When is it time to put your animal to sleep? When is quality of life a thing of the past?
I tried to write this article from an objective point of view, trying to give you, my readers, some benchmarks to think about. Ultimately, I threw objectivity out the window.
Why? My thoughts always came back to my dearest pets and when I was faced with the same question any other pet lover has: Is it time?
When the Time Comes
When I struggled through watching my own pets’ decline, I was not thinking as a medical professional. I was a human and a caretaker and was pondering losing my best friend, wondering about their quality of life and what was best for them.
So it is through some personal stories and experiences that I came up with the “day in the life” rule.
A Day in the Life of a Pet
When pondering the ultimate decision any caretaker has to make, I try to put myself in the head of my pet and try to see the day through their eyes. In other words, I try to become that dog or cat or little creature.
A day in the life of any living thing should have some quality time. I came up with 3 activities that I, as a content dog or kitty, loved to do. Could I do those activities anymore? Could I enjoy life by replacing those favorite things with anything else in life?
Bruno’s Story: A Day in the Life
I am Bruno. I am magnificent. Nobody knows where I came from when I ran out of the woods one day with no tags, no identification but lots of energy and testicles intact.
I am 4 and I look like a border collie on steroids. I weigh 80 pounds and have magnificent black-and-white feathers, a mane and a ruff. I don’t believe I look like any other dog in the world.
As I lived a fabulous 10 years with the family of my choice, I contracted Lyme disease, and it attacked my kidneys. My family helped me live with chronic kidney failure for 2 years and I did great — until I didn’t. I was about 14 years of age by now. Not bad for a big guy!
One day in my 14th year, my family took me to my favorite place in the world, the lake. It was early October; the sun was shining, and the water was totally swimmable. Running free in the woods and chasing sticks were 2 of my favorite activities.
My favorite thing to do, though? Chasing a stick thrown far into my lake. I barked and was obnoxious whenever my people would walk down to the water’s edge because I couldn’t wait for them to begin throwing sticks — and never stopping. That was my idea of the greatest day on earth.
We walked down to the lake on that perfect fall day. I looked at my person and pawed at a stick in the sand. She picked up the stick and threw it into the lake. I took a step, maybe 3. And I stopped. I looked at the stick floating in the water. It wasn’t far out at all, but I couldn’t make it.
I looked up at her. We both held back a tear. I told her with my eyes that my days of swimming were over, but I appreciated her effort. We slowly walked back up to the house. The hill was a little hard for me too. We hadn’t talked about the fact that I had lost a lot of weight, didn’t eat much or anything at all on some days and couldn’t move around much anymore.
There was no activity that brought me pleasure anymore except sleeping by her. The weather remained beautiful in New England that fall, but I couldn’t enjoy it. We both knew that day at the lake was my day in my life when the spark had gone out. We had a few days together reminiscing about the best of times. And then it was time for me to go.
Pushkin’s Story: A Day in the Life of a Perfect Cat
I am Pushkin, a beautiful but highly opinionated cat. My mother was a Siamese with issues, and my father was a street guy from South Philly.
We moved from Philadelphia when I was young. My mother and I became indoor/outdoor rural academic cats in New England. It was a great life! She lived well into her teens, so I guess I had a pretty good gene pool. I got my mother’s looks. Everyone thought I was a purebred. Ha! Fooled them.
Anyway, I lived to be 20. My days in my late teens were still really good. I had 3 favorite activities: curling up with one of the other, less important cats; grooming my face after eating in the special cat dining room; and looking out at the birds by the bird feeder in winter. But things began to change — I started losing my mind.
I couldn’t remember where the food dish was, so I didn’t eat. And it didn’t smell good anymore. I somehow didn’t enjoy sleeping with the other cats. I stayed curled up in 1 place for maybe a whole day. I was always cold.
I became quite frail and quite thirsty for some reason. It seemed I was forgetting to eat or drink on a regular basis but then would somehow get myself into the tub to lick water — but was unable to climb back out. I had never jumped in the tub when I was younger. One day, I was in the tub for what seemed like an eternity, screaming until my person found me and delivered me to dry ground. How awkward.
Then one day, sleeping by my person’s head, I woke up from a bad dream and just decided to go to the bathroom on her pillow. I don’t know what got into me, but I know my fabulous feline life was a thing of the past.
I began yowling from confusion. The dreams got worse. Was that my person or a stranger? Was I in pain? No, not really. But I had no joy in life. I couldn’t remember or have the strength to do anything I used to love to do. My joy in my day was all gone. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.
The Hardest Decision
Everyone’s journey in losing a pet is unique. So many factors affect end-of-life decisions.
As the many years go by of loving and losing my pets and steering others through this difficult journey, 1 thing becomes clearer and clearer: You must try and take yourself out of the equation and think of that day in the life of that pet. Is there joy? Is there interest? Is there ability to accomplish an activity? Is there quality? Is there, well, life?
When people have been in to see me multiple times, struggling with this issue, there’s 1 more thing I suggest: Take an inventory of quality-of-life days. Clients have often suggested it themselves by telling me their pet has good days and bad days. They are usually seeing me on a “bad” day. How many “bad” days in a life do you think is right? When was the last “good” day, and what did that mean? Remember the 3-activity rule.
And finally, I must gently suggest that the day may come when your pet has the absolute worst day in their life. Must we wait for this day? The day when they have fallen again and are in pain? The day when you come home and find your beloved friend stuck in a horrible situation that is confusing, stressful and scary? The day after you have both survived the worst night imaginable?
Saving your pet from the worst day of their life might be the biggest gift you can give.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Jan. 17, 2018.