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How Veterinarians Decide if Euthanasia is the Right Decision

You don’t feel qualified to decide to put your pet down, so you talk to a veterinarian. How does the vet know it’s the right decision?

veterinarians put dog down“One great myth of veterinary practice is that the veterinarian somehow knows ‘the right time.’ Part of that belief, I’m sure, is the client’s understandable urge to escape the responsibility for taking the life of a loved one. In all the euthanasias I’ve performed, no ‘owner’ ever asked me whether he should or could depress the plunger on the syringe that will kill the animal with whom they’ve shared their lives. Just once, I would’ve liked someone to move my hand off the syringe, say, ‘This is for me to do,” and relieve me of the weight of even one additional soul.”

That’s from Unsaid: A Novel by Neil Abramson. It’s a novel – a wonderful, heartbreaking, lovely book about life and death, medical experimentation on chimpanzees, research, and the clash of law and ethics. Not to mention relationships between horses, pigs, dogs, and humans – and even some laughter! I loved the book.

Abramson’s comments (through the eyes of the vet in the book) on how veterinarians decide it’s time to put a dog or cat down resonated with me deeply.

In Should You Put Your Dog to Sleep? A Veterinarian’s Advice, hundreds of readers ask for help deciding it’s time to put their pet down. I almost always encourage them to take their dog or cat to the vet, who can help them decide if it’s time to say good-bye.

But it turns out that veterinarians aren’t much more equipped than you or me to decide if it’s time to put your pet down.

You know your pet better than the veterinarian does

“You’ve lived with this animal for years,” writes Abramson in Unsaid. “You’ve laughed and cried with it, talked to it, eaten with it, and more likely than not, shared your bed with it. What makes you think I’m better equipped than you to judge when your companion wants to end its life? Show me someone who wants their vet to determine the right moment for death and I’ll show you a coward.”

Another veterinarian told me something similar. She said owners spend far more time with their dogs and cats than vets do, yet they expect the veterinarian to make the final decision to put your pet down. I think this is because it’s such a painful, heartbreaking decision for the owner – not for the pet! Your dog or cat may in fact be relieved to be released from his or her body.

Is your dog or cat telling you it’s time to say good-bye?

In the three paragraphs I’m sharing from Unsaid, the veterinarian twice mentions that your pet may be telling you it’s time to die. She says, “when your companion wants to end its life” in the above paragraph, and “what does your companion animal want you to do?” in the paragraph below.

Your dog or cat may be telling you it’s time to go, but you can’t admit or accept it. This is normal! We move away from pain, not towards it. We don’t want to lose our beloved animals. My life would be shallow and empty without my dog.

One of my readers asked about coping with his dog’s chemotherapy treatments. If your pet has been diagnosed with cancer, you might find How to Cope When Your Dog Has Cancer helpful.

The questions veterinarians often ask to decide if it’s time

Below are the veterinarian’s questions in Unsaid, which can help you decide if it’s time to put your pet down:

“I would ask my long-ago learned quality-of-life questions: How is the dog acting? Is he eating and drinking? Does he go to the door to greet you when you come home? Does your cat still like catnip, chase shadows, use the litter pan? These queries are all designed to get the answer to one question – what does your companion animal want you to do? Is the continuation of life too painful? Is defecating and urinating on itself too embarrassing? Does it still like life enough to want to live?”

You need to figure out what your dog or cat has already decided.

What does your pet want you to do?

You’ve taken good care of your dog or cat (although if you feel guilty for occasionally yelling at or getting mad at your pet, you’re not alone!). You’ve provided food, shelter, love, health checks, medications, and annual vaccinations. You make sure your pet is safe all day and night.

Now it’s time to take care of your pet in a different way – which may be no less loving or kind! In fact, putting a pet down may be more compassionate and loving than other acts of care. You may be saving your dog or cat from suffering more.

What do you think? I think I’d still want my veterinarian to decide it’s time to put my dog or cat down.

Help coping with pet loss

how to heal after losing your petIn How to Heal Your Heart After Losing Your Pet, I share wisdom from veterinarians, grief experts, counsellors, and owners who survived their pet’s death. Their stories and insights may help you cope with the loss of your pet – and help you decide it’s time.

Animals and the Afterlife: True Stories of Our Best Friends’ Journey Beyond Death is an interesting book about how some owners experienced their pets after death. It sometimes helps to believe that their souls and spirits are there, waiting to meet us again…

I welcome your thoughts below. I can’t offer advice, but you may find it helpful and healing to write your thoughts on how veterinarians decide it’s time to put a pet down.

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