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Small Animal (Dog, Cat)

The Best Dog

By May 15, 2024 No Comments

By Perry Stanfield,DVM

Without question, the hardest part about pet ownership is saying that final goodbye and saying it at the right time. There are many emotions in play -not wanting to prolong suffering, but not wanting to decide too early.  There are often feelings of guilt that we aren’t making the correct decision. Owners often have genuine fear of how they are going to carry on after the loss. How do we navigate this process?

Before we have that discussion with clients, we need to make sure we’ve considered all reasonable options for alleviating illness or pain. Have we done basic diagnostics to identify treatable conditions? Do we have appropriate pain sparing treatments in place? Arthritis and pain occur frequently with older pets and affect quality of life.   Beyond conventional arthritis medications, pets can benefit greatly from other modalities such as swim therapy, cold laser therapy, and acupuncture.  Have these been discussed?

After all reasonable treatment options have been exhausted, we return to the question at hand Some would say it’s up to us, the “experts”, to tell them when it’s time to let a pet go. Veterinarians have a very delicate responsibility to relay facts about a pet without specifically recommending euthanasia.  This is very much a family decision. We sometimes see patients that are in the process of dying, with an owner that doesn’t want to euthanize, and we do need to nudge an owner in the right direction. That is rare. Most pet owners simply want to make sure they are in the right thought process and are looking for their veterinarian to validate that they haven’t missed anything.

There is usually not a definitive moment where a pet transitions to a poor quality of life.   It’s not always as simple as “you’ll know when the time is right”, or “you’ll make eye contact with your loved one, then you’ll know”.   I know that many hope their pet will pass without having to decide for them.      Sometimes it happens this way, but most of the time it’s not that easy.

I prefer to think in terms of good days and bad days.  Bad days encompass poor engagement with an owner, loss of dignity, no appetite, no energy, incontinence and the like.  One bad day with no eating does not suggest it’s time.  What if the bad days over the past week outnumber the good days? Or, what if a pet refuses food, or water, for 3 days, or even two days? These are the criteria I would submit are the most useful for determining quality of life.    There are a lot of factors to package together when evaluating quality of life.   I wish I could offer a more definitive formula, but one does not exist.

End of life decisions are not easy and certainly demand a thorough discussion with your veterinarian.  Pet owners (and yes, veterinarians as well) naturally question whether their timing is correct. This is very natural. It can take at least 6 months for owners to look back at this difficult time, and recognize the timing of their decision, while not perfect, was well thought out, with love and discernment. Our fur babies deserve nothing less.

Dr. Stanfield and Zeus; now age 12

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