Saying Goodbye: When Is The Right Time To Let Go?
Making the decision to put a beloved pet to sleep is the hardest, most heart-wrenching decision a pet owner can make. They are a member of the family after all and it can feel like a betrayal or even playing god.
However, it’s important to remember that, above all, euthanasia (the act of helping a pet pass peacefully from this life) is an act of compassion and love. When it becomes clear that an animal’s condition is terminal, euthanasia can prevent the unnecessary pain and anguish your pet could experience as their condition declines. It also eases the emotional trauma you and your family may feel as this happens. Making the decision is the hardest part, so how do you know when it’s the right time to say goodbye?
The choice of when to end their life is a very personal one and, unless an animal is obviously suffering, there is rarely a “perfect moment”.
Depending on their condition, a pet could have anything from hours to months left to live. In the first instance, a veterinary assessment will help to establish what’s going on and how much time your pet is likely to have left. The vet will also make an assessment of the quality of life, an equally important measure.
For some people, it’s the level of pain an animal is in that determines the right moment. For others, it’s because they no longer seem to be enjoying life or seem anxious. It may also be a necessity for a pet who can no longer control its bladder and a family cannot live with the constant soiling of the home.
While many conditions can be managed with veterinary treatment and good home management, sadly there comes a time when even your vet can’t help. At this point choosing to have a pet euthanised is the right option.
Even in this situation, it can still be very difficult. Some people hate the prospect of any pain for their pet and want the euthanasia procedure to go ahead immediately, while others have trouble coming to terms with the situation and want to say goodbye over a few days at home. Everyone is different, but we can help you determine the best time for your pet and family based on a variety of measures.
Pets and pain
Once upon a time, people did not believe that animals experienced pain. Thankfully these days are gone, and we now know that the opposite is true, animals experience pain in exactly the same way that we do. The reason it took us a while to figure this out is that animals show their pain very differently to how we do.
Rabbits and guinea pigs, for example, instinctively hide their injuries and illnesses because being seen as weak would single them out as vulnerable to any nearby predators. They may as well paint a giant target on their side and say, “come get me”. Not a good idea. And while predatory animals like cats and dogs are less vulnerable, any show of weakness or illness in the wild is an invitation to lose territory or be abandoned by the pack. So, there are excellent self-preservation reasons why animals do not show pain in the same way we do.
It’s very important to bear this in mind when making a decision for your aged pet. And this is why a hospice appointment is such a big help. A vet trained in hospice care can help to assess your pet’s comfort level and manage that. And eventually, if pain cannot be controlled well, allow you to make the right choice to say goodbye at the right time, knowing you had done all that was possible.
Anxiety and old pets
Anxiety can be just as hard for a pet and family to handle. Think of your own pet. Have you ever seen them injured or cut in the park, but running around like nothing happened? But seemingly losing their mind because of a trip to the vet or when thunder booms during a storm? Anxiety has a large negative impact on a pet.
If an older animal becomes anxious due a loss of vision, hearing or the ability to move as it once did, this can cause stress. Your pet may display behaviour like pacing, whining or soiling in the house. They do this because the loss of their senses makes them feel vulnerable. The pacing and whining is a way for them to cope with the emotional stress they are experiencing. Many families feel pushed to the edge of sanity by the pacing behaviour or whining. Especially at night.
But, much can be done to help an anxious pet, from simple modifications to the home. A good example is to use yoga mats to improve an elderly pet’s grip on slippy, hardwood flooring. Or night lights to guide visually impaired pets to litter boxes or beds.
Medical help is also available in the form of anti-anxiety medications.
However, ultimately, if the anxiety cannot be managed, then it is acceptable and, in many cases, desirable to make the decision to say goodbye.
What happens if I leave it too long?
It is often the case that owners who are coming to terms with a terminal illness or living with an older pet wait until the very last moment when all doubt is gone to decide to say goodbye.
It’s very human to do this - we tend to feel guilty if we give up too soon and not fight it to the end.
But as loyal and loving as this mindset might feel in the moment, it actually causes many animals that are struggling to begin to suffer. Under these circumstances, it is not unusual for a pet owner to feel guilty because they did not act sooner.
There is clearly a point at which animals are well enough to enjoy life, and there is a point at which they are not. In both of these situations, the answer is obvious. The challenge happens when a pet enters the transition between these life stages. And it can be hard to know what the right thing to do is.
If you are worried that your pet may be struggling, then please give us a call.
What reasons might lead a family to say goodbye?
There are four factors that can have a big impact on the decision to say goodbye.
The cost of ongoing care – though no-one likes for money to come into things, it’s a reality that we all have household budgets. So if the time comes and there simply are not funds to keep going, then it is perfectly acceptable to say goodbye.
It can be emotionally challenging to manage an old pet, sometimes the strain can take its toll on relationships. This might be due to the stress of giving medications to a pet who does not like tablets. Or possibly due to soiling in the house. So if things are getting frayed at home and you or your family feel like they can’t cope anymore, then it is OK to say goodbye.
It is more physically challenging lifting and helping older animals. Sometimes, especially when larger pets are involved, it can be very tough to care for an aged pet. Dogs that need support or lifting in and out of homes and vehicles can be unmanageable for those with back pain or older people who are no longer very mobile.
It takes more time to care for an older pet. Lifting, cleaning and planning/giving medications all take time. Plus, old pets may need to go outside to wee more. For some families, this is simply not possible.
In our experience, when a family cannot cope in one or more of these areas (and every family has a different circumstance) then it is certainly the right time to have a conversation with us about saying goodbye. We will help you to make the best decision without judgement.
Is a natural death an option?
Some owners don’t believe in euthanasia, while others can’t see their way to having any part in ending their beloved pet’s life. Whatever the reason, some owners believe a natural death is the best choice for their pet. A natural death might seem like an ideal end, but it’s an option that comes with a warning label. As with humans, animals can simply die peacefully and naturally in their sleep, but this is a rarity and there’s unlikely to happen in the way you would like.
Choosing a natural death means that your pet has to ride through the illness to the end, which might take a lot of time. You may see your pet suffer, which can be emotionally distressing for both you, your family, and your pet. It can be a tough option to take, but for those who want to make this choice, your vet will be there to help you through the process, explaining as much as they can about what to expect. And offering palliative care as best possible. Be prepared however to use many medications as your vet is obliged to ensure that your pet does not suffer. This is what human doctors do at the end of a human life and many of us have wished we could offer a more humane, dignified alternative as we can for pets.
What happens when we say goodbye?
Saying goodbye is an act of compassion allowing a pet to experience a dignified end of life. You and your family can be with them right to the end, in a peaceful environment, surrounded by love and care. The process itself is simple and without pain or discomfort. They are first sedated so that they are sleeping and then given the final medication which allows them to pass peacefully. Which ultimately is what we all want for our pets – for them to pass peacefully in their sleep. It’s never an easy thing to make the decision, but it is one that, if not left too long, will ultimately be the kindest thing you can do for them.
The decision as to when and how to end the life of your pet is a highly emotional one. You should take account your pet’s problem, level of pain and anxiety, plus taking careful consideration of your home circumstances. By discussing all of these factors with your vet, the best decision can be reached together to ensure your pet’s end of life is one filled with love and compassion.
Call 020 8459 4729 to know more about our services
We are all pet owners at Roundwood Vets, so we know how hard it is to manage with an old or infirm pet. When you talk with any of our team, we'll help you make the right decision together.