Pet Euthanasia: How to Know When to Say Goodbye

Ambassador Offers Transitional Services for Pet Parents

Discussing pet euthanasia with our clients is one of the hardest parts of our job at Ambassador Animal Hospital—even when we know that we’re making the loving choice for an animal. End of life care is something that no pet parent wants to think about, but it’s a reality that most will be faced with. In a way, since humans usually outlive their animal counterparts, adopting a pet means committing yourself to responsible, and compassionate, end of life care.

Pet owners often ask us how they will know that it’s time to consider compassionate pet euthanasia for their beloved family member. In some cases, it becomes obvious that euthanasia is the best thing to do for your pet—usually in cases of extreme pain or distress, or when vital signs indicate that internal systems are beginning to shut down.

However, in most cases, the decision is much less clear, as well as incredibly personal and emotional, and well as subjective. How much time do you have to put toward pet care? What is your pet’s quality of life? Are there affordable treatments or medications that could prolong life, or improve quality of life for your pet? Does your pet have a terminal illness? What is the progression of that illness?

Here are a few of our suggestions for those considering compassionate pet euthanasia:

Have an open, honest discussion with your vet. Your primary care veterinarian can give you a clearer picture of your cat or dog’s illness, what its symptoms look like, and what kind of pain your pet will be in. At Ambassador Animal Hospital, one of our first recommendations when we are counseling pet parents through a terminal illness is to wait until you’re ready before considering pet euthanasia. We understand that it’s a very tough decision to make, and forcing yourself into a decision before you’re ready can intensify and prolong your grieving process. During one of our transitional counseling sessions, we will give you a frank evaluation of your pet’s quality of life and then walk you through all of your options, including hospice care. We will also be able to prescribe medications to manage your pet’s illness and pain.

Use a Quality of Life Scale. In addition to a transitional counseling session at Ambassador, using a quantitative scale can be a good support tool for pet owners. The AVMA has published a Quality of Life Scale (the HHHHHMM Scale)  that can be useful for the pet owner who is trying to decide what is best. While this scale can help you determine whether or not your pet’s basic needs are being met, the scoring is subjective and should be influential, but not the sole catalyst for your decision. Each pet’s individual situation is different, so take an honest look at each category and consider this information as a part of your decision.

Quality of Life (HHHHHMM Scale)

Score Criterion
0-10 HURT:  Adequate pain control (including breathing ability)
0-10 HUNGER:  Is the pet eating enough? Does the pet require hand-feeding or a feeding tube?
0-10 HYDRATION:  Is the pet dehydrated? Does it need subcutaneous fluids?
0-10 HYGIENE:  Can your pet still keep herself clean? Does she need to be brushed and cleaned, especially after elimination? Can you keep her clean?
0-10 HAPPINESS:  Does the pet express joy/interest? Does he respond to its environment? Does the pet show signs of boredom/loneliness/anxiety/fear?
0-10 MOBILITY:  Can the pet get up without assistance? Does the pet want to go for a walk? Is the pet experiencing seizures/stumbling?
0-10 MORE GOOD THAN BAD:  When bad days start to outnumber good days, the quality of life becomes compromised and pet euthanasia needs to be considered
Total A total of 35 points is considered acceptable for a quality of life score.

Choose a “Decision Point” In Advance. Many of the pet parents we have counseled have said that having a decision point in mind before their pet’s condition became critical helped them make the call—and set limits on the suffering their pet would endure. After speaking with one of the vets at Ambassador and understanding the progression of your pet’s disease, ask yourself: “At what point will I consider my pet’s condition medically unmanageable?” Our clients have often cited extreme difficulty breathing or swallowing, the inability to eat or drink, the inability to stand or get comfortable, or the inability to tolerate touch as the sign they needed before considering pet euthanasia. Whatever you decide, having a plan in place in advance makes the moment easier for both you and your pet.

Decide Whether or Not You Will Be There in Advance. You should also have a plan in place for what you will do before, during, and after pet euthanasia. Many pet parents want to be by their pet’s side, while others feel that being there will be too traumatic. Either decision is understandable, though we generally advise our clients that the well-being of the animal is the most important consideration in that moment. If you believe that your pet will feel more comfortable and secure with you there, then we recommend that you be there, even though it’s difficult. However, if you’re worried that your own reaction or grief may upset your pet, it may be better for both you and your pet if you say your goodbyes and wait in the lobby. We also recommend to our clients that, whenever possible, you schedule a special day or evening with your pet before coming in. Perhaps take your pet to the park, feed your pet favorite foods, or allow your pet to sleep with you the night before. You should also bring a friend or family member to be with you immediately after the procedure—don’t try to get through it alone.  Unfortunately it is important to consider body care, this is a hard conversation to have in the moment, so it helps to have considered your options in advance. Some of our clients have found it helpful to prearrange a burial site at home,  or plan a memorial service.  We also offer cremation services, in which remains may or may not be returned to you, depending on your wishes.  

What To Do After Pet Euthanasia

Even when you’ve considered every option, and even when you know it’s the best choice for your pet, compassionate pet euthanasia can make many pet owners experience feelings of grief and guilt. Understand that this is normal and seek out counseling if necessary. We also like to remind pet owners that pet euthanasia is not a case of artificially ending a pet’s life—but of deciding not to artificially prolong it any longer, or cause undue pain. Often, euthanasia is the least selfish, most compassionate response to an animal’s suffering.

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