Written by Krista Vernaleken, VMD
When I was in veterinary school, I adopted this wonderful basset hound, Murphy. He was a great vet school pet – content to hang out with me on the couch while I studied, but willing to go for a hike when I needed to get out. As we drove the 5.5 hours from Philadelphia to Cambridge to visit my long-distance boyfriend once a month, he’d nestle his head on the shoulder of my seat the whole time, watching the traffic, and keeping me company. My Murphy was the best, drool aside.
Then the diagnosis, in my third year of school – thyroid cancer. He had maybe a year, on average. There was no curative treatment, though we did what we could to slow the progression and keep him comfortable. One morning, while I was on my anesthesia rotation (a challenging one with long hours) he didn’t eat. I looked into his eyes, and somehow just knew. He had no significant outward signs of illness, other than the missed meal. All day, though, I just kept thinking something was wrong. And he had died at home by the time I got back at the end of the day.
In this world with so many medical advances, our pets are living longer, even with chronic diseases. And more often than not, we’re faced with the decision to determine that it’s “time” – time to let go, time to say goodbye, time to end suffering. We’re not usually “lucky” enough that our pets pass away peacefully at home, as mine did. I’m not here to debate the merits or downfalls of euthanasia as a choice. But assuming that you believe that euthanasia is an appropriate option for some animals, how do you know when?
How do you know when your pet isn’t happy?
To start with, this takes a soul-searching look at your pet’s life, considering what things you think your pet took the most joy in. Running in the yard? Playing ball? Cuddling on the couch? Following you around?
Does he or she do these things anymore? Ever? 50% of the time?
Does she wag her tail anymore? Is he eating?
Does she have any bright spots in the day, where you see a glimmer of her former self, even if it’s just for a few minutes?
Usually, when pets have slowed down but are still having some activities that seem happy, playful, or content, we’re in a good place. When we have uncontrolled symptoms of disease like vomiting, diarrhea, not eating, or other signs, the decision can be easier. The hardest time is often when every step looks uncomfortable – when they sleep later, only get up to eat, each trudging step to the food or water is like walking on stilts, and he collapses back onto the bed as though the effort involved just in laying down is painful. They look up at you and just sigh – it’s too much effort to come and greet you. When their brain is there but their body isn’t, it can be hard to know what to do.
You know your pet. Most owners reach a moment, where they look into their pet’s eyes, as I did with my basset hound, and just know. Today’s the day. My Murphy made that choice for me, almost as though he wanted, in a last gift, to spare me that decision. But they can’t all do that, and the last gift we can give to our pets, who gave us a lifetime of love, kindness, and loyalty, is to end the suffering. There’s no right time for every pet or owner. There’s no judgment about how early or late that decision was made. You know your pet.