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Practice Management

Doctor, How Will I Know It’s Time?

by Dani McVety, DVM

    I’ve heard from countless pet owners that the death of their pet was worse than the death of their own parents. This might sound blasphemous to some, but to others it’s the cold truth. Making the decision to euthanize a pet can feel gut-wrenching, murderous, and immoral. Families feel like they are letting their pet down or that they are the cause of their friend’s death. They forget that euthanasia is a gift, something that, when used appropriately and timely, prevents suffering both for the pet and the family. Making the actual decision is the worst part of the experience, and I’m asked on a daily basis, “Doc, how will I know when it’s time?” It’s time to shed some light on this difficult discussion.

    An interesting trend that I did not expect when starting my hospice practice is that the more times families experience the loss of a pet, the sooner they make the decision to euthanize. Owners experiencing the decline or terminal illness of a pet for the first time will generally wait until the very end to make that difficult decision. They are fearful of doing it too soon and giving up without a good fight. Afterwards, however, most of these owners regret waiting too long. They reflect back on the past days, weeks, or months, and feel guilty for putting their pet through those numerous trips to the vet or uncomfortable medical procedures. The next time they witness the decline of a pet, they are much more likely to make the decision at the beginning of the decline instead of the end.

    Pain in animals is another important topic that all pet owners should be well versed in. It’s the main topic I discuss during my in-home hospice consultations. I, and many other professionals, believe that carnivorous animals, such as cats and dogs, do not hide their pain…it simply doesn’t bother them like it bothers humans. Animals do not have an emotional attachment to their pain like we do. Humans react to the diagnosis of cancer much differently than Fluffy does! Fluffy doesn’t know she has a terminal illness; it bothers us more than it bothers her. This is much different than for prey animals like rabbits or guinea pigs (ask your veterinarian for more information). If you’re interested in learning more about pain and suffering in pets, grab Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation and read chapter 5.

    When discussing the decision to euthanize, we should be just as concerned about anxiety in our pet as we are about pain. Personally, I feel that anxiety is worse than pain in animals. Think about the last time your dog went to the vet. How was his behavior? Was he nervous in the exam room? Did he give you that look that said, “This is terrible!”? Now think back to when he last hurt himself: perhaps scraping his paw or straining a muscle after running too hard. My dog rarely looks as distraught when she’s in pain as she does when she’s anxious. It’s the same for animals that are dying. End-stage arthritis makes up about 30% of my cases. These animals begin panting, pacing, whining, and crying, especially at night. Due to hormonal fluctuations, symptoms can usually appear worse at night. The body is telling the carnivorous dog that he is no longer at the top of the food chain; he has been demoted and if he lies down, he will become someone else’s dinner. Antianxiety medications can sometimes work for a time, but for pets that are at this stage, the end is certainly near.

    As a veterinarian, my job is to assist the family in the decision making, not do it for them. There is not one perfect moment in time in which to make that choice. Rather, there is a subjective time period in which euthanasia is an appropriate decision to make. This period could be hours, days, weeks, or even months. Before this specific period, I refuse to euthanize since there is clearly a good quality of life. After this period, however, I will insist on euthanizing due to suffering of the pet. During this larger subjective time, it is truly dependent on the family to make whatever decision is best for them. Some owners need time to come to terms with the decline of their pet, while others want to prevent any unnecessary suffering at all. Everyone is different and entitled to his or her own thoughts. After all, pet owners know their pet better than anyone, even the vet!

    Dr. McVety is a founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In Home Euthanasia.


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