Pet Euthanasia: How Loving Pet Parents Weigh Their Most Difficult Decision
We reviewed the most common reasons cited when faced with euthanizing a beloved dog, cat, or companion animal. And asked families to anonymously share any words of wisdom.
July 09, 2023
Deciding to euthanize a beloved companion animal is one of the most difficult decisions any pet parent faces. It's a deeply personal journey, wrought with emotion and unanswerable questions.
So how does anyone begin to trudge through such questions? We turned to the community of families using CodaPet’s quality of life questionnaire to find out. We reviewed the most common reasons cited when faced with euthanizing a beloved dog, cat, or companion animal. And asked families to anonymously share any words of wisdom they may have for other pet parents who are reaching this stage with their pet. Their insights and pearls of wisdom appear below to guide our discussion.
“To think with one’s head not heart. Which is not at all easy”
It is quite hard to think objectively when assessing the life of someone who has brought you immeasurable joy and who relies on you to make the best decisions on their behalf. Using tools such as the Quality of Life questionnaire can help guide the process, especially when taken at regular intervals it can identify gradual changes. Another helpful tool is a calendar or journal to mark good days and days of struggle. When using a monthly layout, you can gain a visual representation of your pet’s quality of life.
Several key themes emerged from the responses we gathered from pet parents. While no two pet-loss journeys are the same, here are the most common threads observed by families considering pet euthanasia: physical distress, changes in behavior, serious illness, and loss of basic functions. Let’s take a closer look at each one and how other pet parents are thinking through these issues.
“She is in pain and I need to end it but I love her… I need to think of her, not me and get her to a better place.”
Physical distress may include persistent pain, nausea, and trouble breathing (respiratory distress is always an emergency). Some of these signs will be more apparent than others and some may be able to be managed through medication or therapeutic treatments. But families will eventually reach a point when their pet is decompensating and interventions are no longer effective at keeping physical distress at bay. As one pet parent said, “As long as she isn’t in pain I feel she still has some quality of life and I don’t feel selfish keeping her with me.”
“Our once social, adventurous cat, only gets up to eat, he barely responds to social cues…I know we’re just about there, but the final decision is so difficult.”
Significant changes in behavior can manifest in a myriad of ways. Commonly quoted changes include loss of appetite leading to drastic weight loss, marked lethargy, diminished hygiene or self-grooming efforts, and loss of toileting habits. In the absence of dramatic changes, it can be helpful to consider a short list of your pet’s favorite activities, say three things. For a dog this may be barking at delivery drivers, excitement for eating, and walks around the neighborhood. For our feline friends the list could be jumping onto a favorite surface, meowing at feeding time, and claiming empty bags or boxes as their own. Whatever list makes sense for your pet’s personality, decide if you believe euthanasia is warranted at the loss of one item, two, or all three. As one pet parent observerved their pet, “sleeps most of the day but does silly dance when she wants treats.” In contrast, another noted their pet, “was always an active dog who engaged everyone... [He] is telling me it is time to let him go.”
“My sweet boy has no fight in him anymore.”
Serious Illness: While illnesses such as cancer or kidney failure are mentioned, the decision is often more focused on the accompanying symptoms and the pet's suffering, rather than the disease itself. We may theorize that this results from cases when pet parents see signs of illness that have not been definitively diagnosed. If there can be a silver lining here it is that serious illnesses and subsequent suffering make the decision to euthanize a little easier. That is not to say the emotional burden is lighter, just that the confidence in it being “the right time” is often stronger. One respondent reflected on their pet’s condition saying, “He was not his normal self and keeping him with [us] feels selfish.” Another pet parent saw what likely lay ahead and said, “I don't want my pet to…go through all of those difficulties. She does not deserve that when it's not necessary to do so just because I'm going to miss her terribly. She was good to us, and I want to be good to her in her end of life stage.”
“I don’t want her to suffer.”
Loss of Basic Functions: While there is some overlap here with the behavioral changes, answers frequently cited the ability to maintain bladder and bowel control, the inability to stand or move independently, and refusal or inability to eat or drink. Mental acuity is another basic function that can be hard to identify when lost. Cognitive decline can manifest in a variety of signs such as altered sleep and wake cycles, house-soiling, and disorientation; which again overlap with significant behavioral changes. Caretaker fatigue can play a larger role in cases where pets have lost basic functions but are not dying from a specific disease process. When autonomy is lost, but death is not imminent, many pet parents struggle to weigh their pet’s loss of dignity and their own emotions. We heard many responses saying, “I feel [he] is ready to go but I’m having a hard time making the final decision.” and “[I] don’t want him to suffer; but can’t imagine life without him.”
“[It’s] difficult to assess. More distressing for me than her at this stage.”
No simple answer. Euthanasia is a deeply personal decision, grounded in the unique relationship between a pet and their parent. What stands out from the experiences shared by our community of pet parents is that it’s compassion for the pet that drives the decision-making process, and that it's normal to experience a wide range of emotions, from guilt and sorrow to relief for the pet finding peace after suffering.
It's essential to remember that every pet's journey is unique. The path leading to the decision to euthanize a pet is paved with many factors, from the pet's age and overall health status to the effectiveness of available treatments, and your personal beliefs surrounding timing. According to one pet parent this is where the process begins. They believe, “the first step involves building a framework for assessing quality of life by thinking openly about what your hopes, fears, and bottom lines are for both you and our pet.” The final and perhaps most important consideration is the pet's quality of life.
If you're in this challenging position, please reach out to your vet, loved ones familiar with you and your pet, or schedule an appointment with a CodaPet in-home euthanasia veterinarian for support. The Quality of Life questionnaire can be a helpful tool to support these conversations, as it can provide more objective data over time for how your pet’s quality of life is changing. We recognize that this process is hard. As pet owners ourselves we have walked this road and resonate with this pet parents comment, “This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life!” It’s important to realize you're not alone in this, and there's help available to guide you through this impossibly difficult time. What matters most for our pets in the end is to, “make sure they know they are loved.”
Dr. Gary graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, he moved west. Dr. Gary spent a year at a mixed animal practice in Oregon before moving to Fresno where he worked at All Creatures Veterinary Clinic from 2011-2021. Dr. Gary grew up constantly learning and finding ways to help others. He loved everything animal related, whether it was watching wildlife or visiting pet stores. His parents allowed him to have a variety of pets growing up from hamsters, fish, and parakeets to iguanas... as long as they did not need live food. Dr. Gary believes precious memories with your pet should never be overshadowed by a stressful goodbye. He has firsthand experience with the stress of saying goodbye to his first dog Willy at the clinic, and since then being able to say goodbye to two other dogs at home. This is why a peaceful passing at home is so important to him. In his free time, Dr. Gary enjoys family time working around his small hobby farm, watching sports, and hiking around the Sierras. Read More