Euthanasia: The Most Painful Decision

VetrinarianMany think of bereavement as beginning after loss. For many, however, grief can begin much earlier. Often, it begins the day you realize that your pet is approaching the end of its life — even though the final loss of that pet may still be many months distant.

This stage of grief is especially difficult, because it is without closure. You can’t make an effort to “get over it” or “feel better,” because the loss itself has not occurred. Thus, no matter how bad you feel, you know that things are just going to get worse. It can be difficult to find comfort during this stage, for even people who understand the pain of bereavement may wonder why you are grieving before your cat has actually died.

Grief for impending loss is complicated by the need to make difficult, painful decisions. How much treatment should you pursue? At what point will treatment cause more trauma than relief? Can you provide the care needed to keep your pet comfortable — and will your cat reach a point where no amount of care can do this? At what point, if any, should you consider euthanasia?

Sometimes circumstances don’t give you time to ask such questions. An unexpected illness might give you days (or at most, weeks) to consider these issues; an accident or injury might leave you with hours, or even minutes. Whenever possible, however, it’s best to develop a plan, taking into consideration three basic issues:

When should you consider euthanasia?

When your pet is ill, this may be the last question you want to think about. Yet it is the most important question you may need to answer.

Start by asking your veterinarian what types of symptoms to expect as your pet’s illness progresses. What stages will the disease take? How long before kidney disease produces incontinence or renal failure? How long before tumor cells invade the lungs or other organs? How long before symptoms become medically unmanageable, before pain becomes severe and untreatable? At what point will your pet become unable to function normally; at what point will its suffering become extreme?

This information can help you form your plan. For example, you may decide to seriously consider euthanasia when your pet can no longer breathe easily, or eat or drink, or find a comfortable position in which to sleep, or when it seems to find your touch painful. By defining a “decision point” in advance, you place boundaries on the suffering your pet is likely to endure.

Will you be there?

Many people feel it is important to be present during euthanasia. Many others feel unable to handle this traumatic event. And make no mistake: Witnessing the euthanasia of your beloved companion IS traumatic (though it can also help allay fears that your companion suffered). This is not a decision to be made lightly, or based on someone else’s choices.

Most feel that the pet’s well-being is the most important consideration. If you believe your pet will feel more comfortable or secure in your presence, you’ll probably want to stay, no matter how difficult it will be. On the other hand, if you’re concerned that your own reaction and grief may disturb the pet more than the process itself, you may prefer to stay away.

If you choose not to be present, don’t simply leave your pet with the veterinarian. Some clinics hold “to-be-euthanized” pets until after clinic hours, which simply adds to an animal’s trauma. Make sure that your pet is going to be euthanized immediately, while you wait in the waiting room or car.

What will you do next?

The worst time to decide what to do with your pet’s remains is at the last minute. It’s far better to begin discussing options weeks in advance. Indeed, even the owner of a perfectly healthy pet can begin considering the answer to this question at any time, particularly if you want to make special funeral or private cremation arrangements, or want a particular type of funerary product (such as a special urn or casket).

For many, this decision involves both physical and spiritual issues. How do you (and your family) distinguish between body and soul? Do you feel that your pet will be “closer” to you spiritually if its remains are close to you physically (e.g., in a cremation urn)? Do you feel that your pet’s spirit will be happier if it is interred in a familiar, beloved location? Or do you feel that your pet’s soul and personality are not associated with its physical remains, which you’re quite happy to leave with the veterinarian? There’s nothing foolish about such considerations. For many, the certainty that they have provided for their cat’s spiritual needs can go a long way toward healing the spiritual wounds of the owner.

Myths About Euthanasia – The Most Painful Decision

Many people have mixed feelings about euthanasia, for good reason. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, this act feels like murder to many of us, and guilt may often haunt us long after the act.

Even when we know intellectually that euthanasia may be the “best” or “most merciful” choice, that means little when we face the decision itself. Many pet owners cling to misperceptions that provide apparent justification for postponing this decision — often at the expense of the pet itself. Three common misperceptions include:

Euthanasia isn’t nature’s way.

Some pet owners reject euthanasia as “unnatural.” Nature, some say, has a timetable for every life, and by artificially ending a life, we’re disrupting nature’s plan. While charming, this belief overlooks the fact that by providing treatment, surgery, medication, or any other form of care for a sick (or injured) pet, we are already extending that pet’s life far beyond what would occur if matters were left in the not-so-tender hands of “nature.” Euthanasia is often not so much a question of “artificially ending” a life, but of determining when to cease artificially extending that life.

Euthanasia is selfish.

One of the commonest sources of guilt is the belief that one has euthanized a pet “too soon” or for “selfish” reasons. “I should have tried harder,” many tell themselves. “I should have been willing to do more, spend more, get a second opinion, stay up all night to take care of her.” Yet the person who worries most about not having “done enough” is often a person who has already gone to superhuman efforts to care for that pet. A far more dangerous form of selfishness is to prolong a pet’s suffering simply to postpone one’s own.

