Karen B. London
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Tough Choices About End of Life
Deciding when to euthanize
Is it time for this old dog?

Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.

In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.

Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.

Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by Kaja Kozlowska/Flickr




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Submitted by Daniel | July 6 2013 |

I wonder what shall happen with dog which is suffering pain or diminished wealth instead? If we not euthanise it, are we freed of deciding or accountability? I say no, we are not freed whilst not to decide. We held/keep responsibitlity/accountability to our pets and if we decide to not decide, we decide that we not want to decide, which means we are accountable when nothing happen and we leave our pets itself.
I conclude, once we obtain a pet we are accountable for it and we cannot leave our accountability. Indifferent how we decide or even not. WE cannot avoid our responsibility as sad and hard as it is. And I had decided to accompany my pet through al stages of life indifferent how hard it will be then.

Submitted by happywaterdog | July 6 2013 |

We have to do that-the unthinkable-soon...next week if Casey doesn't rally. He has lymphoma...We've gone thru chemo and have all enjoyed 6 months of special togetherness. But the stuff is back and pred influence is waning. Our decision is based upon Casey's comfort and happiness...not our sorrow for having to say goodbye. We cry. We cuddle. We keep him doing as much of his fun favorites as possible. But the time is short...after 10 years of joy it is our last gift we can give him. I'm sitting on the couch with him now. It's too hot to have him out and I come sit, talk, pet, love in the AC every bit I can. My heart is breaking but his comfort is the only thing that matters. I will look at a survey but already know in my soul what's right for Casey.

Submitted by Daniel | July 6 2013 |

I wish you a good time and cross my fingers to you.

Submitted by happywaterdog | July 8 2013 |

Tonight. It was...so hard. Too fast. He was...oh...he was.... we are so happy he allowed us in his life...so incredibly sad now.

Submitted by happywaterdog | July 9 2013 |

We lost casey last night. Best for him...suffering so unnecessary as no hope for improvement or cure. Still not an easy decision...casey can't say 'its time' but his actions, breathing, lethargy said now...he wasn't him anymore. Having vet come to the house was much easier for him...great vet and has been thru all our casey episodes. My heart has a huge hole...the sadness is overwhelming. But all the love remains.

Submitted by Karen London | July 9 2013 |

I hope all the love for Casey helps to patch that hole in your heart over time. You said it so well--it's just so hard and so sad. My thoughts are with you. Please know that your sadness is shared.

Submitted by Jack | July 6 2013 |

My pet and best friend of 13+ years just passed on June 30, and while he passed at home peacefully, I had to think about euthanasia. I still do not know if I was "lucky" to have my BF pass at home. I mean there are many benefits to passing at home, with loved ones and in a familiar place. While he did not show signs of pain, I still find myself wondering if euthanasia would have provided relief for un-noticed pain. I was going to ask my doctor to make a house call to perform the euthanasia (I do not know if this is a possible scenario or not s I did not get chance to ask for this service). It is one of the toughest choices I have ever made (yes i have had to make the decision for other best friends/pets in the past). I just wish knowing when euthanasia is for the best was more "black & white" and not so "gray". All life is so precious and euthanasia while never an easy decision, is one I am very grateful exists.

Submitted by Eileen | July 8 2013 |

I just put my BF down a month ago after a lifelong battle genetic kidney disease. I agree. I wish the decision was more" black and white." The vet told me I would know when but I didn't. He would be very sick and then rally so it became confusing. I tried everything. One morning when he was very sick, I made the decision and called the vet. When I was driving him in, he looked out the window and I almost turned around. I am still questioning if iit was the right time. Yet when I decided to keep him after learning he was born with kidney disease, I promised myself I would put him down when he began to suffer. When the time came , it was very difficult. He will live forever in my heart.

Submitted by Karen London | July 9 2013 |

It's impossible not to second guess the decision because it's not a black and white decision in many cases, but I really believe that people tend to get it right. Nobody knows your beloved dog better than you do, and it's clear he was suffering. Your decision prevented more and I think he was very lucky to have you caring for him throughout his life. My heart goes out to you. Good-bye is so, so hard.

Submitted by Karen London | July 9 2013 |

I'm glad you were with him, and that it was peaceful, but I know that does nothing to take away the pain of losing someone so close to you. warm thoughts to you.

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