About the only good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that a lot of dogs and cats have found new homes. Having a new companion has improved the lives of many people and pets. Those in the veterinary profession have rejoiced with all the new owners and enjoyed helping pet parents learn how to keep their new pets healthy and the importance of enriching their lives with walks, toys, attention, and lots of love.
But as many questions as I get from new owners about their puppies and kittens, there’s no shortage of questions about older animals. Giving an older animal a loving home benefits both pet and human in much the same way as their younger counterparts; however, time marches on for all of us, and our dogs and cats age much quicker than we do. Where owners of younger animals often ask, “What can I do about the biting?” owners of older pets ask, “How do I know when it’s time to let them go?”
No one thinks about humane euthanasia when they adopt a pet. Why would they? But cancer, severe illnesses, and critical accidents can happen at any age. When your dog becomes a teenager or your cat approaches 20, they’ll be showing signs of slowing down, having discomfort getting up, possibly having toilet accidents in the house, and maybe even getting lost or wandering the house aimlessly. Unfortunately, we can’t stop disease and aging even in our most beloved pets.
So how do you know if it’s time to let your beloved pet go to the Rainbow Bridge? Sometimes the decision is made because your pet’s in a lot of pain that can no longer be controlled with medication. Bone cancer in dogs is very painful, but other conditions that are just as serious might not be. Then there are times when pets are going through something very painful but are still getting around and eating very well. Determining how much your pet is suffering is rarely straightforward.
Quality of life is always mentioned, but that means something different to everyone and involves many aspects of a pet’s life. It can be helpful to try and quantitate these behaviors on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 is completely normal. Let’s start with pain. Is your pet showing any signs of pain? Are they able to get up quickly from the floor? Are they sensitive when you pet them anywhere? Do they enjoy walks and other normal activities? I decided to euthanize my dog, Chase, when he could no longer go down the steps to get outside to go to the bathroom. He’d been slowing down, but one day he just couldn’t make it. The next day, I said goodbye to Chase.
Being able to breathe well is part of pain, and a criterion on its own. If your pet is in heart failure or has lung disease, they may not be moving much or eating because of their difficulty breathing. It can help to lay by your pet and breathe with them. If you find it difficult to maintain the breathing pattern, then your pet is struggling too. Coughing is part of breathing. A score of 7 might be a dog that wakes up from sleeping to cough once or twice each night. But if the dog can’t sleep because it’s coughing so much, that would score closer to a 0.
Grooming and personal hygiene are important to us and our pets. No one wants to lay in urine; have greasy, matted hair; or have a dirty back end. Cats that don’t feel well often stop grooming themselves. Arthritis pain makes it difficult to turn and reach those nether regions. Lack of energy, dehydration, and dental disease can impact grooming behavior too. Personal hygiene includes toileting behavior. Is your cat making it into the litter box to poop and pee? Is your dog urinating or defecating in the house? Are they able to keep themselves clean and dry? Can they tell you when they need to go out? You can help maintain a pet’s hygiene with brushing, baths, and frequent trips outside, but if they are in too much pain to be brushed, are hating baths, and getting up is too much of a struggle, then their score in this category will be low.
Appetite can be difficult to assess to determine quality of life. When a cat doesn’t feel well, it will often slow down or stop eating. An older cat that has gone more than a day without eating needs to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. If it has a chronic disease and nothing gets it eating again, then it’s suffering. But many dogs will eat even when they’re otherwise feeling very poorly. I have euthanized many dogs who eat treats, cheese, and steak even as they are being sedated prior to receiving the euthanasia solution. Scoring this category needs to take into account what your pet’s appetite is normally.
Hydration definitely impacts quality of life. Pets in kidney failure may not drink enough water to keep up with the amount lost through the kidneys. Dehydration can lead to constipation, decreased appetite, and lack of energy. Cats in kidney failure are often maintained on subcutaneous fluids, but eventually that isn’t enough. You can tell if your pet is dehydrated by dry or tacky gums, sunken eyes, or excessive skin “tenting”—pick up the loose skin around the upper neck; if the skin doesn’t drop quickly into place, your pet may be dehydrated.
All of the above can be assessed fairly objectively, but another criterion is happiness. This is more subjective and best determined by you. Is your pet still happy to see you? Do you still get a tail wag when you come home? Does the pet still want to be near you? Do their eyes light up when you bring over a favorite treat or toy, even if they don’t take it? Or is your cat hiding in unusual places? I knew it was time to let our clinic cat, Charlie, go when he started lying behind the couch when normally he would have jumped up on the couch to be near us. I had another cat in kidney failure that went into the shower one morning and just cried. That was not typical Fluffy behavior, and I euthanized him that day. I actually felt I had waited a day too long and was sorry for that.
Keeping track of the number of good days versus bad days can help with your decision too, especially if your pet has a chronic disease. It’s worth having two cups, one labeled “good days” and one “bad days.” Every day, determine if it was a good or bad day and put a penny in the appropriate cup. When the bad days outnumber the good or when your pet has more bad days in a row than good, then it’s time to say goodbye.
If you’re coming up with low numbers on your assessment, then your pet is suffering, and humane euthanasia is the most loving thing you can do. Know that your vet is there for you to help with the decision and the gentle passing on of your pet. Some vets will make house calls to euthanize a pet. In Madison, Journeys Home is an option if you’d like a home euthanasia and your family vet is unable to come to your house.
While euthanasia is a difficult decision, please know that it is a very loving thing you do for your pet. You have given your pet a wonderful home and, if it was rescued, a better life than it might have had. Our pets know that they are loved and I like to think they appreciate being allowed to die peacefully and with dignity.
Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .