Pets bring out the best in us but as they grow older, they may put us in the worst position possible – choosing to let them go. With research showing 95% of us consider our pets to be family members, the pet euthanasia decision is understandably a highly emotional one.
Why is the decision so difficult?
As humans, we’re not usually in the position of making life-death decisions, so it can be incredibly daunting to make that decision for your pet. From fear of making the decision too soon – am I robbing my pet of its best days? – to concern about delaying the decision – what if my pet is really struggling? – the guilt over trying to do the right thing, at the right time, can feel overwhelming.
It may also vary between first-time pet owners or those who’ve owned multiple pets. After the joyous learning curve of owning your first pet, the first experience of letting a pet go can be shocking and distressing to deal with. Owners who have had multiple pets may not find the decision easier but have experience of what comes next, which may help.
Is the decision easier for vets and their own pets?
Making this decision can be just as difficult for vets with their own pets. In some ways, we almost have ‘too much knowledge’ about the end-of-life process – it’s something I was aware of when monitoring quality of life for my own dog, Dolly. It’s also difficult to manage this and then be straight back into work, performing the same service and supporting owners through the euthanasia process.
Of course, professional knowledge does help when it comes to knowing the signs to look for, but a good vet will always be able to advise you on the signs and quality of life signals for your own pet.
Guilt and grief are part of goodbye
Many pet owners feel more guilty for not deciding on euthanasia sooner, particularly when a deterioration in your pet’s health prompts that final decision. As a vet, I’ve learned that talking openly with pet owners about grief, guilt and anxiety helps them face the situation and process these emotions. Confronting these feelings can help everyone involved to be more comfortable, both when making the decision and when finally saying goodbye.
In situations of unexpected terminal diagnosis, particularly in young animals or when accidents and trauma prompt the letting go decision, shock also plays a huge role. This type of grief is less easy to prepare for, so after-care and support from vets can significantly help pet owners manage this process.
Practical side of a painful decision
Considering the practicalities of continual care for a pet with a terminal or deteriorating condition is also important. Our own routines, capabilities and health needs can affect just how realistic caring for a pet nearing the end of life is, particularly if they may need physical support.
In the present economic climate, pet owners may also face financial hardships which make expensive treatments unaffordable. This situation may add considerable guilt for pet owners who find themselves making a letting go decision for an unwell or elderly pet.
Annie Clark, Emergency and Critical Care Veterinary Nurse for over 11 years and member of the Home Goodbye team, explains it may help to see pet euthanasia for what it is: a treatment option which shouldn’t be seen as ‘giving up’ because treatment is unaffordable or because there are no more treatment options available.
Euthanasia is a treatment option, and it’s one of the kindest things. It is one of the last kindnesses we can do for our animals: euthanasia is to end suffering.
As a vet, I would also advise pet owners not to shy away from euthanasia as the right thing to do; often it’s the best and only option, so don’t feel guilt or shame in taking that decision.
What I would also suggest is to really plan it and make arrangements to do it in your own way. This not only helps to avoid those emergency situations (such as a sudden deterioration) which can mean an out-of-hours rush to an unfamiliar vet’s practice, it also enables you to create a peaceful memory which fulfils what we all want: calmness and dignity for our pets at the end.
If you are finding it hard to make the pet euthanasia decision then please do reach out to your local vet. And remember the grieving process starts even before your loss so if you are struggling then there are services out there to support you like the Blue Cross Pet bereavement support service.
You might also find it helpful to listen to this episode of The Consult Room podcast “When is it time to let them go?”…
Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who’s worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK’s busiest veterinary hospitals. As Chief Vet in the Charity Sector, he leads a team of vets and nurses that treat thousands of pets every year. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.