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Courtesy of Bigandt_Photography
Senior Golden retriever laying down outdoors in the grass.

The overwhelming joy of having pets is unfortunately accompanied by the inevitable sadness that comes with ending their lives. As humans, sometimes feeling like parents, we must be witness to the death of our family member, our pet, our “child” as it often feels. And unlike the movies, rarely is it that they gently fall “asleep” for eternity. Instead, dog owners are in the unique position of having to decide when it’s time to say goodbye, a process called humane euthanasia.

When age or illness changes a pet’s ability to function in a normal capacity, your veterinarian, as well as friends and family members, start to discuss with you “quality of life.” What is this quality of life, and whose lives are we talking about, you or your pet?

As an emergency veterinarian for over thirty years, I have been there for clients needing sound advice to make that most difficult decision, a decision that they often have never been faced with before and have little or no training. Veterinary medicine is now capable of allowing our pets to live longer more “normal” lives, but there will come a time in our lives when no amount of medicine, money, hopes or wishes will be able to keep your dog or cat alive.

Signs to Look For

Any time a pet starts showing signs of illness, whether visible changes in appetite or thirst, movement or behavior, it is time to consult with your veterinarian. Sometimes, after appropriate evaluation by your veterinarian, an assessment will be made regarding your dog or cat. When those signs relate to the ability of your pet to live life comfortably in their normal routine, various things need to be assessed.

Some of the most worrisome signs are the inability to breathe normally and eat or drink. Another sign is the inability to get up to perform routine tasks such as getting to their food or water bowl and the failure to get up as not to soil themselves. In other words, when your pet loses the ability to live their lives in comfort and with a modicum of grace and nobility, it is a sign that something is wrong.

Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian

Your veterinarian is the person who has guided you and your pet throughout its life. They understand your situation, and it’s important to know that every situation is unique. Ask your veterinarian their opinion on options available. The age, breed, and condition of your pet, the financial reality of your case, such as the costs involved in any form of treatment or therapy compared with the benefits and length of time of benefit (if any) that can be offered, will all play a part in the making of your decision.

It is never easy to come to that realization, but I have found it especially difficult for first-time pet owners to make that call. Ask your veterinarian to go over the process. Try to remember that this difficult decision is being made to ease your pets’ suffering rather than your own feelings is not only helpful but imperative. When the time comes, it may be useful to have a comforting friend or family member, especially one that may have previous experience with the procedure, come along for emotional support. I usually recommend that owners stay with their pets during the process, both as comfort to their pets as well as some form of closure for themselves.

The Final Goodbye

Various people have different ways to honor their pets: cremation is the most common choice, and the ashes can be stored in a vase in your home, on your property or dispersed over a favorite area of your lost pet. Some choose burial at a pet cemetery or on their own property if the local laws allow it.

Another way of honoring and giving tribute to them is to donate in their name to a meaningful organization, such as your breed’s rescue or health fund, or an organization devoted to research in canine health, such as the AKC Canine Health Foundation.

It is never an easy decision, but as a long-time mentor once told me, “it’s better to do it one day too early than one day too late.” It took many years to understand fully that, but I have found it to be true. Nonetheless, it’s still so difficult when you experience it firsthand.

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