When Is It Time to Put a Dog Down? Understanding Quality of Life and Euthanasia

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This 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 on June 11, 2024

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See additional information.

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

When Is It Time to Put a Dog Down?

When is it time to consider euthanizing your pet? When Is It Time to Put a Dog Down? How do you know when your pet’s quality of life has significantly declined?

A pet’s basic needs include being able to breathe, walk, eat, drink, defecate, urinate, groom, and sleep—all as pain-free as possible. In addition, we love seeing our dogs wag their tails and hearing our cats purr. Freedom from boredom, violence, fear, and loneliness are also essential.

This list is a good starting point when considering 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 don’t occur, or if they occur 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. If your cat has a tumor, then surgery can help remove it. If your pet has a metabolic disease, then medications may be able to solve the problem. And the list goes on.

Having this discussion will help you understand when is it time to put a dog down.

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

YouTube player

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

Determining if your pet’s quality of life is decreasing can be challenging. One objective way to assess it is to use a scale from 1 to 10:

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

For example, 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. An honest discussion with your family and veterinarian about what can realistically be done is essential.

For a more comprehensive tool, consider the HHHHHMM Quality of Life scale. Print multiple copies and fill in a new one regularly—monthly, weekly, or even daily, depending on the situation. This helps you see a trend more objectively: Is your pet’s status the same, better, or worse than the last assessment?

The scale uses criteria such as pain level, appetite, hygiene, happiness, and mobility to remain as objective as possible. Understanding these signs will help you know when is it time to put a dog down.

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

10 Signs to Put Your Dog Down: Recognizing the Indicators

Recognizing when it is time to put your dog down involves observing key signs that indicate a significant decline in quality of life. Here are 10 indicators to watch for:

  1. Severe Pain: Persistent, unmanaged pain despite treatment.
  2. Difficulty Breathing: Constant labored breathing or frequent respiratory distress.
  3. Inability to Eat or Drink: Refusal to eat or drink, leading to weight loss and dehydration.
  4. Loss of Mobility: Inability to stand, walk, or move without assistance.
  5. Chronic Vomiting or Diarrhea: Persistent gastrointestinal issues causing discomfort and weight loss.
  6. Lethargy: Extreme tiredness and lack of energy, even for favorite activities.
  7. Loss of Interest: No longer interested in activities, toys, or interactions they once enjoyed.
  8. Confusion or Disorientation: Signs of cognitive decline, such as confusion and getting lost in familiar places.
  9. Incontinence: Frequent accidents and inability to control bladder or bowels.
  10. Uncontrollable Symptoms: Severe symptoms from terminal illnesses that cannot be managed effectively.

Consulting with your vet can help in making this difficult decision, ensuring it is the right time to put your dog down based on their quality of life.

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.

Consider euthanasia when your pet can no longer:

  • Eat or drink without difficulty
  • Walk or move without pain
  • Perform basic functions like urinating or defecating
  • Enjoy activities they once loved

Recognizing when is it time to put a dog down involves understanding that prolonging a pet’s life in suffering is not in their best interest. The decision, while heartbreaking, may be the kindest act you can do for your beloved pet.

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

Age May Be a Factor

Age can significantly impact the decision to euthanize a pet. In cases where a pet has a severe illness, such as an aggressive cancerous mass, their quality of life can be severely diminished.

Key considerations include:

  • If the pet can no longer eat or drink due to the illness
  • If surgical or medical interventions are unlikely to improve the pet’s quality of life
  • If age and health conditions make recovery difficult

Pet parents often rationalize by saying, “I don’t want to put him through this,” or “She is too old for that.” Understanding when is it time to put a dog down involves recognizing that age and severe illness may necessitate euthanasia to prevent further suffering.

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.

Key points to consider:

  • Seek professional veterinary advice rather than relying on non-experts.
  • Understand that well-meaning advice from others may not always be medically sound.
  • Recognize that making an informed decision about when is it time to put a dog down should be based on medical facts and the pet’s quality of life.

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 cats can get a life-threatening blockage that prevents them from urinating. The best solution is to:

  • Place a catheter
  • Administer IV fluids
  • Perform reconstructive surgery

Minimalist treatments exist, but if the obstruction recurs, euthanasia may be necessary due to the pain and potential fatality of the condition. Vets recommend considering pet insurance when money is tight.

Understanding when is it time to put a dog down or a cat down involves recognizing that financial constraints may impact the decision, especially in severe cases.

Home Care Concerns

Euthanasia is sometimes necessary when caretakers can’t treat their pets properly, even though the pet requires daily treatments at home.

For example:

  • Diabetic pets 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 manage these treatments. Recognizing when is it time to put a dog down involves understanding the challenges of home care and ensuring the pet’s quality of life.

Fear or Aggression

The majority of pets we perceive as aggressive are actually terrified, 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:

  • Spaying and neutering may help.
  • Consulting with a veterinary behaviorist is recommended.

Recognizing when is it time to put a dog down involves understanding that fear and aggression can often be managed with appropriate interventions rather than immediate euthanasia.

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 is it Time to Put a Dog Down

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.

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. Recognizing when is it time to put a dog down involves understanding that preventing further suffering is an act of compassion and love.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

When is it time to put a dog down?

It is time to put a dog down when their quality of life has significantly declined, and they are suffering from severe pain or debilitating conditions.

How to know when it is time to put a dog down?

You can know it is time to put a dog down by assessing their ability to perform basic functions and their overall quality of life, consulting with your vet.

When is it time to put a dog down with dementia?

It is time to put a dog down with dementia when they are confused, disoriented, and unable to enjoy life or recognize their surroundings.

I have an old dog that limps when he walks; is it time to put him down?

If your old dog limps and shows signs of chronic pain or mobility issues that cannot be managed, it may be time to consider putting him down.



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