There is absolutely no doubt that our dogs are a part of the family and loved just as much as anyone in our families. We love them, care for them, feed them and take them to the vets when they are sick; we are responsible for them. Unfortunately though that responsibility is not all fun and games and there may come a day when you have to make difficult decisions regarding your pet pooch. You may have to decide when to put your dog down.
The decision of when to put a dog to sleep is probably one of the hardest calls a dog owner may ever have to make. It is littered with dilemmas and unanswerable questions and there is never a right or wrong answer.
It boils down to a personal matter for each pet and owner. As an owner we know our dogs best and since our dogs cannot speak up for themselves we have a duty to do what is best for them.
Reasons you may have to make this difficult decision
- Old Age (related conditions)
- Genetic diseases (related conditions)
It should be noted that with rabies there really is no other decision to make. Other than euthanasia as the death of your pet is unavoidable. For further information on the devastating effects of rabies in dogs, see the link to this topic.
Making the decision with a plan in place
When first getting a dog you need to remember that the chances of that dog outliving you are incredibly slim. You need to be ready and aware that one day you may have to make the decision of whether to put your dog to sleep or not. You may find if it comes to that time, that having a plan already in place will help you make that incredibly difficult step.
Putting together that plan is simple; list every scenario you can think of where you may have to make the decision of whether to put your dog to sleep or not. For example:
- List five things that your dog loves to do such as fetching, greeting, chasing, performing tricks and running then decide;
- If your dog becomes incapable of doing all of or some of his favorite things will you put him / her to sleep?
- If he still enjoys all his favorite things but only 30-50% of the time will you put him / her to sleep?
- If your dog suffers an accident where the long term recovery is less than certain will you put your dog through the possible surgeries, therapy and recovery time that may be needed?
Putting a plan like this into place will help you immeasurably if you ever have to face the question of whether to put your dog down. Whilst your dog is healthy and happy you will think much clearer about the decisions you should make.
Making the decision with no plan in place
If you do not have a plan in place or find yourself backtracking on any plans you made then consider the following.
It is inevitable that the decision of whether to put your dog to sleep or not will be made in conjunction with your vet. Chances are that you have consulted your vet about the ailment which your dog is suffering and that he or she will have given you a prognosis.
Consulting with your vet
Talking to your vet about your dog’s medical condition can give you a clearer picture on his / her outlook in the long term. They can also advise you on the levels of pain your dog may be feeling. Your vet however cannot tell you whether it is time to put your dog to sleep or not, they can only advise.
Six questions to ask yourself
Answering the following questions could help you to decide if the time has come to put your dog to sleep:
- Is your dog’s appetite suffering?
- Has he / she stopped enjoying life?
- Has your dog stopped doing some or all of his / her favourite things?
- Do the painful days with your dog outnumber the happy days?
- Does your dog seem unhappy more often than he / she is happy?
- Does your dog look distressed or uncomfortable most of the time?
If you have answered yes to some or all of the above questions it is probably time you start to consider that your dog’s quality of life is not what it should be.
If you know that your dog’s quality of life is not what it should be then you need to think further about what the best next step would be. Think about how your dog might be feeling; is he in pain or unhappy? It may help to know that a dogs organ system works pretty much like ours so it is likely that they feel the same pain as we do when they begin to fail.
Does your dog have a terminal illness? It may be kinder if they do to put them to sleep sooner rather than later. Most people believe it is better to put your dog to sleep a day too early than a day too late.
Will further treatment improve your dog’s quality of life or just help maintain a poor quality of life? Your vet will be able to help answer this question but it needs to be noted that just because you can prolong your dog’s life does not mean you should.
Can you afford treatment? This may seem a mercenary train of thought but it does need to be considered. Medications and treatments for illnesses your dog may suffer can be highly expensive. If you have pet insurance this will certainly help but remember not all insurance covers all types of treatment. For information on insurance for your dog, see our piece on the topic to gain more insight.
Is your dog so old or ill that he / she has lost most of his / her bodily functions? Just like humans most dogs would be mortified to lose control of their bodily functions. This may not be a painful effect of illness or age for a dog but it is a mental wellbeing one.
Is it in your dog’s best interest to extend his / her life, or are you extending his / her life for yourself? Many people say that you will know when it is time to put your dog to sleep. This however is not at all true, our heads may say it is time when it is but our hearts will not. At this point you really need to examine your own motives. The responsibility for your choice lies with you and you alone.
