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The overwhelming joy of having pets is unfortunately accompanied by the inevitable sadness that comes with the end of their lives. As humans, sometimes feeling like parents, we must be witness to the death of our family member, our pet, our “child” as it so often feels. And unlike the movies, rarely is it that they just fall “asleep” for eternity, but rather we are put in that unique position of having to decide when it’s time to say goodbye, a process called humane euthanasia.
When age or illness changes a pet’s ability to function in a normal capacity, you start to ponder “quality of life.” What is this quality of life, and whose life are we talking about — yours or your pet’s?
As an emergency veterinarian for over 30 years, I have been there for clients needing advice on that most difficult decision. Veterinary medicine is now capable of allowing our pets to live longer, more “normal” lives, but there will come a time in all lives when no amount of medicine or money will be able to keep your pet alive.
Any time a pet starts showing signs that are different for them, whether obvious changes in appetite or thirst, movement or behavior, it’s time to consult your veterinarian.
When those signs relate to the ability of your pet to live life comfortably in their normal routine, various things need to be assessed.
Some of the most worrisome signs are the inability to breathe normally and eat or drink. Another sign is the inability to get up to perform routine tasks such as getting to their food or water bowl and the inability to get up as not to soil themselves.
In other words, when your pet loses the ability to live life in comfort and with a modicum of grace and nobility, it is a sign that something is wrong.
Your veterinarian is the person who has guided you and your pet throughout its life. The vet understands your situation. Ask your veterinarian about the options available. The age, breed and condition of your pet, and the financial reality of your situation will all play a part in your decision.
I have found that it’s especially difficult for first-time pet owners to make that call. Ask your veterinarian to go over the process.
Try to remember that this difficult decision is being made to ease your pets’ suffering.
When the time comes, it may be useful to have a comforting friend or family member come along for emotional support. I usually recommend that owners stay with their pets during the process, both as comfort to their pets as well as some form of closure for themselves.
People have different ways to honor their pets. Cremation is the most common choice, and the ashes can be stored in a vase in your home or dispersed over a favorite area of your lost pet. Some choose burial at a pet cemetery or on their own property.
Another way of honoring and giving tribute to them is to donate in their name to a meaningful organization, such as your breed’s rescue or health fund, or an organization devoted to research in canine health, such as the AKC Canine Health Foundation.
It is never an easy decision, but as a longtime mentor once told me, “it’s better to do it one day too early than one day too late.” It took many years to fully understand that, but I have found it to be true. Nonetheless, it’s still so difficult when you experience it firsthand.