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How Do You Know When It's Time to Say Goodbye?

By Dr. Bob Encinosa

One of the blessings of my profession is being able to help animals leave this life gracefully. In their final days we can choose to not subject them to uncomfortable medical and surgical heroics. We can give them death with dignity, which is just what most of us hope for ourselves and fear we won’t get.

What most pet owners have difficulty with however, is knowing when the time is right. They fear making a premature decision and losing valuable time together, or they fear waiting too long and having the regrets of selfishness.

The answer is not always easy, particularly when it’s complicated by finances. Not everyone is willing or able to spend two home mortgage payments in return for a 15% chance for 6 months survival, with quality of life during those 6 months still uncertain. But finances aside, the humane answer is usually more apparent. The trick is to get your heart out of the way, if only for a short while. Many of life’s mistakes are a result of “thinking” with our hearts and not our heads.

So, I’ll tell you how I tend to look at these end of life decisions, and how I have helped many people come to a timely family decision that they can live with.

Our beloved pets get happiness from three major sources:

1)Our attention and affection
2)The enjoyment of food

The rule I try to follow, is if they are still enjoying these things, they deserve the opportunity to stay on the planet a little longer.

Of course, playing may no longer be on the list for a 19 year old cat or a 16 year old Shepherd, but it is a real loss to a 4 year old Cavalier Spaniel with heart disease.

You may have noticed that the mention of pain is not in the above guideline. Here’s the reason. Pain is very subjective. Animals certainly don’t complain as much as we do. Often they just get quiet and despondent, making it very difficult for us to tell the level of their discomfort. Also, in many cases, pain is transient. The pain from a broken leg would be intolerable long term, but it can be fixed and the pain will end. Also, even chronic pain can be reasonably controlled with medications. Virtually all of us will end up spending many years on medications to control pain, and we will still enjoy life.

But the final reason I don’t often include pain in these end of life discussions, is that when the pain is severe and uncontrollable enough to make a pet’s life miserable, they stop enjoying most or all of the three things on the list. They stop playing. They stop eating or just become very uninterested in food. And finally they become more and more unresponsive to your attention and affection.

The process of euthanasia can be quite painless and peaceful in the hands of a skilled veterinarian, so here’s a final thought that I have talked with many people about, and I hope it has helped them make an unselfish decision:

At the end of your life, wouldn’t you like to simply fall asleep…. no pain, no family despair while they watch you waste away for days or weeks, knowing there is no hope for recovery. I know that’s the way I want to go. That is what we can give our pets as a final gift of our love.