That Day is Coming

I am often asked by clients, “When will it be time to put my pet to sleep?” There isn’t a single correct moment to put a pet to sleep, of course, but I caution you that selecting one of the many “right” moments will rarely be a simple matter. It is important, for the owner just as much as for the animal, that the decision be made with care. It’s a judgment that must be left wholly to the client, not only because domestic animals are legally the possession of a person (and therefore completely under that person’s control), but also because a day-to-day caregiver has the clearest perspective on that patient’s quality of life. Sadly, our judgment and confidence often become more muddled as we approach that dark day. Many of us slip into a panic due to the gravity of our situation and our fear of the future, rendering us paralyzed just when we need to keep a clear head. I might add that veterinary professionals are far from immune to this condition themselves, when it comes to their own companions. It’s really difficult to evaluate your pet’s quality of life objectively and accurately, so let’s loosen up for that task with something a bit easier—a couple of simple, generic facts about the issue.

First, make sure you understand the realistic limitations of your pet’s lifespan. Don’t plan on setting a world record; your pet will likely live an average length of time for his breed. For an accurate estimate, go to someone who is actually involved in the health care of animals (i.e., not the internet) and ask your doctor what sort of lifespan you could reasonably expect, based on his or her experience. This will help you take a realistic view of what’s to come.
Second, and I know this will be hard for you to hear, we must stop toying with the concept of “death while asleep”. It’s really very normal to hope that your beloved pet will pass unaware, while resting in his own bed. The harsh truth, however, is that the vast majority of pets do not die peacefully while they are sleeping, unless a veterinarian is there to help them accomplish that. The odds of it happening on its own, then, before the patient is suffering miserably, are quite steep, and losing this gamble might leave a nasty scar.

To allay your fears of the actual procedure, find out exactly what’s involved from the people who perform this task at your regular vet hospital. It’s painful when people have to let go of their beloved pets—that’s a fact—but your veterinarian will use every available tool to ease that discomfort. Friendly words and hands, along with the gentlest medication we have, will make this a peaceful and comfortable process for the patient.

The theory of releasing pets smoothly and rapidly from their illness and infirmity is a solid concept. It’s tackling the decision for our own individual companion that produces so much angst and confusion. More to come in our next installment…

Dr. M.S. Regan