Yes…grab your tissues. Especially if you have been through this yourself. Have you and your buddy been best friends ’til the very end? Whether you have many years together or just a short time, the decision to let your beloved pet go is absolutely heart-wrenching. Having the option of compassionate euthanasia for pets can feel like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it lets them go with dignity and without pain or panic, surrounded by people who love them. It’s a kindness and a gift, the ultimate thing a person can do for a pet who has given them so much love. On the other, the responsibility is a heavy one- knowing that it’s your decision to make. Holding your best friend’s death in your hands. How do you know when the time is right?
I’ve heard it said many times that it’s better to make the decision too early than too late. Your pet doesn’t have any existential dread. They don’t fear death or worry about an afterlife. Saying goodbye when there’s still some quality of life left spares them the pain and anxiety of a slow death.
Still, though, I’ve often fervently wished I could ask my pet’s opinion on the subject.
It’s a decision I’ve made numerous times over the years of rescue and there’s no one roadmap. I still find myself questioning whether it’s the right time and the right decision right up til the end. Every death is different. Some are long, while some are sudden. Sometimes, it’s clear that it’s time. Some come with terminal diagnoses that allow you to prepare and to know, when the quality of life starts to decline, what that signals. Sometimes, there are human factors that come into the decision, such as treatment cost or the family’s ability to accommodate a pet’s changing needs.
And each individual pet has their own signals and tolerance point. For some dogs, becoming incontinent is terribly distressing. Others hardly seem to notice. Some animals are finicky from birth and if they don’t want to eat or take treats, it’s just a standard Thursday. For others, it’s a sign of a serious problem. My most recent goodbye was a feral cat who told me it was time by approaching me and laying his head in my hand. For my other cat, that’s an everyday thing. For this one, he had never done it before and it was a significant and clear signal that he was in pain and trusted me to help.
While there is no good roadmap, there are guidelines that can help you make the decision. One is to think of your pet’s three favorite things in life. When they no longer enjoy two of them, it’s time. So if they’re still eating, but no longer want to go for walks or play ball, it’s a sign that their quality of life has declined in major and tangible ways and it may be best to consider letting them go before they can no longer enjoy a goodbye bacon cheeseburger.
Another good guideline is the Villalobos Quality of Life Scale, published by hospice veterinarian Dr. Alice Villalobos. This is also known as the HHHHHMM scale and looks at seven factors: hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, mobility, and “more good days than bad.”
Hurt: is your pet in physical pain that can no longer be adequately managed? It can be hard to tell, but signs of a painful pet include loss of interest in physical activity, excessive grooming/licking, objecting to being handled (e.g. growling, snapping, or flinching when they’re picked up or touched in certain places), and excessive panting.
Hunger: Is your pet still eating as normal? Has their appetite declined? Are they unwilling to eat anything but treats or “special” foods, such as wet food, baby food, or human food?
Hydration: To check if your pet is dehydrated, gently pinch their skin in a place where it’s loose (such as the back of their neck). When you let go, if it stays standing or springs back slowly, it’s a sign of dehydration and your pet may need to see the vet.
Hygiene: Has your normally fastidious cat stopped cleaning himself? Has your dog’s coat lost its shine? Is your pet able to continue their normal toilet habits or are they frequently missing the litterbox or peeing in their bed?
Happiness: This is one of the most important factors. Is your pet happy? Alert? Interested in the things they usually like, such as toys, car rides, or physical affection? Do they still have a sparkle in their eye or do they seem tired, unhappy, anxious, or depressed?
Mobility: Can your pet navigate their normal everyday life easily or is it a struggle? Can they get up and down stairs, in and out of cars, and on and off their beds or cat trees? Do they struggle to stand on wood or tile floors? Do they still want to go for walks?
More Good Days Than Bad: During a slow decline, such as with age or a long illness, there will be some good days and some bad. Arthritic joints may be stiffer due to changing barometric pressure, seizures or stomach problems may flare up, and it can sometimes feel like it’s time… and then they get better. They’re back to their normal, happy selves. But gradually, even if there might still be a few good days to come, the bad start to outnumber them and become the norm.
In the Villalobos scale, each factor is to be given a 1-10 rating and if the end tally is higher than 35, that indicates an acceptable quality of life. However, of course, the numerical aspect is just a rough guideline based on limited factors and you and your vet are the best advocates for your individual pet.
In my experience, even when I’ve questioned myself going in, I’ve known by the time it was over that the decision was right. If your dog is still wagging their tail while you wait for the vet, that means that one of the last things he feels is joy. And who could ask for anything more?
When you have made the final decision, let it be as happy a time as you can. Feed your best friend the treats they’re not usually allowed to have. Ask a friend to take pictures of them with you or with the family. Have their friends visit. Take them on a picnic or a car ride. Hold them close and tell them how much they mean to you. Thank them for sharing their lives with you.
If you and your pet know, like, and trust the staff at your vet’s office, make the appointment there. For many owners, though, the vet’s office can seem somewhat impersonal and sterile. The rooms are often too small to accommodate whole families (and COVID restrictions may mean only one person can be there at a time) and it’s a very public place to experience such a devastating loss. For pets, going to the vet may be stressful, especially if they’re shy or have been through a lot of invasive vet care in the past.. If you can afford it and have the time to plan, an in-home euthanasia service such as Compassionate In-Home Euthanasia Services may be the most peaceful and comfortable option for you and your best friend.
If you’re facing this decision or soon will be, my heart goes out to you. Having painless, dignified euthanasia available as an option is a blessing, but having to choose it is one of the hardest parts of loving a pet. Whether the time will be coming soon or it’s still years away, give your furry loved ones a kiss tonight and tell them how much you love them. They’re not with us for long enough.
From the beginning of their lives to the end, we love your pets like they’re our own. If you’re taking a trip, contact us about our in-home pet-sitting services. We’ll make sure your four-legged family members don’t miss a single day of kisses.
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.