The hardest part of owning a pet is deciding when it’s time to euthanise your pet.
The decision can feel gut-wrenching and families may feel that they are causing their best friend’s death. They forget that euthanasia is a gift that, when used appropriately at the right time, prevents further physical suffering for the pet and emotional suffering for the family.
The origin of the word euthanasia translates to “a good death”. That’s a wish that world-renowned hospice vet, Dr Dani McVety, wants for every pet before they enter a sustained period of suffering.
“I believe that every pet should have as great of a quality of death as possible. I also believe that that happens ideally in the home.”
It is our responsibility, as loving pet owners, to provide the best death possible – and in some ways, a better death than many of us humans are going to get, the vet believes. Despite this, she acknowledged that the hardest part of the euthanasia experience is making the actual decision.
“There will be some level of guilt associated with making the decision to euthanise… but I also take on the privilege and honour, as a pet parent and as a veterinarian, of being able to make that decision and guarantee a peaceful passing instead of risking a very stressful and painful passing that many animals go through.
“I promise you, in the end, that helping a friend a day too early is better than helping them a second too late,” she added.
“There is not one person I have ever talked to that has regretted making the decision too soon. They almost always regret making the decision too late.”
Sometimes well-meaning pet owners hope for a “natural death”, but this is very uncommon in domesticated animals.
It’s important to remember that in the wild, elderly or fatally injured animals will separate themselves from their pack and become prey for another species. This doesn’t happen with domestic animals.
Without intervention, the animal will not experience a true “natural death” and instead may be left to experience sustained suffering. Waiting too long and drawing out the end-of-life process is often distressing for pets and families alike.
When determining when is the time to euthanise, we’re talking about quality of life – which is a subjective thing.
Dr McVety explains the three periods of a pet’s life cycle.
The first and third phases are fairly obvious. We know when our pets are happy and have a good quality of life. Similarly, the signs of suffering are usually fairly obvious to pet owners. However, once a pet crosses into the middle phase, where their quality of life is compromised, this is the subjective period when euthanasia is an appropriate decision.
Deciding when it’s time to euthanise a pet can be difficult because this middle phase may be a large time period. Some owners prefer to euthanise their pet at the start of this period – closer to what Dr McVety calls the “ultimate diagnosis”. Others will push the boundary closer to the period of sustained suffering.
Depending on the type of disease your pet has, this subjective period could be months to years, or it might be just a few days or even hours. Conditions such as congestive heart failure or brain tumours will have a shorter subjective period; compared with arthritis or degenerative myelopathy, which usually have a longer subjective period between diagnosis and suffering.
During this subjective period, there is no right or wrong time to euthanise a pet. Owners who have experienced the end of life journey with a previous pet will often make the decision earlier, as they have the lived experience of leaving this too long.
It is also important to consider not only the pet’s quality of life, but also how it may impact on owners caring for elderley pets. Prolonging the end-of-life journey often means providing ongoing responsibilities, which come with financial and emotional strain.
Supporting families through deciding when it’s time to euthanise a pet is dependent on the disease process, Dr McVety said. To help owners to make a decision, she asks them to weigh up two important factors: pain and suffering, and happiness.
Pets should never suffer. One of the main goals of euthanasia is to not only stop suffering if it is occurring, but also to prevent suffering.
“The way I define suffering is the inability to physically do anything else, and the inability to mentally think about anything else, other than the pain that you’re in … that pain might be mental or physical pain,” Dr McVety said.
Panting, pacing, whining and crying at night are signs of pain and anxiety, more common with larger pets who often may be experiencing end-of-life arthritis.
Happiness is another important symptom when considering a pet’s quality of life. Quality of life goes away when your pet no longer does the thing they love, Dr McVety said.
On the other hand, a decline in a pet’s happiness isn’t just about them no longer doing the things they love. Another indication could be if they stop responding to something they hate, or something that usually annoys them. For example, if your dog runs to the door to bark at the postie every day, but they have now stopped doing this, it could be a sign that they are experiencing a poor quality of life.
Dr McVety warns that eating, or a loss of appetite, is not always a sign that your pet is experiencing a poor quality of life. On the contrary, she has experienced many well-fed dogs and cats continuing to eat until their final moments.
Changes can sometimes occur due to old age and the pet slowing down. If you expect your pet is entering the period where their quality of life is being compromised, chat with a vet about the pet’s specific disease. Your vet will guide you on the changes to look for based on the specific disease process your pet is experiencing.
It is our responsibility as pet owners, to take an educated approach with your vet, based on your pet’s condition, so that your pet does not experience prolonged suffering, Dr McVety advised.
She urged pet owners to ensure the passing is as calming, loving and peaceful as it can possibly be, rather than crossing over into the phase of sustained suffering.
Making the decision early is often best for both the pet and the family, she said.
The team at Goodbye Good Boy offers individualised support to help you and your family navigate this difficult time, with quality-of-life checks, in-home euthanasia, cremation and aftercare services, and personalised memorialisation options. Our services can even be pre-paid to help ease the financial burden at the time of your pet’s passing.
To learn more about our pet end-of-life services, give us a call on 1800 573 186, or visit our website goodbyegoodboy.com.au.
Goodbye Good Boy is Australia’s premier pet end-of-life service. From grief counselling to euthanasia and cremation services, to fitting memorial options, we’re here to help you navigate your pet's end-of-life journey.
Dedicated owners treat their pets as equals in life. Goodbye Good Boy promises the same in death - offering a similar type of send-off you would expect for any other family member.