My pet will tell me when it’s “time.”

Many of us have heard of pets who allegedly offered some indication of acceptance of death, of being “ready to move on.” And who among us would not welcome that sense of being granted “permission” to end a pet’s life? Such a “signal” would remove the dreadful burden of having to make that decision on our own. Unfortunately, for many that signal never comes. By convincing ourselves that our pets will “tell us” when it is time to die, we risk two hazards: Prolonging a pet’s suffering by waiting for a sign that never comes, or torturing ourselves with guilt for acting “too soon.”

The painful truth is that if your pet is terminally ill, and especially if it is suffering and unable to function, it will die; the decision you must make is not whether its life will end, but how, and how much discomfort you are willing to allow it to endure. Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, sums up the issue in one vital question in her book, Canine and Feline Behavior Problems: “Which choice will bring you the least cause for regret after the pet is gone?” Unfortunately, “no regret” is often not an option.

Discuss: Euthanasia: The Most Painful Decision

10 People Discussing
  • Huckleberry let us know it was his time. We sensed this in him because he became much more attached to us than usual. He would express his pain by small cries during the night. We would hold him and comfort him which would stop his cries. When we went to the vet he was very calm and just laid in Annie’s arms as if waiting for his time. We felt it was best for him to end his pain and suffering. This was a most difficult decision but we knew a long time ago this day would come. We were not going to let him suffer any more just because we wanted him to be around longer, that would be a selfish act on our part. We chose to let Huckleberry go.

    Comment by Dave & Annie — May 5, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

  • this was very good, because it is exactly how it is, and how it feels. but having the peace of no more suffereing was a great feeling. They do tell you, if you are very bonded. It was the hardest thing i have ever done. but she is always with me….

    Comment by robin — March 26, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

  • Our Dixie had a progressive brain tumor. She was only 10 years old. She cried in pain, fell and had no idea where she was anymore. I didn’t want to let her go but I couldn’t let her suffer anymore. I let her go 2 weeks ago and miss her every day.

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 20, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  • Haley did not want to go. She was fighting for her life but her cancer was spreading to her bones. It is a very difficult to tell when pets are ready to go. Their instinct is to hide and weakness.
    In the end I made the decision to put her down. She wanted to make me happy but she was holding back her pain.
    If you have the chance to prepare for your pet’s passing, go all out. Haley’s last month was wonderful, I was able to give her the best food, make her a dog cake, enjoy her and really make her last month as comfortable and loving as possible. I made a mold of her paw print when she was alive and we made little keepsakes for the family. I felt that this definitely gave me closure. I knew i gave her the best life and last month. She knew i did this for her health.

    Comment by Karina — January 20, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  • We had to say goodbye to our sweet Ravyn 3 days ago and this article expresses almost every one of my thoughts and fears during her short illness. Saying goodbye was the most difficult thing I have ever done but I don’t regret it knowing she isn’t going to suffer.

    Comment by Rita — August 11, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  • It was the hardest decision to make and we have had to make it twice now. The first time was for a 9 month old puppy. We loved him so deeply and he truly was the most special dog anyone could ever have asked for. We never really noticed too much that our puppy, Clovis was so peaceful and quiet and sweet for one so young that should have been energetic and excited and happy as most puppies who are happy are. He had a sister born the same day and she was just that. Energetic, excited and happy. One day she accidentally jumped on Clovis and he howled with such pain it shook me to the core. We imediately took him to our vet and we were told he would always have to be on medication the rest of his life to control his pain (he had a SEVERE form of hip displasia – he was a german sheppard). This truly broke our hearts because we just knew that living this way was no way to really live. We made the decision to euthanize him the following day. As we stared at this precious and most beautiful creature, our Clovis who was so sweet and loving and just the greatest dog ever, and the vet put the needle into his leg vein he looked into our eyes and he died as peacefully as he was in nature. We brought him home and wrapped him in a silk black blanket (Clovis was a solid black German Sheppard) that I had set aside for a sewing project and burried him in our backyard. It was horrible to watch my husband suffer so as he dug Clovis’s hole. Once that was done he gently placed him in and covered the hole up. One year later the most beautiful purple Mexican pansy flower bush popped up where Clovis is burried. He is always in our hearts and will stay there forever.
    The second dog we had to euthanize was also a German Sheppard, a black and tan, that we named Buck. He was such a great dog too. We had him for 7 years before we had to make this decision again. Buck was Clovis’s father. Well Buck’s hip displasia was not as severe but as Buck aged it started effecting him a whole lot more. One day I noticed Buck was under the house and would not come out. I crawled under the house and pulled him out as gently as I could and we took him to the vet. We knew the vet would say the same thing about his hips, and he did. So to save Buck from suffering and having to stay medicated the rest of his life we let him go. Once again we stared at this majestic, beautiful creature as the vet placed the needle into his leg vein and Buck looked into our eyes and then laid his head down and closed his eyes. We had to be there for these wonderful animals. We had to be the last thing they saw before they moved on to heaven. Even though is was traumatic to watch our beloved pets die (our dogs are like our kids we love them so much) we made this decision because of our love for them. Do we regret the decisions? No, but we would have loved for them to be healthier and live longer. Unfortunately these wonderful pets still eventually have to die one way or another and this is never an easy thing to deal with no matter how these great pets die. We just have to be thankful for the time we do have with them and care for them and love them as much as we possibly can while they are here.

