Sunday, January 20, 2013

When Is It Time?

Making the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is the hardest thing a pet owner ever has to do.  For those of us who believe our pets are part of our family, the heart wrenching decision of letting our pet go is has no easy answers.  Every pet guardian has to make this tough choice at some point in life and it never gets easier.  So, how do we know when it is time?

Waiting until the animal is suffering with constant pain would no doubt make the decision to euthanize much easier to make.  Still, no matter whether we call it euthanasia, mercy death, or “putting them to sleep”, to choose to do it is difficult.

How, then, do we help our furry friends without letting our own longing or attachment get in the way?  Unfortunately, the situation calls for us to be brutally honest with ourselves.  We need to evaluate whether our decision to prolong their life is based on our own wants and needs, or theirs. 

Unless a pet is seriously injured and the decision must be an immediate one, the pet’s quality of life needs to be fully considered.  Ask these questions:  Are most of his days good?  Can he walk or stand on his own or has he lost balance and falls frequently?  Does he recognize you and the family?  Does he still have energy to enjoy his favorite activities?  Can he still hear and see?  Is he in chronic severe pain that cannot be controlled by medication?  Is breathing very difficult?  Is he no longer eating, unless force-fed?  Are there personality changes?  Is there frequent vomiting and/or diarrhea that is causing dehydration? Is there incontinence?  Honest answers to these questions will help determine how good the pet’s quality of life is.  Moreover, after asking all the above and discussing the situation with the veterinarian, perhaps most important question to ask is: Would I want to be here today, to experience this day the way he is?

Determining quality of life is a lot like being on a roller coaster.  While we hold back the tears, we make that final, dreadful vet appointment, only to have our pet appear to improve.  Repeatedly in the last days of life, it has been noted that animals experience a sudden surge of energy.  It is as almost as if they are aware that time is limited.  However, our pet’s condition worsens and once again, we ask the questions to determine our decision. 

For pet guardians faced with this choice, it may be helpful to understand what occurs.  It may also help the guardian decide whether they and the family wish to be present during the procedure.  First, the pet is made as comfortable as possible, often in the quietest room available.  In addition, a mild tranquilizer is usually given to sedate the pet.  The veterinarian will give the animal an overdose of an anesthetic called sodium pentobarbital, which he injects into a vein.  The injection is not painful to the pet.  The solution quickly causes not only a loss of consciousness and loss of pain, but gently stops the heart and causes breathing to cease.  The pet feels no pain during the procedure.  In many instances, the animal passes away so quietly that it is difficult to tell until the veterinarian listens for the absence of a heartbeat

The decision to stay or not stay with a pet is a very personal one.  For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming and they might feel their distress would only upset the pet.  For some, it is a comfort to be with the animal during his final moments.  Neither choice is right or wrong.  What is best for the owner is the correct decision and the vet will honor the choice.  James Herriot stated a view of many veterinarians in All Things Wise and Wonderful: "Like all vets I hated doing this, painless though it was, but to me there has always been a comfort in the knowledge that the last thing these helpless animals knew was the sound of a friendly voice and the touch of a gentle hand." 

You may feel guilty for deciding on pet euthanasia, or angry with the vet for even suggesting it.  Remember that the choice that was made was best for the pet, and give yourself all the time needed to grieve the loss of your dear friend. 

The responsibility of saying "enough is enough", when we are no longer doing right by our beloved companions by keeping them alive, is a decision ultimately made out of love.  It is knowing when it is time.


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