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When It's Time....

For most of us when a new puppy, kitten, or rescue becomes part of our family the last thing we are thinking about is the end of life. That the bouncy, carefree ball of fur in front of us will grow old and infirm or develop a devastating disease is something we can't conceive of at that moment. Veterinarians are not immune to this fact of life: Our beloved pets become old, develop diseases, and suffer.

Over the years I have been asked many times how to know when it's time. While there are some other reasons to consider euthanasia, I am referring to a pet with a disease process or a severe injury. Some veterinarians say that when the bad days outnumber the good days it's time. While there is some logic to this I find it a little too vague. I'm not sure many of us are counting our pets' good days and bad days.

My advice has always been based on situations I have observed over my years as a practicing veterinarian. Once I made a housecall and found a 100lb plus Great Dane who experienced a back problem and could not walk. It's owner was a 90 lb little old lady. Otherwise the dog was healthy, eating well, with no other chronic diseases. In this case the main issue was nursing care. If the dog had been owned by a muscular body builder who could pick it up and carry it outside to do it's business things might have worked. This was not possible in this case. Other nursing care issues can be things like large tumors that are not possible to remove and ulcerate and become infected. Tolerating the smell and mess takes a very dedicated owner.

Another case that I remember vividly was a young cat that was hit by a car. He presented with 3 broken legs, one of which had a bone protruding through the skin. When presented with the cost of treatment the owners were unable to bear the financial burden. With the acute suffering the cat was experiencing and the inability of the owners to financially care for the cat euthanasia was a strong consideration. This is another reason to consider euthanasia, that is, acute suffering for which for whatever reason there is no way to alleviate it. Now the rest of the story: as I was speaking with the owners about what the cat would require for treatment and what it would cost I was absent mindedly petting him. To my astonishment he started purring. I decided he had to have a chance so I asked the owners if they would surrender him to me and I would treat him and find him a home as an alternative to euthanasia. He lived with us for the next 18 years.

A third reason to consider euthanasia is when a pet has a chronic disease of some kind and they have reached the point where no treatment can help them. This usually involves appetite and or mobility. I currently have an elderly cat who has chronic vomiting due to inflammatory bowel disease. While his symptoms are being controlled with medications for now I know there will come a day when he stops eating. This will be the signal to me that it's time.

Euthanasia means "good or easy death". We are fortunate that we are able to provide our pets a way out of their suffering. Ultimately it is the owner and caretakers decision when that time comes. I have seen cases where I would have decided differently but I never judge. One thing that makes me very upset is when someone tells me that family or friends are telling them they should put their pet to sleep because of something that they wouldn't want to deal with. I have had clients gratefully thank me when I tell them their dog doesn't have to be put to sleep because it's blind or has some other manageable condition, or is just "old". Over the years my experience has been that most of the time most of us will know "When it's time...."


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