Deciding when to euthanize a beloved pet is one of the most difficult choices a pet lover will ever make. It is, however, a choice that must be made, rather than watching your pet waste away and suffer. How do you know when it is time to let your dog go through euthanasia rather than waiting for nature to eventually take its course?
When your dog is horribly injured, the decision to put them to sleep tends to be far easier than when they are elderly and/or ill from one or more diseases or old-age maladies. It is only natural to feel guilty at the thought of what some people see as taking their dog in to be "killed." Struggling with whether or not you are making the right decision, even after the fact, is normal. Sometimes the greatest act of love is letting our pets go.
Figuring out when the right time is may be somewhat simpler after answering a few questions. Answering them honestly and bluntly is important; don’t sugarcoat your responses to make yourself feel better or skip one because it doesn’t seem to apply. These questions are not listed in order of importance. Some of these questions should answer your own question on their own while others work with a cumulative effect.
- Does my dog still want to spend time with me? Dogs are naturally loyal, loving, affectionate creatures. Your dog spends their life with one main goal: loving you. If they have given up for whatever reason, be it lack of energy or lack of comprehension, this alone is significant.
- Is my dog interested in his/her surroundings? Dogs naturally pay attention to the activity going on around them. Different dogs have different responses, so you should take into consideration their behavior in the earlier years rather than comparing them to another dog or some universal definition of interest. Do they care when you leave or return home?
- What is my dog’s quality of life? Are they still enjoying something, anything, whether eating or playing with a favorite toy or basking in the simple pleasure of a tummy rub? Is your dog able to walk around?
- Is there something off in my dog’s behavior that cannot be solved by consulting with a professional? Dogs have moods just like people do. A sudden change in behavior is worth pursuing; don’t simply assume it’s all over because your dog is suddenly depressed. Figure out why, and whether or not there is a solution. There may not be, and you should find out.
- Are they in pain? Dogs have a higher pain threshold than humans do, yes, but dogs are also more reluctant to show pain for the same reasons they hesitate to show illness: survival instinct. Pay close attention to changes in their movement, a lack of wanting to climb stairs or go on a walk. There are a multitude of pain medications available from your veterinarian, and there is nothing wrong with medicating your dog. Quite the opposite, in fact, you absolutely should treat your dog’s pain, just as you would your own. There is no excuse for allowing a dog to suffer. Is your dog’s pain manageable with medication?
- Is my dog still eating? Dogs who stop eating entirely and show no interest in anything are letting you know just how miserable they are. Keep in mind food on its own is not an indicator either way because just as there are quite a few reasons your dog may stop eating, many dogs will also continue eating right up to their last day. If your dog stops eating, tempt them with more mouth-watering options like chicken breast (no bones, please) or even meat baby foods, which have such an intense smell and strong flavor it takes a very sick dog to refuse them.
- Is my dog extremely tired and withdrawn? Dogs are highly social animals; being around their people is what brings them joy. A dog going off on its own to lay in a corner all the time or who gets up and walks away whenever someone approaches to offer attention is letting you know their state of mind and body.
- Do the bad days outnumber the good?
- Are they still housebroken or are they having frequent accidents? Dogs who were housebroken before tend to be distressed by their potty accidents. They know, because they were taught to know, that going in the house is “bad” and “wrong,” which means your dog may be visibly upset over their unavoidable messes.
- Is your dog a part of the family? Do they display age or illness-related problems that make the family give them wide berth rather than the love and affection of their earlier, healthier days? Although there are very few scenarios where it is at all excusable for a pet to be alienated from the rest of the family, they do exist. For example, elderly dogs or dogs in a great deal of pain may snap and growl when you try to interact with them. This behavior is a huge red flag. Do they ever enjoy time with your family or other pets? Do they seek out the company of one of your other dogs to sleep?
- Does your dog recognize you? Dogs suffer from senility like people do. However, with a dog there is absolutely no chance they understand what is going on. They’re simply frightened and confused, unable to comprehend the words being said to them. You cannot explain to a dog why or what is happening to them. Imagine not knowing the people around you, not knowing why you are in pain or suffering, and the only explanations being offered are in a foreign language coming from another species altogether.
- Do they know where they are? Again, senility does happen in elderly dogs. But, again unlike people, you cannot explain any of this to your dog. It is incredibly difficult to explain these things to an elderly person with Alzheimer's, but it is impossible with a dog. Does your dog behave in an obviously confused manner? Is it clear they are not mentally there any longer?
You know your dog best. Although the opinions of those on the outside looking in are well-meaning and may very well be accurate, you are the one who lives with your dog. You see their day-to-day behavior and know what they were like before growing old or sick. Talking it over with your significant other or a close friend is a good idea, although ultimately it is your decision. Take some time to say goodbye, giving them their favorite treats and cuddling them extra long. Remember, dogs are sensitive and will pick up on your distress, so do your best to act happy and let them know how much you love them. Your dog has doubtlessly been a source of strength and comfort for you countless times over the years and now it is your turn to be strong for their sake. We all wish and fervently pray for our pets to simply pass away in their sleep when they reach old age or have a serious illness, but unfortunately we all too frequently must make the decision to put an end to their suffering. Take comfort in knowing that letting your dog go is often the kindest possible thing you can do for them.