When clients ask me this question, I usually ask them to make a list of the five activities that their pets have enjoyed most. There are no right or wrong answers. In fact, two pets in the same household may have vastly different answers. For one pet, it may be standing on the back of the couch barking at the mailman every day. For another, it may be plopping atop your book as soon as you open it in bed.
The goal of the exercise is to establish a clear list of items that owners know their pets have enjoyed. By recognizing how much age, disease or injury have set in and reduced a pet’s ability to enjoy life, the exercise allows owners to take a more analytical view of a highly emotional decision.
For example, when a Labrador retriever no longer perks up at food, chasing after her ball or going for a car ride, her owner can, with confidence, know that the dog no longer is getting the fulfillment from life that she once did. So it may be time.
Last November, I said goodbye to my beloved 12-year old standard poodle, Roxanne. More recently, I did the same with my 15-year-old cat, Mama Kitty. Both scenarios, while starkly different, were equally painful. But I felt much more guilt and angst trying to decide the right time with my cat. The diseases of elderly cats—mainly hyperthyroidism, renal failure and diabetes—can be slowly debilitating and wasting. The effects can worsen so slowly that it becomes difficult to assess the true condition of your animal friend.
With my cat, my family had been advising me for weeks that it was time. She had been going potty outside of her litter box. She weighed less than one-third of her peak body weight. She was vomiting more. And she had taken a rough fall trying to jump onto the couch. Still, I struggled with the decision. She had continued to seek out the kids to snuggle and to jump into our laps in the evening, purring as loudly as ever. I needed to get to a point where I could say my final goodbye without guilt.
As the days passed and I waited for the right time, I realized I was being selfish. I really didn’t want my cherished friend to get to the point that she felt pain with every breath. It’s a great gift to be able to hold your pet and whisper in her ear as you bring an end to pain and suffering. While a veterinarian can help provide guidance, ultimately it is an owner’s knowledge of his or her pet that best answers the question of when.