Is It Time to Euthanize Your Pet? Here’s How to Determine Quality of Life.


Consider quality of life when your pet can no longer do things that bring them joy. Photo: Wallula

When is it time to consider euthanizing your pet? How do you know when your pet’s quality of life has gone way down?

Any pet’s basic needs include being able to: 

  • Breathe
  • Walk
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Defecate
  • Urinate
  • Groom
  • Sleep

All these things should be as pain-free as possible.

In addition, we love seeing our dogs wag their tails and hearing our cats purr. We could also add to the list: freedom from boredom, violence, fear and loneliness.

With that said, the list above is a good starting point when you consider medical conditions that may be affecting your pet’s quality of life.

Discuss the Tough Questions With Your Vet

If any of these basic bodily functions doesn’t occur, or if it occurs with discomfort or pain, then your pet has a decreased quality of life.

What do we do then?

The first step should be having a heart-to-heart discussion with your veterinarian. It may not be easy, but it’s critical.

You and your vet will need to answer tough questions such as:

  • What is my pet’s diagnosis?
  • Why is my pet in pain?
  • How can we decrease the pain?
  • Can medications help?
  • Can surgery help?

For example, if your dog has a limp, then pain medications, joint supplements, weight loss or a “joint diet” may help …

Or if your cat has a tumor, then surgery can help remove it …

Or if your pet has a metabolic disease, then medications may be able to solve the problem …

… And the list goes on.

In this video, Dr. Mary K. Klein, DVM, DACVIM, DACVR, discusses quality of life, definitive care and palliative care for pets:

How to Know When Your Pet’s Quality of Life Is Going Downhill

How can you tell if your pet’s quality of life is decreasing?

Isn’t that subjective? Doesn’t it depend on your personal beliefs? How can you be objective given the tight bond you have with your pet?

One fairly objective and simple way to determine your pet’s quality of life is to use a scale from 1 to 10:

  • 1 means the poorest quality of life.
  • 10 is the best possible quality of life.

If you rate your pet as a 9 in January, a 7 in March and a 5 in May, it’s time to face reality: Your pet’s quality of life has significantly deteriorated over a short period of time.

You need to have an honest discussion with your family and your veterinarian about what can realistically be done.

For a more comprehensive tool, consider the HHHHHMM Quality of Life scale. You may want to consider printing multiple copies of that document. Then fill in a new copy regularly, monthly, weekly or even daily depending on the situation.

This will help you see a trend more objectively: Is your pet’s status the same, better or worse than the last time you assessed the situation?

The scale uses several simple criteria such as pain level, appetite, hygiene, happiness and mobility to try to remain as objective as possible.

The good days should outnumber the bad. By:
The good days should outnumber the bad. Photo: Emery_Way

A Day in the Life of a Pet

Try to put yourself in the head of your pet to see the day through their eyes. A day in the life of any living thing should have some quality time.

Here are a couple of examples.

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 old 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.

If your pet can’t remember where the food bowl or litter box is, talk with your veterinarian about their quality of life. Photo: ditipenguin

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 one place for maybe a whole day. I was always cold.

I became frail and quite thirsty for some reason. It seemed I was forgetting to eat or drink regularly, but then would somehow get myself into the tub to lick water — and I 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.

Put yourself in the mind of your pet: Are they still enjoying life? Photo: ukieiri

When Euthanasia Becomes an Option

The next challenge is to remember that age is not a disease.

If neither pain management nor medical and surgical treatments can help, then maybe it is time to consider euthanasia.

As emotionally and ethically difficult as it is for you, your whole family and the vet and their staff, euthanasia is sometimes the only reasonable and humane solution. It may be the only way your pet finds relief.

For a pet, quality of life includes the right to end suffering with dignity when all reasonable options have been exhausted.

When Is It Time to Euthanize My Pet?

Most pet parents eventually will be faced with the most difficult decision: to euthanize or not to euthanize their pet.

Everyone’s journey in losing a pet is unique. So many factors affect end-of-life decisions.

Again, try to take yourself out of the equation and think of that day in the life of your pet:

  • Is there joy?
  • Is there interest?
  • Is there ability to accomplish an activity?
  • Is there quality?
  • Is there … life?

Although most wish their furry family members would just “pass in their sleep,” this hardly ever happens. Below are 5 scenarios in which life-and-death decisions were made.

1. Age May Be a Factor

An adorable, geriatric cat had an aggressive and invasive cancerous mass (carcinoma) on her lower jaw. She was skin and bones because the mass prevented her from eating.

Could a surgeon have granted the caretakers’ wish and removed the lower jaw?

Technically speaking, yes. We actually do that regularly.

However, such a heroic procedure would not have been in this cat’s best interest. This is a rare situation where we actually recommend euthanasia. Still in denial, the cat’s caretakers took their cat to try their luck with another surgeon.

At times, a preconceived idea will prevent or delay treatment. This can result in euthanasia, although the condition may be treatable or even curable. Pet parents rationalize by saying, “I don’t want to put him through this,” or “She is too old for that.”

2. Outside Influence

Family members or “friends” sometimes pressure pet parents into making impulsive decisions, saying things like “If it were my dog, I would never treat them.”

These people may have the best intentions in mind, but with little medical knowledge behind their reasoning, their advice may be misleading.

An example of this situation is laryngeal paralysis, a condition that makes dogs suffocate. Although complications are possible, most patients do well after surgery. However, many end up euthanized for the wrong reasons.

3. Expense

Finances sometimes dictate which treatment a pet receives. Sadly, there are cases when a low-cost alternative may not be available.

For instance, male kitties can get a life-threatening blockage that prevents them from urinating. The best solution is to place a catheter to relieve the bladder, IV fluids to resume normal kidney function and sometimes reconstructive surgery for “repeat offenders.”

There are “minimalist treatments” — but if the obstruction recurs, we are back to square one.

If you cannot afford treatment for this condition, euthanasia may be warranted because this is a painful and potentially deadly condition. Vets have a simple solution when money is tight: pet insurance.

4. Home Care Concerns

Euthanasia is sometimes dictated when caretakers can’t treat their pet properly, although the pet requires daily treatments at home.

  • Diabetics need daily insulin injections and blood sugar monitoring.
  • Cats with kidney disease may need fluids injected under their skin.

Some pet families opt for euthanasia because they believe they cannot do this.

5. Fear or Aggression

The majority of pets we perceive as aggressive are actually terrified. They are defending themselves from what they believe is a threat.

Untreated behavior problems are the most common reasons pets are relinquished to shelters. Should aggressive animals be euthanized?

Other options should be explored first. For example, spaying and neutering may help, and consulting with a veterinary behaviorist is recommended.

Quality of life includes things like pain level, appetite, happiness and mobility. By:
Quality of life includes things like pain level, appetite, happiness and mobility. Photo: AlexPears

Final Thoughts on Knowing When It’s Time to Consider Euthanasia

Before considering euthanasia for your pet, make sure you have all the facts in hand.

  • Ask your vet for guidance or get a second opinion
  • Always make your decision based on the best interest of your pet.

And finally, understand that the day may come when your pet has the absolute worst day in their life.

Must we wait for that 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.

vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, with contributions from another veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, as well as A.J. Debiasse, a veterinary technician supervisor. This article was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated May 22, 2019.

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