By Courtney Prue | June 18, 2022

How Will I Know When ‘It’s Time’?

Evaluating 'Quality of Life'

Deciding when it is the 'right time’ to put your beloved cat or dog to sleep is one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make. However, it is also one of the most selfless and kind decisions you can make for your furry friend to alleviate pain and suffering.

So how do you know when your pet is really suffering? As veterinarians, we commonly get asked this question, and sometimes there is no straightforward answer. The answer involves many factors, such as your pet’s age, disease, availability of veterinary hospice care, financial constraints and logistics. Our goal at Rest Your Paws is to help you with this important decision and ensure your pet has the most peaceful end-of-life experience possible.

These resources will give you answers to the important questions:

  • What is ‘Quality of Life’ for a pet?
  • How do I determine my pet’s ‘Quality of Life’?
  • Is my pet suffering?
  • What if I want my pet to die naturally?
  • What happens at a home euthanasia appointment?

What is ‘Quality of Life’ for a Pet? 

You’ve probably heard: “You’ll just know when it’s time” or “When he stops eating” or “When he can’t get up anymore”.  These statements can not only be misleading but can lead to prolonged and unnecessary suffering, as well as decisions made too early.

Quality of Life (QOL) is the overall well-being and comfort experienced by a pet, taking into account their physical, emotional and social wellness. It is a subjective assessment commonly used in end-of-life discussions and decision-making, allowing us to assess whether a pet is coping or would be kinder to put them to sleep. It helps answer the question: At what point is life not worth living for the pet?

When assessing QOL, it is essential to base it on the whole picture and consider several key factors. Evaluating the pet’s emotional, physical and social well-being together is much more accurate than relying on one factor alone.

Physical Wellbeing 
  • Are they able to breathe comfortably?
  • Are they eating and drinking well? Or losing weight and becoming dehydrated?
  • Are they able to walk, urinate, defecate, and groom on their own?
  • Are they able to have a restful sleep?
  • Are they engaged with the family and interactive or tired, withdrawn, and hiding?
Emotional Wellbeing 
  • Do they still have a reasonable level of control over their environment?
  • Are they able to enjoy their usual routine?
  • Do they have a good level of mental stimulation and engagement?
  • Are they coping with the stress of ill health well? (such as urine soiling, ability to do stairs, being blind or deaf etc.)
  • Are they experiencing any level of anxiety or distress?
  • Has your pet’s personality changed?
  • Would you say your pet is happy?
Social Wellbeing 
  • Do they still have the same level of interaction with the family?
  • Is your pet still affectionate and playful?
  • Do they still enjoy relationships with other animals?
  • For outdoor cats, are they still able to go out and explore?
  • For dogs, can they still go to the park or for walks to meet other people and dogs?

Another very important consideration is how you as a pet owner are coping with caring for an elderly or terminally ill pet. Caring for a sick pet is hard work and takes its toll physically, emotionally, and financially. How is your quality of life?

Signs that your pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life:

  • Your pet is having trouble breathing, experiencing weakness or extreme lethargy
  • Your pet has nausea, frequent vomiting or diarrhoea that cannot be resolved by treatment from a veterinarian and is resulting in weight loss and/or dehydration.
  • You pet experiences chronic and intractable pain that doesn’t go away even with medication (Learn more about signs of pain in dogs or cats)
  • Your pet finds it very difficult to walk or cannot get up
  • Your pet is refusing to eat or drink
  • Your pet is having trouble urinating or defecating
  • Your pet has had a significant behaviour change and has lost interest in surroundings, family activities or his/her favourite activities
 Here are 3 simple ways to evaluate your pet’s QOL: 
  • Write a list of the top five things your pet loved to do. When they are no longer able to enjoy the majority of these things, it may be time to discuss euthanasia.
  • Remember how your pet looked and behaved prior to the illness. Sometimes changes are gradual, and therefore hard to notice. Look at photos or videos of your pet from before the illness.
  • Keep track of good and bad days on your calendar. If the bad days start to outweigh the good, it may be time to discuss euthanasia
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Are You Worried Your Pet is in Pain?

