HOW DO I KNOW WHEN IT'S TIME TO LET MY PET GO?
Today’s blog is going to focus on ways to help you make the decision of whether or not it is the right time to have your pet euthanized. Euthanasia means “good death”, and when the time is right it is a very humane way to end a beloved pet’s suffering. Natural deaths are often prolonged with a large amount of suffering, and they are often not peaceful either (although there is no absolute guarantee that euthanasia will be peaceful, we do our best to make it so and in the majority of cases it is). I will say that I have been practicing exclusively in home end of life veterinary care for over 2 years, and I feel that most owners are excellent at realizing when it is the right time to let their pet go – of course we doubt ourselves, and there is almost always some guilt associated with making the decision, but in general owners are better at judging how their pet is doing than they believe. Have faith in yourself!
There is no set formula or test to know exactly when it is time to euthanize (I wish there was!), and no one wants to make the decision too early. However, in my opinion a day too soon is better than too late. Because it is such a fine line, and older pets can deteriorate quickly, I provide my services 24/7 and try to always have same day appointments available to the best of my ability. I am going to talk about some things you should consider and some tools you can use. In future blogs I will talk about planning ahead in the weeks or days prior to a euthanasia to help ease the stress as much as possible and anticipatory grief, which many pet owners experience when they know their pet is nearing the end of his or her life.
The key is thinking about your pet’s overall quality of life. Just because a pet is eating does not mean it feels good and/or is content (it’s very common for owners to want to wait until their pet stops eating to make a decision). Pets have an innate survival drive and many pets continue to eat despite the fact that they are very sick or suffering. And it is especially difficult when your pet is having “waxing and waning” symptoms, with good days interspersed with the bad, because we want to be hopeful that the bad times are temporary and the pet will recover.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
1. IS MY PET STILL ENJOYING HIS OR HER FAVORITE THINGS?
Think about 3-5 favorite things your pet enjoys. Can he or she still do over half of those, and seem to enjoy themselves during the activity?
2. IS MY PET HAVING MORE GOOD DAYS THAN BAD?
This is a tough one, because it is so subjective. I suggest that you download the Grey Muzzle app or a blank calendar, and marking every day as good, bad, and/or OK to track trends and know when the bad days are becoming the majority. A day where a pet who typically loves to eat refuses to, or turns down his or her favorite treats, may be a bad day. A dog who loves to go for car rides being unenthusiastic about one may indicate a bad day.
3. ARE THERE TREATMENT OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO IMPROVE MY PET’S QUALITY OF LIFE?
Certain conditions, such as arthritis, may be greatly improved with the addition of treatment (such as medication, acupuncture, physical rehab, diet changes, weight loss, etc) to the point where a pet with an unacceptable quality of life improves enough to get better, maybe even for months or years. You need to talk with your veterinarian about the options available for your pet. If options are not available and your pet’s quality of life is poor, euthanasia should be considered.
When I perform a quality of life assessment, I almost always employ certain scales to try to get a better assessment of the pet, since I am only seeing him or her for a “snapshot” in time. These scales are completed by the owners, because as I mentioned YOU are the expert on your pet.
1. VILLALOBOS QUALITY OF LIFE SCALE
This scale can be found online, with dog and cat versions available. It is one of the only “objective” measures we have. It can be confusing trying to figure out exact scores, so don’t get bogged down and just give it your best.
2. BEAP PAIN SCALE
Our pets are masters of disguise. As predator/prey animals, they innately hide when they are sick or suffering as a survival mechanism. Cats in particular, as they evolved from solitary hunters, did not need to develop facial expressions to communicate with others. When dogs and cats do show pain, it is often not in the ways that we look for or expect (such as limping or vocalizing). I have a list of common pain symptoms I am happy to email to owners, so please contact me if you would like a copy emailed to you. The BEAP Pain Scale is available online (with versions for dogs and cats) and is another way to assess your pet. It is confusing as well, so I tell owners to check off all symptoms they see and decide which category best fits their pet.
A previous blog I wrote talked about “doggy dementia”, or canine cognitive dysfunction. Cats can suffer cognitive dysfunction as well. There are some available scales for assessing your pet’s cognitive decline. Common symptoms include restlessness or vocalizing (especially at night), circling or pacing, getting stuck in corners, behind furniture, or going to the wrong side of the door (near the hinges) when they previously did not.
If you are struggling to make a decision, it may be helpful to enlist the aid of family and friends and ask them how they see your pet doing. Photos and videos to see physical changes over time may prove beneficial as well. Another extremely helpful resource is the Difficult Decisions brochure from OSU’s Honoring the Bond program: https://vet.osu.edu/vmc/sites/default/files/files/companion/HTB/Difficult%20Decisions%20brocure-web%20layout%20%282019%29%20digital.pdf.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or concerns. I do offer Quality of Life assessments in your home, if you feel you need more guidance and are struggling to make a decision. Thank you so much for reading!