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  • Dr. Frans Pretorius BVSc

How will I know when it’s time to say goodbye?

For many pet parents, deciding to have a pet euthanized is one of the hardest things to have to face in life. Along with feelings of grief, heartbreak and loss many people experience guilt and the uncomfortable feeling of ‘playing god’.

Ordering things in your mind, knowing that you have taken the decision for all the right reasons and that you have considered everything that needs to be considered can help to ensure the experience is the least traumatic for all concerned. In some cases it is obvious to the vet and pet owner that euthanasia is the right choice but what If your pet doesn’t have an obvious life threatening disease, it is just getting very old, or is suffering from a chronic or progressive disease. The timing of euthanasia is often of great concern, you don’t want to let your pet go too early and deprive it of life, or too late and prolong its suffering.

People often ask for my advice and I am happy to give what help I can but there are two things to remember. Firstly, in most of these chronic cases there is no ‘right’ time for euthanasia. Secondly you, the owner are the person who knows your pet best, who sees how it manages day to day.

It is all a question of acceptable quality of life.

Quality of life is a difficult thing to judge as it involves many different elements. Below is a check list of the main aspects of quality of life. If you have an ageing or terminally ill pet, go through the checklist and score each category out of 10.

There is no definitive score that means that you should let your pet go or let it carry on. The exercise is to help you think about things with a clearer head rather than letting emotion cloud your judgement. The scoring system could be used to monitor progress over time – remember ageing pets will have good days and bad days; to discuss the timing of euthanasia with other family members if there is disagreement; to monitor response to treatment or simply to reassure yourself that your decision is the right one. Half marks may still mean that your pet has an acceptable quality of life but that you should be paying attention to its extra needs. It may be that with nursing care or additional medication or input from your vet you can improve the score. Conversely if the score is steadily decreasing then it is sensible to set a limit to prevent unnecessary suffering. I feel it is often better to let a pet go while it still has its dignity rather than hanging on to the bitter end which means unnecessary suffering for the pet and owners left with memories of their pet’s last days being painful , stressful and unhappy.


Main aspects of quality of life

A score of zero in any particular category would have serious welfare implications and you should be discussing this with your vet.

Eating and drinking

10 – normal appetite

0 - not eaten for 24 hours or vomiting back food or fluids


10 - normal breathing

0 – making an effort to breath


10 - normal movement

0 - unable to stand


10 - normal function

0 - soiling the bed or themselves

Happiness and mental health

10 – normal, bright and alert

0 – does not respond to owners or other carers or animals

Are there more good days than bad days?

10 - mostly good days

0 - three bad days in a row

Is your pet still eating and drinking?

If they are still interested in their own food, or even if they are only eating pizza then that is good. A decreased appetite is not necessarily bad in an older or debilitated pet as long as they are maintaining their weight. No appetite or vomiting back food is clearly not a good sign. I know that owners often worry that their pets aren’t drinking enough. In the majority of cases, if your pet is conscious and has water within easy reach then they will take what they need. You can encourage them to drink more by offering them stock, soup or gravy – just make sure it’s not salty. You can also encourage your pet to eat by hand feeding, stroking or grooming while feeding and by offering novel, more appetizing or warmed food.

Can your pet breath freely, without extra effort.

Any pet that is experiencing difficulty in breathing has a serious problem.

Signs that your pet is not breathing well are:

• The chest moving in and out more rapidly or more deeply than normal, even when the pet is laying in its basket.

• Breathing with their mouth open ( not the same as panting).

• Stretching their neck out to straighten the airway or any blue tinge to their tongue or gums.

Can Your Pet Get Up & Down Easily?

Do they need some assistance or can they perform their toileting activities and move to a place where it feels comfortable – either to seek out company or to seek out peace and quiet.

If your pet’s mobility is compromised are you able to provide adequate nursing care to help it with all these activities?

Is Your Pet Able To Go To The Toilet

Either in the garden or litter tray, with or without assistance. In older, sick and debilitated animals it is essential that they are kept clean after toileting. If your pet is soiling itself it will find this very distressing, even more so if you are unable to adequately manage it.

Small dogs and cats are easy to keep clean. Long haired and larger pets provide more of a challenge. Soiling around the tail area will quickly develop into sores and attract flies.

Does Your Pet Still Show An Interest In The Daily Routine?

It may be that your dog can no longer manage a walk or that your old cat spends most of its time asleep in bed but do they still want to join in, come up for a fuss, prick up their ears when you open the biscuit tin, bark at the doorbell? For dogs , get up and investigate newcomers, for cats , usually, hide away where they feel safe.

Whenever I go on a visit and the dog fails to acknowledge me, a stranger, by either getting up and barking, or at least lifting its head, then I take this as a sign that life is too much of a struggle for this pet. Older pets and pets that have chronic conditions are going to have days when you decide ‘this is it,’ only to bounce back the next morning as you pick up the phone to the vet. These categories are the things that a vet would worry about when considering your pets quality of life in regard to the decision of whether to recommend euthanasia or not. Your Pets Body Condition

If it is very thin or is covered in lumps or hasn’t been groomed very recently are of lesser concern, although these are things that alarm other people who often feel the need to give advice. There may be other factors that are particular to your circumstances, relationships with other animals or people in the household, other family members wanting to see a pet before if goes and also budgets for treatment and interventions; it may be appropriate for these to be given a score.

This is never easy for anyone but there are always people who will be happy to talk things through with you – Please feel free to talk to Dr. Frans Pretorius or any of the Lyttelton Animal Hospital practice team.

Source and credit to: The Good Vet and Pet Guide.

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