- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
My wife put her arms around our beloved companion as a loving farewell, while the veterinarian administered a humane injection. She held on as a friend of 17 years painlessly slipped into their final sleep. The hug, and rush of tears, then transferred to me and we held one another for a long time.
It’s never easy to say goodbye, and making the difficult decision about a pet’s passing is one of the hardest things a dog lover will face. In an age of scientific innovation and a multitude of options and opinions, it’s smart to start early and think about the future decision you’ll face.
When is euthanization the best option? Don’t wait until old age or disease are at the doorstep; plan ahead in the early days and assess how you’ll want to handle the final day.
Let’s start with the basics: You may be best friends, but the difference in species means that, provided you’re healthy, you will outlive your four-legged friend. Giant breeds like wolfhounds and mastiffs often live only 7-8 years, and even the longest-lived like Chihuahuas and cockapoos average 16-18 years.
The romantic in you says the two of you will be together forever, but even with all our medical advancements, humans can’t cheat death, let alone our canine counterparts. PetcareRx provides a helpful chart for average lifespan by breed. If you don’t raise your pet from the puppy stage, knowing their age and lifespan is an important foundation to build on.
Of course, health complications and disease can change the age game, so it’s important you don’t wait until the average lifespan. Quality of life may be impacted by a disease, an accident, or chronic pain. Although we shudder to think of it, we might also face a serious behavioral issue. Be aware life may bring you one of the following:
- Accidents: No dog lover can control everything, and no matter how safe you are, life can yield tragedy. Whether it’s a falling object or a run-in with a vehicle or another dog, one disastrous moment might yield an even harder decision. Your veterinarian may humanely report that the best option for your buddy is a painless end to the suffering due to injury.
- Disease: Rabies is incurable and requires euthanization, but viruses like distemper—while they can be treated—often leave lifelong neurological damage. Larger and older dogs may suffer from degenerative joint disease, impacting everyday movement and activities. Regular vet visits help determine the severity or terminal nature of these conditions.
- Behavior: It can never happen to you… right? Thankfully we live in an era when medications and animal research make euthanization for behavior issues far less common. In these rare cases, a human support group will be essential. People often feel guilty that they failed somehow and need wise and loving friends if this occurs.
- Cancer: There is chemotherapy for dogs and ways to put tumor growth into remission. Just as with humans, treatments contain their own suffering and impact quality of life. They are also expensive, so you’ll need to consider the cost (below).
Petmd.com recommends monitoring five aspects of a pet’s life:
- Eating (adequate nutrition)
- Drinking (adequate hydration)
- Peeing (proper waste elimination)
- Pooping (incontinence, irregularity, blood in stool)
- Joy in Life (happiness in routines and activities)
Whether it’s old age or disease, a notable change in any of these may be a sign that the end is near. While each can be assisted with medical care, eventually they will catch up with your dog and you’ll need to begin weighing the quality of life. Other signs might include:
- Gums: If they aren’t pink, something may be wrong with their oxygen level.
- Forgetfulness: They seem lost or restless in familiar surroundings.
- Medication tolerance: It’s no longer helping with their pain.
- Hiding: You find them sleeping or cowering in unusual places.
- Intuition: Many dog lovers report they could just sense “it was time.”
In any of these cases, a veterinarian consult is the next step to confirm the condition or counter with a hopeful prognosis. In many of these cases, things might be done to prolong life—but at what price?
This isn’t a simple equation, but the reality is that medical care can get expensive. Treatments for tumors, organ replacements, and more can put you and your family in significant debt.
A New York Times article explored the questions of putting a price on our pets, and treatments and transplants can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. One family wondered if that money might have better been spent on medical research for dogs and other animals. That kind of thinking may be difficult, but wise.
If you knew the $7,000 you’d spend would give you a year—but only one more year—with your dog, would you spend it? Perhaps more importantly, and the hardest question to ask: Would that year be best for your beloved friend, or simply your difficulty in letting go? If the remaining months are filled with discomfort and pain, might euthanization be the caring alternative?
These aren’t questions to be solved with a calculator or equation. These are individual matters of the heart. But we can use quantifiable means to help us make a heartfelt decision.
Ultimately, those are the three things that we need to make a good decision about our dog: the tools to assess, facts and answers to our questions, and corroborating counsel. This will help when we face that day, and while we grieve over the goodbye, we can trust we’ve loved our dog in their passing as unconditionally as they loved us in their lifetime.