How do you know when to say farewell to your pet?
One of the most common questions I am asked in my practice is “ How will I know when it is time to say goodbye to my pet?” This can be an incredibly hard decision for many pet owners and I myself have struggled deciding when to let my own pets pass. What I have found over the years working in this field is that the decision is a very individual one and there are no hard and fast rules. There can often be varying opinions on when the best time is even within families.
Of course we all hope when the time comes our pets will peacefully slip away while they are asleep and we are spared the difficult decision. This is unfortunately quite a rare occurrence and in many cases pets can suffer considerably waiting for this to happen. So unless your pet has been reasonably healthy and then suddenly passes in their sleep one night, you are more than likely going to have to make the difficult decision for them when you feel the time is right. Getting the “timing right” is I am sure what all pet owners aspire to, but doing so can be very challenging in certain circumstances.
The critical issue here is your pet’s quality of life and knowing when they are losing their quality of life. Sometimes this can be very obvious and the decision is clear – for example if your pet stops eating for several days in a row after a lengthy illness or they are unable to move unassisted – this may be all that is required to help some owners decide. Other times it can be much less obvious and require assessment of many other subtle behaviours and factors to determine a pets quality of life. Most pet owners have a fairly good grasp of what is normal for their pets from observing them over their lives. Using this as a guide it is easier to see behavioural changes that may indicate reducing quality of life.
The following is a list of changes you may notice in your companion that need to be considered when assessing overall quality of life:
- Dramatic changes in appetite or drinking
- Loss of interest in activities that once brought joy to them – not interested in playing
- Confusion, mental distress, increased vocalization, depression, aggression
- Unable to stand on their own, falling down stairs, collapse
- Becoming urinary and/or faecal incontinent (accidents in the house) or the inability to toilet without falling down
- Seems to have more “bad days” than “good days”
- No longer greeting you at the door
- Lack of grooming (cats and some dogs)
- Isolating themselves in the home or back yard
- Chronic or acute pain – animals rarely cry out in pain, rather, they shift their weight, pant more, appear unsettled, lick joints etc
- Breathing becomes more of an effort or there is chronic uncontrolled coughing
Pain levels in pets can often be very hard to assess because our pets cannot clearly express to us their level of pain or discomfort in a way that we can easily understand. Sometimes it is not until pets in pain are put on adequate pain relief, that we can realize just how much pain they were in. Some pets can be incredibly stoic and not outwardly show any signs of pain but this does not mean that they are not feeling pain and they can actually be very uncomfortable. Pain control in pets has come a long way and there are many different modalities available now to effectively control pain in pets from medications to acupuncture and homeopathy. Seeking veterinary assistance is vital in helping determine what course of action is best and whether your pet’s pain can actually be effectively controlled.
In many disease processes palliative care can only be taken so far and it is best to be guided by your veterinarian as to when they feel your pet’s quality of life is such that saying goodbye is the kindest option. The decision will still of course be yours to make but getting expert advice can be very helpful. I am often asked to perform quality of life assessments with the aim of providing a qualified and unbiased assessment of a pet’s individual status. I can advise on what can and can’t be done and work through the quality of life criteria with you to help you with your decision.
It is very important that you do what feels right for you and your family and I just try to be very supportive and non-judgmental in helping you with your decision. This will probably be the most heartbreaking but also the most loving and selfless decision you will ever have to make for your pet.