When is it the right time to say goodbye to a pet?
While in the vet clinic I was asked this question a lot, at least on a weekly basis. It’s a question that anyone who has a pet asks themselves when their pet gets old and starts to show signs of deterioration. There are two ways I’ve always answered this question, mostly because once you give an owner the “professional” answer they always ask “off the record, what would you do if it was your dog?”, which is still a really hard question to answer because the way I handle my dog or cats is I know 100% different then the way someone else may handle their pets. I have in my life had to put, so far, one pet to sleep and that was my childhood dog. The dog that helped me through my grandma’s death and laid in bed with me while tears just rolled on to her fur. The dog who once again just laid in my bed and let tears roll on to her fur during my parents divorce, so I know it’s a hard decision and really is the only decision that you yourself can make. But if you are in this situation and need guidance this is what I can offer.
On a professional level – you have to ask yourself a few questions when you come to the decision of is it time for me to say goodbye or do I hold on just a bit longer. First is there a medical condition that is causing what is happening or is it just because old age is finally taking over?
When it was time for me to say goodbye to my childhood pet she was 15 years old, that’s a decent number for a German Shepherd/Blue Heeler, but as far as I knew she didn’t have any huge health conditions. She had a difficult time getting up the stairs because of her arthritis, she fell going up them all the time. She slept and hid a lot, I’m not sure if the hiding had to do with her not wanting to be around my husband and my dog because she was younger and would try to get Sunny to play or if it was because she just wanted to be alone and rest. Her appetite had started to decrease and she was constantly panting even when she was in cool places she just sat and panted, which is a clinical sign of pain. So in my, at the time partial professional mind because I was in school, I started walking through those steps that our professors had taught us for the end of life in a pet.
This is where the owner in me comes into play but at the same time this is what your vet team is going to ask if you call 1. what’s the quality of life? Even if it is just old age, when it takes over some of the effects of old age can be hard to deal with and hard on the pet. You have kidneys that start to fail, so you have urinating in the house. You have eyes that start to get cataracts or just get hazy because they are old eyes and they can’t see. You have other bodily functions that you never thought would be an issue will pop up, loosing their bowels, and just becoming weak. If they have a medical condition that can affect a lot of different systems and bodily functions too. 2. If it’s something like cancer that you’re looking at you have to look at it this way, do we proceed with chemo which where I worked wasn’t cheap like $1500 and up depending on the cancer and chemo meds. So do you want to fork out thousands to try to keep your best friend alive just a little bit longer while they have to reap all the side effects of chemo or do you just put them on pain meds and possibly steroids to keep them comfortable the last days of their life? If it’s a medical condition like a heart murmur or heart failure you’re looking at how far progressed is it? If not far can we put them on heart meds and help the heart with whatever it may be experiencing which is normally trying to keep fluid out of the lungs and keep that blood flowing the way it should be. Or is it so far progressed that even meds isn’t going to slow it down and they are going to continue to have exercise intolerance, continue to struggle breathing and just be lethargic and not want to eat because they are putting everything they have into being able to breathe? There are endless amounts of diseases and other conditions that can pop up with a pet that is getting older or other systems that can be affected with a diagnosis of a medical condition and where to go from there. Yes in some cases medication can help, it won’t cure it no matter how badly you want it to the medication will never cure it. We put pets on medication to slow the progression of the condition or disease just like they do in humans. So eventually the time will come to say goodbye.
On a personal level or “off the record” I share this – when it came time for me to say goodbye to my best friend it was one I personally fought with for weeks. She had her good days and she had her bad, but in the last 2 weeks the bad out weighed the good 95% of the time. The final blow and moment that made my decision final was heart wrenching. I had just let Sunny outside, my mother in law was standing on the porch watching her while I went back in the house to tend to my son. Suddenly my mother in law came running inside in a complete panic, ” Jen! Sunny collapsed!” I handed her my son, ran out the door jumped over the porch railing and ran to her. She was laying on the ground in puke, she had a pile of diarrhea behind her and when I picked her up to carry her inside her side was soaked in urine. Holy crap, what just happened!? As I carried her into the house tears streaming down my face I saw my husband working in the yard and screamed for him and he met me inside. I set her down on a blanket and just held her praying this wasn’t it. Within five minutes she pulled out of it and acted like nothing happened, she was fine. That night after a lot of tears and fighting with myself on what to do I made the call. I called my resident vet at school and told her it needed to be done sooner than later. I couldn’t watch her suffer anymore, it was to heart wrenching and tore me apart. The falling up the stairs, the no appetite and me having to basically soak her food in either tuna juice or gravy to get her to eat it and then this episode, I couldn’t watch another one or risk another one. When we took her in and the vet did her exam we discovered that she had a grade 4 heart murmur. That’s the worst there is, you can feel it when you place your hand on her chest over her heart. I felt terrible, I had no clue and that explained that weekend’s episode. I should’ve been able to find that but she never let me listen to her heart, she wouldn’t even let me get close to her with a stethoscope without growling. She wasn’t a fan of the vet, so me trying to practice my new learned skills was never a go with her. But there was and is no use in beating yourself up over something you didn’t know about. So I said my goodbyes and told her many times she was such a good girl and before I knew it she was gone. It was one of the hardest things I’ve still to this day ever done.
