems comfortable and content, then there’s really no urgent need to hasten the death process. In such a case, the terminal illness hasn’t progressed to the point that may require action. Like humans, toward the end of a pet’s life, they are no longer interested in food and water. Their body can no longer expend the energy required for digestion, nor does it require the sustenance to complete the life cycle. It’s winding down. It’s at this point that you should observe the pet carefully for signs of discomfort. If they don’t demonstrate any, let them be, but know that they are down to their last few days.

Don’t be surprised if toward the end, your animal seems to have a sort of “rally” – this is normal, in both the human and animal death processes. For example, a dying cat may have stopped eating, and yet, the next thing you know, he’s jumped onto your desk and is walking across your computer keyboard, just like the old days. These are “gifts” in hospice care – these precious last vestiges of normalcy. While the refusal to eat or drink likely signals their time is near, the amazing three-foot leap indicates it’s not quite here yet.

Pay special attention to signs of acute weakness. While they may have been slower moving, due to their illness, as they near death, they will eventually become too weak to move. A cat may be suddenly too tired to climb out of the litter box, or a dog may lie down and not get up. The animal may have a wobbly walk or falter when they walk, or may miss a jump they normally are able to make – or not be able to hold their own head up. This usually means they have only hours left before they will likely experience discomfort, and should be helped to pass comfortably as soon as possible. Of course, this necessitates that the veterinarian can fit you into his/her schedule – so it’s a good idea to keep your veterinarian posted on the animal’s condition regularly, so that he/she can be prepared to see you when the time comes.

Usually within just hours of the onset of acute weakness, the animal’s body begins to shut down; their bowels and bladder release uncontrollably and they may experience painful seizures. This is definitely not something you want to witness. Do yourself and your pet a favor and schedule the final vet visit before this takes place.

Many pet owners assume that if they wait long enough, the animal will pass on its own. Unfortunately, in most cases, this would mean a prolonged and agonizing death. If you decide to provide end-of-life care to your animal in its last days, it can afford you some precious extra time, but this time should not be extended beyond the acute weakness stage. When you note the animal’s inability to move, prompt action is necessary.
Some veterinarians will make house calls for euthanasia, and certainly this provides your animal with a less stressful experience than a clinic setting. However, everyone is different, and either option should be in your pet’s best interest ultimately. Many veterinarians do not offer house call services, and that is why being prepared in advance is helpful. If you think you’d prefer to have your pet euthanized at home, do some research now – don’t wait – to ascertain whom in your area provides such a service. Give them a call and ask how much notice they typically need. When the time comes, if you’ve done your homework, then you can spend the last remaining moments with your pet, instead of frantically trying to make arrangements for how you can help them during their most vulnerable time.

Many people wish to be with their pet at the time of the euthanasia procedure, but everyone is different. If you have children, you may wish to allow them to say goodbye to the pet before it’s put to sleep. The last decision you will need to make is what to do with your pet’s remains. Your veterinarian can provide information about burial, cremation, or other alternatives.

Information on grief and pet euthanasia, resources for support groups, etc will be provided for a sidebar to this article.