While advances in veterinary medicine are allowing your pet to live a longer, healthier life, the most difficult decision you can make regarding your best friend’s care is when to let them go. There’s rarely a clear-cut answer as to when is the “right” time to put your beloved dog down—rather, it’s a culmination of a variety of factors. While no one can make this difficult choice for you, there are a few things that can help.
Talk to Your Veterinarian
One of the most common questions veterinarians hear is, “When should I put my pet down?” This is an intensely personal decision, and many veterinarians are reluctant to give a concrete answer unless it’s clear the pet is suffering. When asking your veterinarian for advice, they can guide you through this challenging task and help you reach a decision. Your veterinarian will let you know the medical issues your dog is battling, and the prognosis and progression of the disease.
When a pet’s quality of life begins to decline due to an illness or injury, something must be done to alleviate that pet’s suffering. A serious medical condition, such as a terminal illness or a severe injury, will negatively impact a pet’s quality of life. Common signs of poor quality of life include loss of appetite, lack of interest in playmates, toys, or other people, reclusive behavior, worsening pain, and depression. In general, euthanasia is considered when there are no other options for improving quality of life. Several situations warrant a discussion about euthanasia with your veterinarian and your family.
- Chronic or terminal illness: A dog with a terminal disease may temporarily respond to treatment. However, the dog may eventually stop responding to all available treatments or even get worse because of treatments. Consider keeping journal or log of your dog’s daily behavior, energy level, appetite, etc. When you are noticing more bad days than good days, it might be time to start thinking about euthanasia.
- Old age: Various health problems tend to come with old age, so it is important that your senior dog visits the vet often and on a routine. If your pet is slowing down, and your vet cannot determine a specific, curable condition, you may just need to offer supportive care. An elderly pet can still enjoy life, but when you see a more dramatic decline, you will know the time is near.
- Major injury: If a dog has a serious injury that is considered untreatable, your vet might recommend euthanasia. Usually, these are traumatic injuries that cause pain or impede basic functions like mobility and control of bodily functions. Sometimes, good nursing care at home can help maintain the quality of life for the injured dog. In other cases, the suffering cannot be relieved, and euthanasia is the most humane choice.
- Financial issues: Veterinary care can become very expensive, especially long-term care. If the cost of treatment is causing a hardship for your family, that does not mean euthanasia is your only choice. Start by speaking with your vet about your situation and ask about less costly options.
Whenever you have any questions about the medical aspects of your dog’s quality of life and what you need to watch for, contact your veterinarian. They will be able to walk you through indicators of your dog’s suffering, which you may be unable to detect. She will also explain the euthanasia process to ease your stress and anxiety by allowing you time to prepare in advance.
Track Your Pet’s Quality of Life
In younger dogs that have experienced a catastrophic trauma or illness for which there is no cure, such as a devastating car accident, a toxicity that damages organ function beyond repair, or a congenital defect unable to be surgically corrected, choosing when to euthanize your beloved dog is an easier decision. But, when faced with an older dog who is slowly declining, knowing the exact time to end your pet’s suffering is much more difficult. Use the aid of a quality-of-life scale to help determine how comfortable and happy your pet is on a daily basis.
One of the most commonly used quality-of-life scales is the HHHHHMM scale developed by Dr. Alice Villalobos. In the HHHHHMM scale, seven categories of happiness and comfort are evaluated to determine your pet’s quality of life:
Is your dog uncomfortable and showing signs of pain, even with pain medications, alternative therapies, and home modifications? Signs of pain include panting, licking the affected area, whining, moaning, reluctance to move, decreased appetite, inability to get comfortable, and decreased activity.
Is your dog eating regularly with a good appetite, or are they refusing food? If your dog is refusing to eat or is suffering from nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, you may have to hand-feed them or use a feeding tube to ensure they receive the proper nutrition. Many medications and diseases can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal upset. For pets that are nauseous and vomiting because of a disease process, speak with your veterinarian about anti-nausea medication.
Is your dog drinking normally? If they are drinking more or less than normal, abnormal drinking can be a sign of an unmanaged disease process. If you are unable to coax your dog into drinking enough to maintain adequate hydration, intravenous catheterization with fluid therapy or subcutaneous fluid administration may be options that the vet may consider.
Is your dog able to maintain normal grooming habits? If they have developed urinary or fecal incontinence, are they mobile enough to move out of the mess? The development of urinary or fecal incontinence is a deciding factor for many pet owners, especially when combined with immobility. Struggling to move a large dog out of her own urine and feces day after day is a difficult burden to bear and often damages the bond between owner and dog.
Is your dog happy? Does she still enjoy her favorite activities, and can she still perform them? Does your dog still greet you with enthusiasm when you come
home? Has your dog shown signsof anxiety and depression, isolating herself from the family? If your dog no longer enjoys her normal activities, consider if you are prolonging her life for your sake, rather than letting her go.
Is your dog able to move comfortably? Have they developed severe osteoarthritis or another crippling muscular or skeletal disorder? Are there medications, therapies, or surgeries that can improve your dog’s mobility? If your dog is unable to walk or stand unassisted, consider the toll immobility may take on their mental health, happiness, and hygiene.
More Good Days Than Bad
Does your dog have more good days than bad? Or, have the bad days begun to outnumber the good? Towards the end, you
may look for a few moments throughout the bad days to remind you of the good times—a tail wag for a favorite treat, a brief game of gentle fetch, or the devotion of following you from room to room throughout your home.
Because making the decision to euthanize your dog is incredibly difficult, access the included questionnaires and quality-of-life scales to help you determine how your pet is feeling:
- Ohio State University’s quality of life assessment
- Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice’s quality of life scoring tool
If your canine companion is having more bad days than good, consider letting them go peacefully with the aid of your veterinarian. After your loss, turn to useful resources and lean on family and friends to help you cope with the grief.