How to Say Goodbye
If you’re like me, you hope and pray that your pets will live forever. Unfortunately they won’t. The average life span of a dog or cat is relatively short compared to ours—about one-fourth to one-sixth of a human and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, aging pets make up 45% of the nation’s pet population. One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make is when to say goodbye. Owners often ask me that heart-wrenching question: “How do I know when it’s time?” and I always tell them the same thing: It’s crucial to remember that their quality of life is much more important than the length of their life. Although I’ve helped owners say goodbye to their pets hundreds of times, it never gets any easier, but it does lend some clarity to making the right decision.
One of my responsibilities as a vet is to put an end to the pain and suffering of animals by granting them a calm and gentle death through euthanasia. It takes courage to see your pet come to the end of its journey, but ask yourself these questions, and the answers will lead you to make the right choice: Is my pet happy? Is my pet suffering? Is my pet’s quality of life acceptable? Has my pet lost its dignity? Has my pet lost the will to live? Is it losing the fight?
The definition of suffering is the bearing of pain or distress. Pets who are suffering usually stop eating and lose interest in their surroundings and family members. This can give you the signal that it is time. Often when an animal is close to the end or has a terminal illness and is living on borrowed time, and an owner is having trouble making a decision, I talk to them about having to rush their distraught pet to the emergency clinic and put them down with a stranger at a highly emotional moment versus making the decision ahead of time, when all the goodbyes and I-love-yous can be peacefully shared between you and your beloved pet. It’s an individual decision, and there is no right or wrong answer.
You want to be sure you’re not prolonging your pet’s life for selfish reasons. My own dog, Duke, fought to the very last moment, tail still wagging and full of love and courage, mostly because he knew I was afraid to lose his loving presence in my life. When I was finally able to see through Duke’s eyes, I could make the selfless decision to let him go because part of loving a pet is being willing to take the responsibility for making difficult decisions, living with the pain of those decisions because you know it was the right thing to do, and cherishing the times you had together, no matter how long or short.
If you do make the decision to have your pet humanely euthanized, you can have a vet come to your home; this way your pet is in familiar surroundings. Or you can choose to take your pet to the clinic. Most hospitals have a special room to make the experience as meaningful as possible. A catheter is usually placed in the vein first to ease administration of the euthanasia solution, and you can decide if you want to be present or not. Also, many vets give a sedative prior to this injection. This should be a painless procedure that works very quickly, as the pet becomes unconscious within seconds of the injection, and the heart stops shortly thereafter.
Afterwards you may take your pet home for burial, if allowed by your local or county ordinances, or opt for cremation or burial at a pet cemetery. Most vets have contracts with cremation services that pick up deceased pets and cremate them in their facilities, either disposing of the ashes or returning them in urns to the pet’s owner. If your pet dies at home, you can call your vet to arrange a cremation or inquire about pet cemeteries. There are more than 400 active cemeteries in the United States that offer full burial and funeral services.
You can memorialize your pet by planting a tree or garden in their honor, make a donation in your pet’s memory for research or treatment of the illness it had to a veterinary school or create a medical fund for animals in need at your vet’s office. There are also pet loss Web sites where you can post your pet’s photo and obituary.
Remember, in the end, quality of life is the key to decisions you’ll be making on your pet’s behalf. The trust that shows through their eyes will communicate to you as clear as crystal that they love you and know you’ll do what’s best for them without hesitation or regret.
By Dr. Karen Halligan