Now as our old faithful pit is getting older every day we keep staring down the face of medical issues along with old age and I once again am faced with what to do and what’s right for her, not me. In the last 5 years she is seeming to get whiter and whiter in her face all the time, and her health gets worse all the time. On top of the fact that she is allergic to just about everything under the sun, she has developed a heart murmur which I was prepared for since she was treated for heartworms, she also has a few masses in her prescapular region(shoulders) that I’ve looked at the cells under a microscope and I am about 90% positive it’s a cancer of some sort, as does my fellow vet team. To add to all of those in October she was in the truck with my husband and she started to act weird, like a dog that has been abused all their life, and trust me this dog has been far from abused if anything she’s pampered probably more than I am. You’d lift your hand to pet her and she would just flinch. When my husband got home with her she had thrown up and just wasn’t coming out of it, she walked like she was drunk and was very twitchy. We took her in and the small town vet here couldn’t figure out what was wrong, blood work was absolutely beautiful and unremarkable, UA was normal. So none of the diagnostics told us anything, which led to “well I can refer you to the U in Minnesota for MRI and CT’s.” That’s not happening, I don’t have over a grand to drop on my 11-year-old dog to see if she has a possible brain tumor. So we pumped her with some injectable Benadryl to help with inflammation since she was on an NSAID and we couldn’t give her steroids. PS, in case you didn’t know, if your pet or even yourself is on an non-steroidal anti inflammatory medication you SHOULD NOT take steroids that’s a good way to cause a stomach ulcer for starters. So, since I had her on Rimadyl for her arthritis she was not about to get pumped up with prednisone and cause other issues. On our way home that night from the vet I had to restrain her in the backseat the entire way home. It was like she was hallucinating, she screamed and thrashed all over. Once we were home she was still kind of walking like she was drunk and it took her about 12 hours to get back to her normal self. That was the first episode, she had another about a month later. So I called my girlfriend that’s a vet at my previous clinic and we talked in-depth about everything and the possibilities. We’ve basically concluded, without diagnostics because all the symptoms point this direction that she more than likely has a brain tumor. Sure it could just be siezures because they can pop up with old age, but with her history I’m leaning more towards cancer in the brain because it just makes more sense medically to me. Can I put her through all the diagnostics to make sure that that is in deed what it is, sure if I had like I said over a thousand dollars to put towards that and then treat her with chemo. But when it comes down to it I have to play the devils advocate, unfortunately and listen to my inner Vet tech. She’s 11 years old, lets say we pump upwards of 5 grand into diagnostics, so extensive blood work, CT scans, MRI’s just to be told that yes in fact she does have a brain tumor or a cancer of some sort. Then what? Pump another couple thousand into chemo so she’s uncomfortable and has to fight nausea and all the other side effects of chemo so that she’ll possibly live another 6 months? Maybe a year or 18 months? No, I’ve seen dogs fight cancer and chemo and they don’t look happy, they struggle. Instead, I personally would rather dope her up on her heart meds, her pain meds/anti-inflammatories and make the remainder of her life with us comfortable. Maybe it’s different for me and others in the vet field because we’ve seen the effects of both first hand. Whether you do meds or chemo, they both can potentially extend their life, but one way I saw they were more comfortable was with doping them up with meds that don’t have as many side effects. If its cancer and you feel like you want to fight it with chemo that’s your choice, you have that option, for me and mine that’s not an option financially but also morally I can’t do it. I can’t watch her fight the side effects of chemo, I’d rather her be doped up on pain meds or steriods and have to deal with those side effects and watch her have more good days off the chemo than more bad days on it. I don’t by any means think she’s going to be leaving us now, but I am preparing myself for it to be sooner than later. She still has a wonderful quality of life, the moment she stops acting like a total idiot when she hears the word ride, or hears the 4 wheeler fire up then I’ll know it’s time.
The owner in me tends to take over the tech in me when it comes to my own animals, it should but I still listen to that tech that gives that close to the end or end of life speech to her clients. The “what’s the quality of life of your pet” talk. Ultimately when it really comes down to it, no matter what I tell you professionally or even what I tell you off the record isn’t going to change anything. In the end it’s still your call, your choice. Nobody can make that final call for you. Being a professional and dealing with death and euthanasia daily while in practice, and being a pet owner and having to make that decision for my own pet I can say this, in your heart if you listen to it, you’ll know. There will be a sign, there will be something that will happen like with my childhood dog, that will make you say that’s it, I can’t do it anymore. I can’t watch you suffer, I can’t watch you be in pain, I can’t continue to watch you struggle through out the day just to get up and do it again the next day and that’s all your life consists of. Not only your heart will tell you, your pet will. They won’t wage their tail like they used to when you come to them, they won’t get excited about the things that used to make them happy, if you really pay attention and this may sound crazy but listen to them they’ll let you know when they are ready to go home. It’s never an easy decision anyway you look at it, whether it’s because old age has just taken over or because of an un-curable medical condition that is finally coming to the end of its course, it’s a hard decision and it hurts like hell. But I can promise this, 99% of the time it’s the right choice, and they are in such a better place and not hurting anymore when that final breath is taken.
So no, I’m sorry I can’t tell you that yes your dog is so bad off that it needs to be put down. I can’t tell you that that medical condition is going to be cured and they are going to make a miracle recovery, because odds are they won’t. The choice is yours and yours alone. If in your heart you feel like it’s time, then listen to it, go with it, it’ll hurt but it’ll honestly hurt you more and that pet if you continue to watch them struggle and let them. In the vet world we know it’s hard, we’ve all in that field had to say goodbye to our own pets so we know how much it hurts and we, at least at the clinics I was at, try to make the process a little less painless and many are more than willing to hold your hand, hold you, hug you and even hold and hug your pet for you if you just can’t. I’ve cried many tears on to the fur of many animals that weren’t my own. So when you make that extremely tough decision know your not alone and your vet team will be there for you to help you through this extremely difficult time. Never hesitate to talk to your vet team about what they think, and to even help counsel you on what you should do. When it comes down to it the golden rule I feel for the end of life is quality of life, is it there?
I hope this helps any who may be facing this reality now, and helps you look at that pet in all aspects of the phrase quality of life and make the decision that is right for you and most importantly what’s right for your pet.