Euthanasia: Making the Tough Decision

A few weeks ago, I asked my facebook friends a question about pet loss and grief. Interestingly enough, one of the most common responses had to do with knowing when it's time to euthanize a pet. And that led me to the idea that maybe I should curate some information that helps people on that topic. With this in-mind, I contacted my veterinary channel partners and asked, "How do you know when it's time to euthanize a pet?"

In this post, we'll hear from Dr. Sondra Elson of Compassionate Heart. Sondra offers in-home euthanasia for companion animals and she answers this question every day. And that's what she talks about in this guest post. Take it away Sondra!

How do I know when it’s time?

This may be the most commonly asked question by pet owners deciding on whether or not they should euthanize their furry family member. It is (rightly so) a very emotional or subjective decision….to which sometimes the answer isn’t black or white. Overall, one must listen to their heart. A good question to ask yourself is: would euthanasia be giving a gift or some relief, or would you be taking something away (favorite ball time, running/jumping, playtime, favorite activities, etc) from your pet?

The other thing that is commonly mentioned is “pain”. I hear people say that they don’t know if the time is right because their pet does not seem to be in pain. As humans, we think that an animal in pain would cry out, or wince, or vocalize in some way- that is not always the case. As an example, a pet that is limping due to bone cancer is in pain….if they were not they would use the limb normally….whether or not they vocalize is irrelevant. The fact that the have altered their behavior (ie not using the leg normally) indicates that they are painful.

The other thing I think is extremely important to remember, is that suffering CAN & DOES exist frequently without what we would classify as pain. Pets that are not eating are doing so because they are uncomfortable, or possibly nauseous. Imagine if you didn’t eat for even 24h, how does that make you feel inside? Same thing with being dehydrated….you feel really awful. Occasionally pets may pass in their sleep unexpectedly, but this is the very rare exception not the rule. Death and the process (days, weeks, months) leading up to it is almost never a peaceful and painless process, in fact it usually involves prolonged suffering. Waiting too long, and allowing unnecessary suffering to be extensive is often followed by immense guilt. No one wants to say goodbye to their furry family, but the saying “better a week too early than an hour too late” really does apply. Not just for our pets, but for our ability to heal and forgive after the fact.

To clarify, I am not suggesting that you should euthanize your pet if they don’t eat for 24h. But if a senior pet has stopped showing interest in food, the time has come to do one of the following:

  1. Have diagnostics performed (what is the problem and is it fixable?, ie bloodwork, Xrays, ultrasound)
  2. Provide palliative/hospice care (anti-nausea medication, appetite stimulants, pain control, fluid therapy)
  3. Consider humane euthanasia

The same 3 options above apply to any persistent change in behavior, not just a drop in appetite.

    I mentioned earlier that knowing when it’s time is a subjective decision. There are quizzes available to owners that help them to assess Quality of Life. Now if the quiz states that euthanasia should be considered, it doesn’t mean you have to proceed that way. BUT, it does give an objective component to a very emotional decision. It won’t hurt to take the quiz, but it can help in the decision making process. Here is a link to our website where we discuss commonly asked questions regarding euthanasia, and it includes links to Quality of Life questionnaires. The links are about halfway down the page, highlighted in blue.

    Many hugs to all of you out there dealing with this decision…

    Thanks again to Dr. Sondra Elson of Compassionate Heart for her guest post! By the way, Sondra provides complimentary phone/email consultations for families that wish to discuss quality of life issues, when "it's time", or what to expect during a euthanasia appointment. You can contact her at or by phone at (619) 344-0045

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