Our four-legged friends are more than just pets - over the years spent with us they become part of our family. The problem is that time seems to fly by. It often seems like just yesterday that they were puppies... and as much as we love our furry friends, there comes a time when we are faced with the decision of when to say goodbye.
Over the last few month I've spent many hours talking to clients about their aging pets - the worsening arthritis, progressing cancer, and end stage kidney disease, among others concerns. We've talked about the good days and the bad, options for traditional treatment and more holistic approaches, and overall quality of life. In each discussion we laugh about the good times and crazy antics of the pet's younger years, but the same questions always arise: am I considering euthanasia for myself or for my pet? How do I know when it's time to say goodbye?
While I cannot ultimately make the decision for you, I can help to guide you through the process of evaluating your pet's quality of life. Having been faced with the same decision over the years with my own and my family members' pets, I've always come back to asking myself the same questions:
1. Is my pet eating and drinking?
Is your pet able to drink water on their own. Are they able to eat the equivalent of a full meal, even if it's split into many smaller meals. It's okay if you have to switch from hard food to soft, or add chicken or other yummy treats onto the food, but we want to see them eating on their own. This also includes making sure they're not vomiting (either from the disease or medications).
2. Is my pet's pain being managed?
Many pets will experience discomfort from arthritis or cancer as their condition progresses, and it's important that they respond to the medications being used. We want to make sure they're not whimpering when you pick them up and that they're able to stand up and move around (to go outside, reach their food and water bowls, or be with the family). Some pets with neurologic disease may experience vocalization from dysphoria as well, which I would include in this category. We also want to monitor their breathing - they should be breathing slowly and steadily at rest and not coughing.
3. Are there more good days than bad?
When we know the time is getting close to saying goodbye, we often look past the bad days and focus on the good days, and this can make it difficult to determine how your pet is doing overall. I recommend tracking your pet's good and bad days on a calendar and looking back at the end of each week. You can add a smiling face or frowning face to your own calendar... use a green dot for a good day and a red dot for a bad day... or there's a tracker available from Lap of Love that you can print out for more in depth monitoring (download it here). This gives you a more objective look at your pet's quality of life.
4. Can my pet still do the things they loved most?
This was one piece of advice given to me by another vet (that's right - sometimes we as vets need the opinion of a colleague when it comes to our own pets). Think of the things your pet always loved to do - the things that made them the pet we came to love. Did they go crazy just seeing a tennis ball... but now they can't go for a walk around the block? Did they look forward to snuggling up with you on the bed at night... but now have to stay on the floor due to incontinence? Did they spend all their time staring out the window at the birds... but now instead stay on the ground, sometimes hiding? These are things we can look at to help us decide if their quality of life is still good.
If the answer to any of these is "no", then we can schedule a hospice consultation for your pet. During these extended visits, we will discuss each one of these questions and determine if there are any additional treatments we can explore, or if considering euthanasia may be the right next step for your pet. The important thing to remember is that you don't have to be alone in making this decision.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our furry friends is to prevent further suffering with a peaceful passing. After all, it's not goodbye at the rainbow bridge - it's until we meet again.
(You can read about the process of an in-home euthanasia by clicking here).