It’s the worst part of pet ownership, and the time we all dread – having to say goodbye to your beloved dog. It is really normal to struggle with decision making and to feel overwhelmed about this – but your vet is here to help you. Most vets are pet owners too, and almost all of us have been in this situation ourselves at some point, as well as helping countless clients through it, so we know how difficult a time this is.
The most difficult part, by far, and the part that most people struggle with the most, is decided when it is the right time to let go. A lot of us feel like we have a duty to keep our pets alive as long as we possibly can, and that we are somehow betraying them by choosing to end their life. That’s not the case.
We have a duty to make sure that our pets are happy, pain-free and have a good quality of life. If the health of our pet means that we can no longer provide that, then it is time to let go. It is natural to want to put this off as long as possible, of course, and this is where your vet can help you to see things objectively and support you in decision making.
What does quality of life mean?
Quality of life isn’t a simple, black and white issue – it is a scale with varying shades of grey along the way – but there are several factors to consider.
- Eating: Does your pet still enjoy their food? Are they able to eat, keep food down, still have a good appetite?
- Mobility: is your pet able to get up and down from lying down, move around the house as much as necessary, get outside to go to the toilet, go up and down stairs without assistance, go on walks and play games?
- Toileting: Is your pet still able to go outside to go to the toilet, if not and they have started toileting inside, are they laying in it or moving away from it? Is it beside the door (so they have made an effort to get outside?) or in their bed?
- Social: does your dog still enjoy interacting with the family? Does he still come to greet you when you get home? Does she still come and enjoy cuddles in the evenings, and act interested in what is going on at home? Or has he become a bit withdrawn and grumpy? Does she enjoy being petted less than before?
- You: People might not like to admit that this is part of the decision making, but of course it is – how are you coping? Is caring for your dog’s increasing needs taking a toll on you, or causing tension at home? Remember that your dog loves you unconditionally and would not want you to be stressed either.
Tracking your dog’s ups and downs
The decision to say goodbye could be based on a combination of all of these factors, or just one – and that’s fine. It can be normal for older dogs or dogs with a terminal illness to have good days and bad days. This makes it especially difficult, as one day you may feel that it is time to say goodbye, and then the next day it seems like he has a new lease of life!
In these situations, I usually advise my clients to make a note every day of how their dog is doing. It can be a full, detailed diary entry where you finish by giving them an overall score out of ten; or it can be as simple as making a happy face or a sad face on the calendar. Either way, when you look back over it after a few weeks, you will be able to see a pattern and it will become apparent if your dog is having more bad days than good overall. If the bad days are outnumbering the good more often than not, then it is probably time to say goodbye.
What if I feel guilty?
The important thing to remember about dogs, is that they have no concept of the future. When us humans think about our mortality, we often think about all the things in the future that we would be missing out on if we were to die prematurely. Dogs don’t think about this, they don’t understand what the future is.
He doesn’t understand that people will miss him, or that he won’t get to experience his puppy friend growing up. All that matters to a dog, is how he is feeling right now. If he is in pain, or feeling nauseous or fatigued, then it doesn’t matter to him that he may feel better at some point in the future.
Another difference between dogs and humans is that dogs are not scared of death. Humans think a lot about how death will feel and what may or may not happen afterwards. Dogs don’t understand this. And so, to them, death just means being released from the pain they are in, and nothing more. They have never given a second thought as to how long they would like to live, how we would manage without them, or what death might be like.
A lot of people feel guilt when making the decision to end their dog’s life. Naturally, we project these human feelings about death onto their dog, but there is no need for that. Making this decision is hundreds of times more difficult for us than it is for our dog. So, of all the feelings we will inevitably feel, guilt does not need to be one of them! In most cases, if your dog could thank you for letting them go, allowing them to have a peaceful dignified death and ending their pain, then they would.
Palliative care for dogs
That is not to say of course, that the decision to euthanase your dog should be taken lightly and as soon as a major health problem becomes apparent. Medical advances are improving all the time, particularly in the area of pain control and palliative care. So there are often things we can do and medications we can use to make your dog’s older years more comfortable and to keep him pain-free for longer.
Please don’t avoid taking your older dog to the vet because you believe that the only option presented to you may be euthanasia. You may be surprised that there are several options available to help improve your pet’s quality of life!
It is usually only when these options have been exhausted that we will then move to recommend euthanasia. Getting to know your vet and building a relationship with a vet who knows you and your dog at this stage is so valuable. They will be able to guide you through the options and will have a feeling already for your circumstances and your dog’s personality. This enables them to make personalised recommendations.
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