Knowing When It’s Time

At some point in our relationship, almost every client that I’ve worked with – in both traditional practice and hospice practice – has asked me how to know when it’s time to euthanize their pet.  It’s a hard question – we want to have as much time as possible with them, but we also don’t want to allow them to suffer, and it’s natural to worry about making that difficult decision either too soon or too late.

I wish I had an easy answer here.  I wish there were an equation that we as doctors were trusted with – multiply the pet’s age by their weight, divide it by some numerical value assigned to their diagnosis, subtract a point for each day they don’t eat, and when you get to zero a timer sounds and you know.  Or, if not that, that there was some concrete point or incident that I could tell everyone to look for.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Every pet is unique, and every person’s relationship with their pet is unique, and so the point of decision is going to be different for each family.  Some people want to be absolutely certain that they avoid any possibility of pain or suffering for their pet, and want to say goodbye sooner – and that’s okay.  Some people want to know that they’ve exhausted every possible treatment, and given their pet every possible moment of life – and that’s okay too.  And on top of that, every pet finds joy and happiness in different aspects of life, and so their quality of life is going to be affected by different things.

Quality of life is, ultimately, the most important factor in deciding when it’s time to help your pet pass.  And, as I said, it’s a very individual thing.   A 90-pound labrador retriever that’s used to being able to run and climb mountains with his family is going to be much more severely affected by joint disease and poor mobility than, say, a teacup chihuahua who’s used to being carried and cuddled for most of his interactions with his family.  On the other hand, that chihuahua (or an aloof kitty) is likely to be more negatively impacted by a need to take multiple medicines two or three times a day than the lab who will eat anything hidden in cream cheese or cold cuts.

One of the most important things that your veterinarian can help you do, as your pets age or confront chronic or terminal illness, is help teach you how to recognize their quality of life.  This is a deep collaboration between you, your pet, and the doctor – while they can talk you through what signs to watch for on the medical front, you know your pet’s personality.  You live with them every day, watch them, and know their favorite toys, treats, napping places, and things to do.  And it’s important to discuss these with your vet, and form a plan to pay attention to them and track them.

If your pet is seriously ill, your vet may suggest tracking their quality of life.  While there is no absolute equation, as I mentioned, there are factors that we can quantify and ways to track whether those details are getting better or worse.  If you’re having a hard time making a decision about whether your pet is suffering, having a way to look back over the past days or weeks and see objectively whether and how their condition is progressing can be a valuable aid.

There’s no way to make this decision an easy or painless one.  But by talking to your vet about quality of life, and paying attention to what your pet loves most, we can help you face this challenge with a little more confidence.