Weight of the World

Over the years, many people have voiced their belief that putting pets to sleep must be the hardest, most unbearable part of a veterinarian’s job. From a doctor’s point of view, we’re merely doing what we’ve always done—acting on the orders of our client to ease the discomfort of their pet. Difficult as it may be to deliberately end a life, performing a euthanasia is far easier than signing the papers to authorize it. For some pet owners, it is the most difficult decision they will ever make. For some, it’s a battle they’ve been waging with themselves for weeks or months. Many cannot resist the temptation to feel guilt over their part in the process. Most are still questioning themselves until the very last second. There are thousands of different scenarios that may lead up to this harrowing day at the vet clinic, but they share a common thread: the patient’s quality of life. 

Quality of life is the overall well-being of an individual, the general goodness or badness of their existence, as perceived by him or her. Caregivers often begin to consider euthanasia when their pet’s quality of life has diminished past a certain point. But where is that point, and how do we calculate quality of life in the first place? Pain is a major factor, of course, but this can be difficult to detect in our animal patients since they cannot speak and would very rarely think to complain anyway. We must be watchful for subtle, nonverbal signs of pain and consult the veterinarian on whether it is an expected component of the patient’s current health condition. However, please note that pain is not the only detractor from an individual’s quality of life. Take yourself out of the picture for a moment and try to list your pet’s favorite activities. How many of them are gone now? Can he still move around, enjoy his food, be playful in any way? Can he relieve himself where he knows it’s appropriate? Does he still interact with his friends? Does he still enjoy being touched? Is there something he looks forward to in the day? Remember that people and pets don’t have the same priorities and pursuits. A person confined to a bed still has lots of avenues for enrichment. A dog or cat confined to bed can’t do crosswords, play chess, binge watch, write a novel, chat on the phone, teach themselves to paint with watercolors, or become an expert in anything featured on YouTube. Dogs and cats live in the moment and cannot look forward to future events or significant milestones such as holding a grandbaby or witnessing a graduation. Eat, eliminate, interact: those are the big three.

If you own animals, you will eventually find yourself in a position to wonder when your pet should be put to sleep. You can make this decision, and you can find the strength to do it right. The trick is to release human bias and fear so that you can look at life through the eyes of your faithful companion.

Dr. M.S. Regan