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When Is It the Right Time to Euthanize a Pet?

Have you ever faced having to decide whether or not to euthanize a pet? Is there a worse decision to have to make? Probably, but it definitely ranks right up there. How do you know when it’s the right time?

There are many ways to gauge whether or not it’s the “right time” to euthanize a pet. Some people use a pet’s daily activity level to help determine whether or not they’re enjoying any quality of life. Are they eating and drinking, or do you have to take measures to ensure that eating and drinking occurs, like hand-feeding or adding tasty treats? Do they enjoy their usual activities—like playing with toys or going on walks? If it’s a cat, is he using the litterbox, or is he too painful to climb into it? Is he grooming himself? Is your pet interacting with family, or does she spend all her time hiding under the bed or in the basement?

Lapoflove.com offers a quality of life scale that can help you assign points to these and other questions and rate your pet’s current quality of life. You can also write notes about your pet’s condition in a daily diary and track his disease progression so that ultimately, you can make a decision in which you feel confident. For other people, the decision has to be made at more of a gut level than an objective one; the owner just intuitively knows that the pet isn’t enjoying life anymore.

Many people say that they “just want their pet to die at home.” Rarely, our pets will die at home on their own, unassisted. Know that a “natural” death, while it sounds ideal, can often be difficult and painful to watch. While it’s nice to think that we might be relieved of having to make the decision to euthanize by a pet dying on its own, we must remember that death can also be prolonged and agonizing for animals that are not euthanized. Often, owners who witness “natural” deaths come away from the experience traumatized because they wish they had taken steps to prevent the suffering that was involved.

I created an account on Lapoflove.com last week for my cat, Mickey. Please indulge me while I share a little bit about Mickey. He came to live with our family when he was 15 because he found himself suddenly homeless. At the time, I remember thinking, “I can’t let an old cat be euthanized just because there’s no place for him to go,” as well as, “Aw, how long can he possibly live?!”

Mickey has hung in there for a surprising five years, which makes him an elderly 20 years old now. He’s adjusted beautifully to both of my children, two other cats, and two dogs over that time. He’s always seemed grateful for the home he was given so late in life, and other than being very demanding at mealtimes, he’s been a perfect gentleman.

Mickey, like most other kitties of his advanced age, has kidney disease. He weighs in at a slight 4.8 pounds—all skin and bony bone. All of this was fine, until he started vomiting, eating less, and having very loose stools. Upon ultrasound, it was found that Mickey had very thick intestines. He underwent a course of antibiotics, but the diarrhea quickly returned. It is likely that Mickey has cancer in his intestines.

We are now giving Mickey steroids to help his appetite and make him feel better. It is fair to say that this is a last-ditch effort to make Mickey comfortable in his remaining days until he just can’t be comfortable anymore.

Only having owned Mickey five years, I didn’t really think the decision to end his life would cause me such an internal struggle. He’s very old. He’s very tiny. He hardly eats. He sleeps a lot. The last thing I want is for Mickey to suffer. But somehow, despite the fact that he scored a 10 out of 19 on the quality of life scale, (rating, “consider euthanasia”) I haven’t take action yet.

Ending a life is something we all should take seriously. Yet it is also a gift that we can give our animal companions so that they don’t have to struggle and suffer.

I haven’t made my decision yet. Right now, Mickey is in front of the heat register, enjoying the blowing air. Tonight, he ate some cheese, and I brushed him, and he purred. That’s all I have to go on for now, but tonight is not Mickey’s night. I think it’s soon, though–very soon.

For those of you who have lost pets, know that at AERC, we offer a Pet Loss Support Group the fourth Tuesday of every month so that you can talk to others who understand what you’re feeling.

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