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When is it time?



As a veterinarian I have faced countless grieving clients who have asked me, out loud, or with a look of pain in their eyes, if it was “time”. Time to end their beloved pet’s suffering, or to give the treatment another chance?

After years of soul-searching, as well as experiencing the agonising process of having to make this major decision for my own cats, I hope to be able to offer some thoughts and advice to pet-owners facing this event.

To begin with, no-one can ever fully appreciate the very personal bond that you share with your pet. Even within families, there can be a great diversity of emotions linked to the prospect of losing a pet. Different personalities deal with grief and loss in a variety of ways, from facing it head-on, pragmatically and stoically, to withdrawing and preferring to deal with their emotions privately, or to expressing their pain, anger and helplessness openly. Neither is right, nor wrong. Accepting that we are all different and that no one person’s relationship with the pet is identical to that of another should help us respect each other’s choices and support each other, rather than add to the pain already felt.

When a human loved-one is terminally ill or has died, there is usually an outpouring of support from friends, family and work-colleagues. Yet, how often is the same the case when losing our pet? Understand that the grief process is identical and can be as intense for you. In addition, as pet-owners we sometimes have to make the difficult decision to end a life, which adds enormously to our grief. By acknowledging this to ourselves, it can make it easier to ask for the information that you need from your veterinarian to enable you to make the right decision for your pet.

When I have been asked by a client how they would know when it is the right time to consider euthanasia, I’ve often answered: “Your pet will tell you”. While that may hold true at times, I can now hopefully offer some more pragmatic advice.

As owners, we can weigh up possible reward (extended life, less or no pain) in exchange for the price that needs to be paid for it by the pet (current pain or discomfort). As such we have to make a decision that is ultimately in the animal’s best interest and to be its advocate in the situation. Creating quality of life for our pet should always be the goal. While your veterinarian can give you an expected outcome to treatment and will aim to give you as realistic a prognosis as possible, only you as the owner, who knows your pet better than anyone, can determine the extent of its quality of life. This is the greatest gift that you can give your pet – preventing or ending suffering without the prospect of cure and the loss of dignity that comes with it.

Take some time to reflect on and make a list of what it is that makes your pet happy or unhappy. How do you as the owner know? Write this list while you are still objective, and when your thinking is not clouded by your own pain before you may be tempted to bargain.

This advice helped me when I had to decide to euthanase my 17 year old Dusty, whom I had been treating for kidney failure. She loved lying in the sun during the day, just watching the world go by, but when my husband came home, her biggest treat was to stretch out on his chest, looking into his eyes and purr gently all evening long, while he watched television. She enjoyed sitting on visitors’ laps (especially those who didn’t like cats) and still kept the dogs in check with a swift paw. Although she had slowed down a lot with age, these were my signs that she still enjoyed her life and I had committed to myself, that if she could not enjoy this anymore, it was time. Eventually, the intervals between hospital stays shrunk to 2 weeks and Dusty did none of these things anymore. I was tempted to keep on ‘giving her just one more chance’, but my commitment to her ultimate well-being kept me strong.

Your pet may give you other signs too: no longer eating or drinking, not wanting to get up and engage with you or other pets, and while it may sound clichéd, having a hopeless or defeated look in their eyes. Consider too, that urinary or faecal incontinence and the permanent inability to move on its own accord without help, will be very stressful and unpleasant to a pet, and would constitute unnecessary suffering.

The ultimate decision does rest with you, but your veterinarian can and will guide you, if asked. Book a time to discuss your questions and get the clarity you need. There are generally also choices that you have with regards the euthanasia itself.
Who would you like to be there? Do you want to be present, or do you feel that it would be better not to? (There is no right or wrong – only what’s right for you and your pet in that situation). Would you prefer for it to be done at your home and does your veterinarian provide this service? Many practices do. Is there something that your veterinarian can do to make this easier for you and your pet (allowing you to play a piece of music, performing the procedure in the practice garden etc)?

In most parts of the country, a pet cremation service is available. Where it is illegal for you to bury your pet, you may find comfort in requesting a return of your pet’s ashes in order for you to memorialise her in a special way. I have found that performing a special ceremony at home in honour of their pet, with or without her ashes (writing a letter or poem, planting a shrub in her favourite spot in the garden, for instance) has helped many clients achieve closure.

Making the decision to euthanase your pet may well be the greatest act of love you can show your pet – ending her suffering in spite of your own. And perhaps that thought will strengthen you.

Dr Katja Bier BVSc



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