How Can I Tell if it’s the Right Time to Euthanize a Pet?

As a pet writer, one of the most common questions I receive concerns euthanasia or the decision to “put down a pet.” As a pet owner, the decision of if and when to euthanize can be an extremely difficult one.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years: when the time is right, you will know it. There won’t be a shadow of a doubt in your mind. In cases where a pet owner writes, asking me for my opinion on whether they should euthanize a pet, I always explain that the very fact that he/she is questioning whether it’s the “right” thing to do tells me that it’s not the right time just yet. When euthanasia is the correct decision, you will simply “know.” It will be the only course of action that makes sense; when the time is right, it won’t seem like a decision at all. It will be something that you simply know must be done.

Over the years, I’ve always listened to my animals. They always seem to “tell” you when it’s time to leave. And while a veterinarian can provide you with advice and information on the pet’s condition, nobody knows your pet better than you do. So while I definitely recommend considering your veterinarian’s advice when deciding whether to euthanize, do not allow your vet (or anyone else for that matter) to make the decision for you.

Sadly, many people in society view animals as disposable; their lives are worth less than a human’s life. But in our house, we respect all life, regardless of species. Therefore, in our family, everyone receives equal consideration in life and in death. For instance, you wouldn’t euthanize a person if they became paralyzed; you’d treat the patient and purchase a wheelchair. An inability to walk doesn’t mean that the individual’s life is no longer worth living! So when Kota became paralyzed, we accommodated her disability and she continues to enjoy life.

Of course, cost and care also plays a major role in many pet owners’ decision of whether or not to euthanize. But at the end of the day, it comes down to quality of life. It can help to make a list of pros and cons. When the cons far outweigh the pros, then you may be nearing the end. (Though, again, if you’re unsure to the point where you need to make a list, in my experience, this means that it’s not the right time just yet.)

What works for one pet owner doesn’t necessarily work for another; this is true when it comes to accommodating an animal who is sick, elderly or who has special needs. For instance, I work at home, so I’m on-hand to provide around-the-clock care to Kota. Throughout the day, she goes in and out of her wheelchair multiple times (a dog can’t really sit while in a wheelchair, so unless she’s actively running around, Kota generally prefers to relax on the couch or in bed.) She alerts me to when she needs to go to the bathroom, and so forth. If I didn’t work at home, her quality of life would decline dramatically. She wouldn’t have anyone to help her in and out of her wheelchair. She’d probably have bathroom accidents while sitting on her bed or on the couch, and this would lead to skin sores and infection. This is a good example of how what works for one pet and owner, may not work for another. So it’s important to consider your ability (and desire) to care for your sick, special needs or aging pet.

Your veterinarian can provide you with key information about your pet’s condition or illness. Use this information to help in the decision-making process. Your vet can provide you with information on whether your pet is in constant pain; often, it’s more humane to euthanize a pet who is in constant pain that cannot be managed, as this results in a very poor quality of life.

I also recommend getting a second opinion and thoroughly investigate the treatments or medications that are available to your pet. I’ve been told on several occasions that my animals were “beyond hope and help,” yet they recovered. So always get a second opinion and investigate whether there are treatments, medications or care strategies that can improve your pet’s quality of life, even if it’s just for a brief period of time.

I’m a strong believer that life must be treated with respect. I do not euthanize in anticipation of illness or decline; I don’t recommend that others do this, as it’s a recipe for regret. For instance, last year, I rescued a litter of feral kittens. Two of those kittens — Callum and Jules (pictured) — are FIV+ (FIV is the cat-version of HIV/AIDS.) Our veterinarian recommended euthanasia, but we declined. Why? Well, firstly, all of our other cats are vaccinated for this particular strain of FIV+, so the chance of transmission is extremely low. Secondly, Callum and Jules were (and currently still are) asymptomatic! FIV, like HIV, can remain dormant for years. And while it’s likely that someday, Callum and Jules will get very, very sick due to FIV, the fact remains that they are healthy and happy today.  It’s virtually certain that Callum and Jules will have a shorter-than-average lifespan, so why shorten that lifespan even further? This is the only life Callum and Jules have; once it’s gone, they can’t get it back. So we chose life for our kittens (who are now very happy, spunky cats!)

Side Note: What’s more, FIV tests detect the presence of FIV antibodies; not the actual virus. Their mother, Kelsey, was FIV+; it’s possible that she passed her antibodies to the kittens while they were nursing. This can result in false-positive test results up until the kittens reach six months of age! So, in fact, if we had euthanized Callum and Jules, there was a very good chance that we would be euthanizing healthy kittens!

Pet owners must also decide whether they’d like to be with their pet during the euthanasia process. Next week, we’ll explore the process and the pros and cons of opting to be with your pet when he or she is put to sleep. We’ll also discuss the options for your pet’s remains, along with the pros and cons of these various options.

For more pet care tips, stop by PetLvr’s archives.

Photo by Mia Carter

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Mia Carter is a professional journalist and animal lover. Her furry family members include 6 dogs and 12 cats. She is also a feral cat colony caretaker. Carter specializes in pet training and special needs pet care. All of her animals have special needs such as paralysis, blindness, deafness and FIV, just to name a few. She also serves as a pet foster parent and she actively rehabilitates and rescues local strays and feral kittens.

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