Last reviewed on August 28, 2015.
You’re so unsure; and that’s an understatement. You know it’s time... but then you really don’t. Perhaps you think you could never be sure. After all, it’s a life you’re taking into your own hands... your beloved life... the one you raised, shared so much with, and adored unconditionally throughout.
You need time. But do we veterinarians always give you a chance to reflect carefully on your choices? No, not always. Since our perception of your pet’s suffering is born of experience with these matters, sometimes we seek your acquiescence quickly to prevent suffering. Sometimes we’re pushy, or wrong. We’re only human.
That’s why I urge you to always “consider the source” when making your decision to euthanize your pet. Remember, we doctors are more likely to view the situation dispassionately with the “do-no-harm” theme playing in the back of our heads. Sure, we see suffering all around us and we want to prevent it, but not at the cost of your personal beliefs or by crossing your moral boundaries.
That’s why this post is about YOUR decision, YOUR choice. Sure you trust your veterinarian, but the decision for euthanasia is ultimately in YOUR hands. That’s why I offer a sampling of reasons pet owners cite as the primary rationale when electing euthanasia for their pets. Because while it’s all about what’s best for your pet, your feelings count, too.
My hope is that as you contemplate euthanasia for your pet, you’ll consider these common ways my clients have come to decide on the timing of their pets’ euthanasia. Perhaps they’ll help you more comfortably arrive at a good decision, with less suffering on your part.
1. A sign
Many of my clients wait for a specific sign of impending death and set their clock by it. It’s as if they know their pet is almost ready... but not quite. Not until their pet shows them the sign that lets them know it’s imminently over can they recruit the strength they need to make the decision. Inability to stand. Refusing food. No longer drinking. These are the most common signs clients cite.
2. The second opinion
In case you’re a new Dolittler reader, you need to know that I’m a huge fan of second opinions. And I tend to like them courtesy of specialists. While specialists might not always offer you the best bedside manner, and other second-opinion vets might not know you well, getting one more brain on the job––especially if said brain concurs with your regular veterinarian––might help nudge you in the right direction... or it might just save your pet's life.
3. "I woke up one day and I knew it was time"
This might be the most common mode of decision-making I hear about. This moral certainty some pet owners arrive at on their own has an amazing way of granting peace. And I confess this to have been my luck with my own pets thus far.
4. Friends and family
Sometimes you just have to trust your friends and family. Though I’ve heard my share of sad stories where friends and family just didn’t “get it,” many of us are fortunate enough to enjoy close ties to like-minded people who can move us in the direction we need.
5. "I can’t stand watching her suffer anymore"
It happens after a chronic illness, usually. You’ve tried everything at least once. you’ve tried combinations of everything. You’re all tried out and yet your pet still suffers. You’re dragged into the situation––kicking and screaming, maybe––but you’re all out of options and you can’t stand the suffering anymore.
Here’s where your faith in a higher power can make all the difference. Praying for guidance––and receiving it––works well for many of us.
Some calamity has befallen your pet. Things went downhill fast. Surgery went all wrong and the cancer was everywhere. You really have no choice. Being “forced” can be a blessing, but it usually feels like a curse. In these cases the decision really is almost out of your hands. Veterinarians call euthanasias like this a “race” to see which is first, the euthanasia... or a natural death born of extreme circumstances.
A corollary to this concept of being forced is one I consider far sadder: when you have no money to continue to treat.
8. Resignation and relief
It’s no longer in my hands, you tell yourself. Things are just too wrong. You’re all cried out. Now you’re ready. Euthanasia is almost a relief.
9. Preventing suffering
You may have heard me say this before, but I’ll say it again: Sometimes it’s better to be a week too early than a minute too late. For example, the patient I have scheduled for an at-home euthanasia later this morning. She’s a 13 year-old Golden named Apple. After hip surgery her elbows began to deteriorate. She can still make it around with help, probably for months, but at what cost? Her family will be gathered today with the expressed goal of preventing future suffering.
10. Serious trust
Here’s where I may appear to backtrack somewhat: If you should be lucky enough to have a truly great relationship with your veterinarian, you’ll likely have talked death before the fact. But perhaps you haven’t and it's a last-minute crisis. Either way, assuming your veterinarian is someone you implicitly trust, that’s when you ask the question: What would you do?
Most of us here have been through a number of euthanasias. More than likely you’ve experienced a combination of some of these reasons at the time of your own pets’ euthanasia You’ll also recognize that every situation and every pet is different. We never seem to pass the same way twice––for better or for worse. So here’s where I ask: What reasons did you come by along your way?