    Comment by Kathryn — December 30, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

  • Thank you for this article, and thanks to those who commented on it. I needed to read this today.

    Comment by Deanne McCoy — July 5, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

  • Our cat”BOBBITT” was a cat we really didn’t want. after we had to put our cat”EMMITT” and our dog ” DUSTY” down a couple of years before, I just didn’t want another animal. well my daughter got attatched to this cat at my husbands uncle house and beg me to take it!! well all it took was one look. The poor little thing didn’t have a tail. So he came to our house and he was an inside-outside cat. We had Bobbitt 5 yrs. I really got attached to Bobbitt.He was there for me when my husband was at work till late at night. Bobbitt would come in at supper time and after he ate, he would spend special time with me. It tore me up to have to put him down because of someone elses carlesness!!!!!!!! i
    I don’t think i will get another pet! It hurts too bad when their gone!!!

    Comment by sarah pettrey — November 22, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  • My 17 year old cat, who I rescued as an injured stray at about 4 wks old (the vet told me the surgery he needed would be expensive and I should just put him to sleep) was recently diagnosed with kidney disease when I took him to get his teeth cleaned. I took him back a month later because his breath was bad again.
    I was supposed to pick him up 2 days later and when I got there I was told that the Dr needed to speak with me. A Dr I had never met came into the room with my Angel and sat down. He explained that the regular Dr had sold him the practice and he had been in practice for over 20 years. He proceeded to tell me that Angel had developed an autoimmune Dental Disease and his mouth was full of lesions. There was nothing that could be done for it. On top of that, he’d taken an x-ray of his mouth to see the damage and that x-ray just happened to catch a huge tumor in his upper chest.
    My miracle boy was in pain with his mouth and even with pain medication probably wouldn’t be able to eat normally. I didn’t want to subject him to surgery to find out if the tumor was a cancer, due to his age and kidney disease. He likely would not survive surgery.
    I have had pets put to sleep before, our 12 yr old dog just 9 months prior, even. I had never had a pet as old as Angel and as close to me. He slept right next to me every night, sometimes even on my hip.
    I knew in my heart I had to let him go, to relieve him of his pain. It was the hardest thing for ME, though. I stayed in the room with him for probably a half hour, petting and scratching his favorite places. He had been given pain medicine, so I wasn’t afraid to touch him. He purred the entire time I was there talking to him, like nothing was unusual.
    The tech came back and asked if I was ready. Even though I could never have possibly been ready to let him go, I said yes because I thought HE was ready to be out of pain.
    My Angel baby purred until his heart stopped beating.
    I decided to have him cremated so I can keep him close. I don’t know how long it will take me to find closure, I miss him every time I get in bed and he isn’t there. I’m crying as I type this.
    I ordered a Teddy Bear urn for Angel’s ashes. I’ll be able to keep him close and always know where he’s at, because now my Angel is truly an angel.

    Comment by Jennifer Sanders — May 14, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

  • I was glad to see this article and these loving tips from readers. I was scheduled to be with my cat PeeWee to have her freed from her ever growing tumors. I struggled with the decision. Fiercely going back and forth with what to do ….. or not do. I ended up testing positive for Covid 19 and canceled the vet appointment until later. Selfishly I wanted to spend my quarantine with my best friend. PeeWee was 17 1/2 so she was a family member. Like another child to love and care for. It ended up I had to make the dreaded decision to finally have her put down because i thought she was about to have a seizure. I sat in the car but said my goodbyes there and my son held her in the vets as she went into the light. My heart broke and i had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without her. My son bought me the cat in the basket bed urn here for Christmas. Now i can look at her likeness and touch it and say “I love You”. A good feeling. My sons girlfriend had a blanket made with some of the beautiful pictures i have of PeeWee. I can hold that blanket close to my heart and smoosh her like i did when she was here. A good feeling too. I cry so easily when I miss her but having the gorgeous pet urn and blanket helps me thru the moments of grief. I actually came here trying to find how to fill the urn and wondered what the soft bag is for that I also purchased. I have not found the info I needed though. Point me to where I need to look?

    Comment by Cathy — December 25, 2020 @ 3:31 pm

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