As a vet tech, I have often been asked for advice on animal-related dilemmas ranging from how to resolve behavior problems to whether or not a medical issue is something serious to be addressed with the vet or something which will likely pass on its own. Though I love animals and am a licensed vet tech, this really does not make me an animal expert. When it comes to behavior problems I rarely know the right answer and usually refer my friends to my favorite websites or local pet trainers. I have only basic training on animal behavior and prefer to point people in the direction of knowledgable experts. I like to compare it to human terms whenever I can – would you ask a nurse for psychiatric advice? Though some people probably would do this, I think most people recognize this as an absurd idea.
The most difficult of all animal-related questions (in my opinion anyway) is how do I know if it’s the right time to euthanize my pet? To be totally honest, no one can answer this question for you – only you know the right answer for you and your pet. But I have been on both sides of this debate with pets of my own and with clients’ pets as well. I have seen owners spend thousands of dollars trying to cure their pet when it is clear that the animal will never recover. I have seen pets euthanized for reasons which make little or no sense to the outsider.
One recommendation I have received is to make a list of your dog’s favorite things to do. When your dog is no longer able to do most of the things on their list, it might be time. I have also read a suggestion to set out three jars – fill the middle jar with marbles, pennies, pebbles, or whatever. For every good day, take one out of the middle jar and put it in the left jar. For every bad day, take one from the middle jar and put it in the right jar. If the right jar has more than the left jar, then it might be time. These are mostly subjective but are simply meant to give people a way of quantifying something which is nearly impossible to measure in animals who can not tell you how they feel – quality of life. Again, the decision is up to you; you can’t expect your vet, your vet tech, or even your friends or family to make that decision for you any more than you can expect them to tell you whether or not you love your pets. Only you can know the answer, and relying on someone else to make the decision for your will only cause you to resent them later.
I myself have had to make the decision more than once, and it is never easy. For me it is a Catch-22 decision; no matter which way I go, I will always regret it. When I was in high school, my dog Kiku died of hepatitis at the age of 6. Even though the vet told me that there was only a very slim change of recovery, I couldn’t stand the idea of euthanizing her and was convinced that if I just wished hard enough and gave her enough medicine and loved her enough, I could make her better. She was so young, I reasoned, she couldn’t possibly die. I tried so hard to make her better, even waking up in the middle of the night to give her pain medicine and carry her outside so she could go to the bathroom, because she was too weak to walk that far on her own. One night my brother convinced me to let her sleep in his room so I could get some rest; she died that night. Instead of dying a peaceful death in my arms at the vet clinic, she suffered for far too long and eventually died in pain, and I wasn’t even there with her. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret that choice. Looking back now it’s clear to me that I kept her alive for my own selfish reasons – because I simply couldn’t stand to let her go. I believe that she finally passed away that night because she knew I didn’t want her to go. Even writing about it now fills me with regret. After that I vowed that I would never let another animal suffer for that long.
When my old Bernese Mountain Dog Xerxes started to have health problems two years ago, I thought it out very logically, but even now I worry that I might have let him go too soon. Maybe he wasn’t ready yet; did I give up too soon? He might have had another year or two of a happy life left in him. It’s impossible to know this, of course. Xerxes was always a very stoic dog. If I stepped on his toe by accident (which happened rather a lot since he was a big dog and liked to be right on my heels all the time), he would not so much as yelp. I often brought him to the college with me so fellow vet tech students could practice their big dog restraint techniques, because he was so well-behaved and pretty much let people do anything to him without complaining. “Blood draw? No problem – here’s my leg.” “Need my temperature? Sure. Is my tail in your way?” Once when he was in class with me, a fellow student fainted and fell out of her chair, landing on Xerxes who was laying on the floor next to her. He didn’t even flinch – just looked over to make sure she was okay, and went back to his nap. Because he was so stoic, it was difficult to judge whether he was in pain or not. As days went on and he had more difficulty walking or standing for more than a few minutes, I knew he would never complain. But I knew my Xerxes, and when he stopped coming to the door to greet me when I got home from work, that’s when I knew the time had come.
Of course I can’t tell you how you will know. The line may not be drawn clearly in the sand for you; and even if it is, you might still have trouble stepping across it. And you might still look back on it and wonder whether it was the right time.