An important thing to keep in mind is that animals are incredibly good at hiding any outward sign of pain or suffering. In the wild, showing any signs of distress would be considered a weakness, and therefore it can be quite challenging to know how much pain your pet may be experiencing. This is why it is so important to have regular veterinary appointments, especially as your pet gets older. There is no better person to ask these difficult questions than your trusted veterinarian.

Make the decision earlier, rather than too late

The majority of pet owners who have previously experienced the loss of a pet, will generally make the decision to euthanise their next pet sooner. First time pet owners caring for a terminal pet will often wait until the very last minute to make the difficult decision. They feel guilty about ending their pets life too soon, and giving up on their pet. Afterwards however, most of these owners regret waiting too long and putting their pet through numerous procedures and stressful vet visits that didn’t improve their pets quality of life. The next time they’re faced with the decline of a pet, they tend to make the decision much sooner rather than later.

If you wait until the last minute to say goodbye there is a higher chance that you’ll be racing your pet to the emergency hospital, completely stressed and potentially in a lot of pain. It’s not nice for you or your pet to have to say goodbye in this way.

We have an incredible gift that we can give to animals – and that is to prevent suffering and provide the most peaceful and gentle goodbye possible. They can be surrounded by their family, getting hugs and cuddles, eating their favourite food in their favourite bed when they drift off to sleep. Our pets deserve the best throughout their life – and that holds true for their final moments.

What if I Want My Pet to Die Naturally? 

One of the most common things we hear is “I just wish my pet would pass away naturally in his sleep”. Unfortunately, this type of peaceful death rarely occurs in animals. As in humans, a natural death is often very difficult to watch, associated with pain and distress, difficulty breathing and undoubtedly the animal will suffer.

A major reason why families wish for a ‘natural death’ for their pets is so they do not have to carry the guilt of ‘playing god’ and making the decision on behalf of their animal who can not speak. Deciding to euthanise a pet humanely can feel gut-wrenching, murderous, and immoral. Families feel like they are letting their pet down or that they are the cause of their friend’s death. They forget that euthanasia is a gift that prevents further physical suffering for the pet and emotional suffering of the family when used appropriately and timely.

We do our best to encourage and educate families about humane euthanasia and to avoid a natural death wherever possible.

In those circumstances where humane euthanasia is not option, say for religious reasons, an owner should be prepared to give 24 hour medical care to their pet through the dying process. Patients often require strong pain medications to keep them comfortable and prevent suffering.

Find more about what it means for your pet to have a natural death here. 

Weighing Up The Decision to Put Down a Pet

‍If you’ve been to a vet and received a diagnosis that your pet is declining, you may be given options to either alleviate the symptoms with pain relief; treat the condition with medication or surgery; or to have your animal put to sleep.

It’s time to consider if you value extending your pet’s life over their quality of life. You’ll also need to weigh up the practical aspects of the diagnosis. There will likely be an increased responsibility for vet visits, in addition to providing medical care and emotional support as your pets condition continues to get worse.

Treatment can be expensive, so you’ll also need to consider if you can afford the costs involved, particularly if your pet has an ongoing need for medicine. If you aren’t able to provide ongoing treatment, will they suffer without it?

What Happens at a Euthanasia Appointment? 

At your scheduled visit, the veterinarian will listen to your concerns and explain the process in as much, or little, detail as you would like. We will help you to prepare a space where your pet is most comfortable, whether that means in their bed, lying in the sun outside, on their favourite couch, or in your arms.

Once your pet has settled in their favourite place, a gentle sedation will be given which will relax them and reduce any discomfort they may be feeling. Once you and your pet are ready, we give a second medication that will allow your pet to pass peacefully within a few minutes.

You may spend as much time with your pet as needed to say your final good-byes. If Rest Your Paws is handling the cremation, we will then gently transport your pet to our car.

Being in your own home during such a difficult time will make the whole process much easier for both your family and your beloved friend. Your pet has been a part of the family for a very long time and you want the best care right up until the end. You will be able to grieve in the privacy of your own home with family and friends by your side.

Find out more about putting your cat or dog to sleep in the comfort of home.

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