How Do I Know If It Is Time to Euthanize My Dog? An Interview With a Veterinarian
Harsh reality: you will probably outlive your dog. According to the Social Security Administration, if you are female and live to be 65, your life expectancy is around 86. Males who reach 65 have a life expectancy of about 84. Could you live longer or die sooner? Of course!
Compare those human life expectancy figures to breeds like Bernese Mountain Dogs and Dogues de Bordeaux, which have an average life expectancy of about 5–8 years or other breeds such as Chihuahuas that might enjoy a life span of around 15–20 years. The odds, sadly, are not in our pets' favor.
Growing old is as unkind to our dogs as it is to us. Muzzles get gray, it's harder to get up and moving in the morning, and hearing and vision decreases or is lost completely. While most pet parents probably wish their dogs could slip away quietly in their sleep when the end of life comes, it usually does not happen that way. At some point, most pet parents must make an end-of-life decision for their pet.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Healthy PAWsibilities knows how uncomfortable pet parents feel discussing euthanasia, and she shares some valuable insight on when to make the decision and how to handle this process and grief.
Q1: What Is Euthanasia?
Dr. Cathy: Euthanasia, often called humane euthanasia, is a gentle passing from awake, to sleep, to coma, to death caused by a lethal combination of injectable medications.
Q2: What Are Some of the Obvious Reasons for Considering Euthanasia?
Dr. Cathy: Incurable suffering. Our pets' give us so much and make our lives so awesome, that if something can’t be fixed and they are suffering, it’s time to let them go.
Q3: What Clinical Signs Would Alert You as a Vet?
Dr. Cathy: This is a tough question as it is not my decision but the owners. However, owners frequently ask me, “What would you do if this were your dog?” A few things I would consider in combination are:
- Inoperable Cancers
- Tumors that would cause the dog to bleed to death slowly
- Vomiting blood
Any of the things I mentioned considered alone could potentially be fixed if that were the only thing going on; but with advanced age and extenuating circumstances, these may be indicators of time to let your dog pass on.
Q4: If My Dog Has Not Suffered an Injury or Does Not Have a Terminal Illness, How Do I Know When It Is Time to Say Goodbye?
Dr. Cathy: Sadly, age becomes a terminal illness. For each family, there is a different answer to this question. My questions to pet parents are:
- What is your senior dog’s favorite thing?
- Does he still enjoy that?
If the answers to these questions are positive, then it is not time; if not, then it is time.
Q5: Should I Include My Family in the Decision Making Process?
Dr. Cathy: This is a personal decision. For some owners, it’s their choice; for others, this was a family pet and the whole family deserves the chance to say “goodbye” and “I love you.”
Q6: Why Is It Called Humane Euthanasia?
Dr. Cathy: Well, allowing a dog to lay there and die ever so slowly on his/her own is one option, but it is not humane. Understandably, people want their dogs to pass on their own. The problem is starvation is a long, slow, painful, suffering process that pets do not deserve.
Another thing to decide: do you want to have your dog euthanized at home? Many veterinarians offer this service, and for many families, it is a great way to include the family and say goodbye in comfort as many dogs do not care for the vet’s office.
Q7: What Happens During the Euthanasia Process?
Dr. Cathy: The vet administers a series of shots that take your dog from awake, to sedated (drunk), to a coma, to death—the process is smooth and painless with no side effects. Once your dog’s heart stops beating, your vet will check with a stethoscope for a heartbeat. Your dog’s body may still have a few reflexes—some leg stretching, some mouth chomping, maybe urination and/or defecation—these are all normal changes of the muscles, as they no longer have oxygen delivery.
Q8: Will My Dog Feel Pain or Suffer?
Dr. Cathy: Most dogs feel only the first needle prick, if at all, and nothing after that.
Q9: Will I Be Able to Stay With My Dog If I Want To?
Dr. Cathy: Yes, absolutely you may! This is your baby – you have every right to stay or not – your choice.
Q10: What Does Euthanasia Cost?
Dr. Cathy: The cost depends on where you live and your dog's size. Out here in rural Indiana, small dog euthanasia can run around $36–$78, while euthanasia for large dogs can cost anywhere from $90–$142. If you live in town or in a large city, the cost could be double or quadruple that price.
Q11: What Happens to the Remains?
Dr. Cathy: This is your choice, and it partly depends on where you live as to what your options are. Again, here in the country, you can bring your dog’s body home to bury.
For most that live in cities, your only option is cremation, either private or group. If you opt for a private cremation, you get your dog’s ashes back; if you decide on a group cremation, the ashes are spread on a flower garden at a pet cemetery, which is a place you have a right to visit.
Q12: How Can I Overcome My Grief?
Dr. Cathy: Many of the places that provide cremation service also have support groups and grief counseling. Some people really need others to talk to and share the same feelings. Some people need to grieve alone. Some build a memorial, others pray.
My biggest advice to pet parents is this: your dog would not want you to be alone, so you do not do a disservice by getting another dog; instead, you honor life. When you are ready, there are plenty of dogs available for love. We are not talking replacement because that is impossible. We are talking about sharing your love with another four-legged soul because your dog would not want you to be alone.
Q13: I Can't Help Feeling Guilty About My Decisions. Can You Give Me Some Tips to Move On?
Dr. Cathy: Did you let your baby go with love? Then you made the right decision. As long as the decision was made with love, there’s no reason to feel guilty. Sometimes people feel guilty because they did not pursue every option; they did not mortgage the farm to pursue one last possibility. You are not being fair to yourself to think that. The realities of life are that you can only do what you can afford to do. Again, as long as you made your decision with love, you made it for the right reason and there is no need for guilt.
Q14: What Other Advice Do You Have for Loving Pet Parents Facing This Tough Decision?
Dr. Cathy: The “right time” is different for every family. Once you’ve talked it through, or thought it through, you know when it’s time. Love is the key—as long as you make the decision with love, then you are ready to make the decision. Our dogs love us completely, loving them until the end is all they ask for.
Dealing With Your Grief
One way many pet parents have found to deal with the grieving process is by sharing their loss with a support group or online community. Calling your local humane society or an animal rescue group is a good way to find a support group in your community.
There are many virtual memorials site online as well, and their features vary from offering free memorials as a remembrance to your pet to paid services. Here are two sites offering such services that you might be interested in exploring:
Critters creates a text-only memorial in honor of your departed pet is free and easy. Memorials are password-protected so you don't have to worry about anyone making unwanted edits to the memorial. Full-featured memorials, which cost under $40, give you access to features such as:
- Uploading music to the memorial
- Adding videos, photos or creating a slideshow
- Guest books and visitor counters
- 100 MB of storage
- Public or private memorials
Rainbow Bridge is a memorial site and grief support community offers many services for grieving pet parents. You can:
- Participate in forums and chat rooms with other pet owners
- Visit other Guardians' pet memorials
- Attend a Candlelight Ceremony in honor of departed pets
- Send sympathy e-cards to others who have lost pets
- Volunteer your time
- Shop The Rainbow Boutique*
*According to the website, the site owners donate a percentage of the boutique profits and the memorial residency fees to no-kill animal shelters.
The Rainbow Bridge charges a yearly fee (under $30) for a Rainbow Bridge Pet Memorial Residency.
Email interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Healthy PAWsibilities, 08/2014
Social Security Administration, Calculators: Life Expectancy, accessed 8/20/2014
This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.
While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.
Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information changes. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Donna Cosmato