Put simply will you be able to live with yourself if you make your dog suffer for one minute longer than they need to, just because you were selfish and didn’t want to let them go? This may seem harsh and it is but it is also very true in some cases. We may think we are extending our dogs lives for the right reasons but sometimes we are just kidding ourselves.
It may also be that your dog is giving out mixed signals which confuse you as to what the right decision is. For example your dog may be suffering from severe arthritis but seem happy and hearty even if his / her joints have given out. These are the hardest decisions of all to make, your pet is still bright and alert and their organs are fine. However is the inability to walk a good quality of life? Only you can make that decision.
What to expect when putting your dog to sleep
One of the concerns that you may have when making the decision of whether to put your dog to sleep or not is what to expect if you do. Inevitably it will be one of the most upsetting days of your life losing your beloved dog and does not need to be made more distressing by anticipating the worst, or not knowing what is going to happen.
Making an appointment
Once the decision has been made you will need to make an appointment for your dog to be euthanized. Speak to the receptionist about this and ensure they book you in when the vet has plenty of time so you will not be rushed saying goodbye. Note that in some cases it may not be possible to come back with your dog but be more humane to put your dog to sleep at the time of a consultation with your vet.
Reasons for this could your dog is in insufferable pain or perhaps they have been in surgery and it would be more humane to let them go whilst under anaesthetic.
Accompanying your dog
It is a personal choice whether to be with your dog or not when they are put to sleep. Some owners cannot bear the thought of watching their dog slip away, whilst others cannot bear the thought of letting them go without their presence. It is a decision that you need to think through very carefully as you do not want to regret that decision afterwards.
If you are concerned that your emotional state when attending the appointment may upset your dog you can request sedation which will help them remain calmer. A request for sedation could also be helpful if you have a dog that does not like or becomes distressed at vet appointments under normal circumstances.
If the actual process of putting your dog to sleep is what concerns you about being with your dog or not then rest assured it is not as horrific as you may be thinking or imagining. For options on putting your dog to sleep in your own home, see our piece on this topic.
Putting your dog to sleep
In order to put your dog to sleep the vet must first gain access to a vein, usually in your dog’s leg. When doing this your vet will usually invite you to hold your dog in order to keep them calm and to keep you close to your dog. The actual injection is painless and usually only takes 6 – 12 seconds to work.
As your dog passes away he / she will take a deeper breath then begin to grow weaker, finally lapsing into what looks like a deep sleep. It may take a few more breaths before your dog passes away and movement ceases.
When your dog has passed away
After your dog has passed away the vet and nurses will leave you to have some time with your pet if that is what you desire. Take all the time you need to say your goodbyes and do not be afraid to cry. You may think people will feel you’re daft or silly to be crying over your dog but believe it or not the vets and staff will also be upset by your dogs passing, and completely understand what you are going through. Just because they work in these situations regularly does not mean they have hearts of stone.
What happens next
You will have been asked when you made the appointment what you would like for your dog after euthanasia. Some people choose to take their dogs home and bury them somewhere special or in the garden. If this is what you have chosen your vets will crate your dog and return him / her to you. If you have chosen cremation your dog will be sent to the place of your choice and his / her ashes returned to you as previously arranged. You can arrange when cremating your dog to have special items with them. This may be a poem, a favorite toy or even a rose.
When making arrangements for your dog after euthanasia remember that he or she is your dog and that whatever you want is the right thing. If you choose to keep some fur or to have the ashes returned to you it is your choice and no one else’s.
Dealing with the grief
Remembering that your dog is a part of your family, it is perfectly feasible and acceptable that you will grieve for them, just like you would a human member of your family. It is however likely that few people will understand the grief you are feeling at losing your dog. You may find this time filled with a very lonely and private grief.
The last thing you should be doing at this time is chastising yourself for feeling so strongly about losing your pet. Your grief is valid and you should give yourself all the time you need to grieve. You may even find it helpful to contact a grief support group or counselor to help you deal with the loss. Check out our article on grieving the passing of your beloved pet to gain more insight.
The truth is sometimes it is clear that you should let your dog go, you just know its time. However sometimes it isn’t clear cut and a lot of soul searching is required as to what is best for your dog. When trying to make the decision it may help to remember the following:
- Vets are trained to save lives — they can only delay not prevent the inevitable
- Just because you can prolong your dog’s life it doesn’t mean you should
- Choosing euthanasia is not playing God, it is doing the humane thing
- The suffering of your dog is paramount and should be the first consideration
- It is better to put your dog to sleep a day too early than a day to late
When to put your dog down is unquestionably one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make but you have done the best by him or her all their life, and now is the time to still do the same.