End of Life Care for Your Dog or Cat
How to Make Important Decisions about Quality of Life and Euthanasia
It’s hard to watch our furry friends get old or suffer from diseases. And making the decision to euthanize a pet can feel overwhelming.
Fortunately, nowadays, there are a lot of options available to pet parents. This means treatments and procedures to slow down disease progression, medicines and hospice care to relieve pain, and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and laser therapy to improve quality of life.
And when the time comes, euthanasia is available to relieve suffering.
Because every pet and situation are unique, there’s really no right or wrong answer when it comes to handling medical conditions and declining health. With the right information, you can be empowered to choose what’s best for your buddy, and for your family as a whole.
Here are a few factors to consider…
Symptoms of pain and illness: How to know if a senior or geriatric pet is suffering
Old age is not a disease, and many senior pets are in excellent shape, living very happy lives. However, it is true that senior and geriatric years can bring increased likelihood of chronic illnesses, and of painful conditions such as arthritis.
However, sometimes it’s difficult to tell when a dog or cat is in pain or not feeling well. They have instincts to hide it. While some pets may cry or whine, many will not.
For that reason, pet parents can often help their furry buddies by being like detectives—by looking for “clues,” or symptoms that an age-related medical problem may be developing. For example:
- Decreased interest in normal activities like playing or running
- Reluctance to jump onto furniture or into cars
- For cats, decreased grooming and untidy fur
- Lethargy, or hiding a lot more than usual
- Changes in behavior or mood, especially increased grumpiness or fear
- Yelping when picked up
- A markedly decreased appetite
- Significant, unplanned weight loss
- Vomiting or diarrhea, especially if prolonged, or accompanied by other symptoms
- Coughing, especially a cough that worsens over time
- A significant increase in urination or drinking of water
Not all of these symptoms necessarily indicate a serious problem, and there are many other possible symptoms not included on this list. However, the above are some of the most common signs you might notice in a pet with an age-related disease.
To confirm whether a health problem is developing, your vet will perform a physical examination, and recommend diagnostic tests (for example: bloodwork or x-rays). Sometimes the findings bring good news and peace of mind. But if any abnormalities are noted, your vet will explain the next steps.
When in doubt it’s always better to check with your vet sooner rather than later, if you notice any concerns in your senior pet. Illnesses or painful conditions such as arthritis are often easier (and less expensive) to treat if they’re caught early.
End of life care
“End of life care” can mean a number of different things, such as:
Keeping your furry friend comfortable and happy for as long as possible in the face of chronic illness. This is most common for senior dogs and cats, but unfortunately it happens to some younger pets, too.
Providing treatments to pets with disabilities, so they can enjoy a good quality of life and have more time with their families.
Pain relief, no matter which medical condition is causing the pain. Options include:
Supplements such as glucosamine chondroitin and fish oil
Anti-inflammatories and/or other pain-relieving medications
Lifestyle and home modifications (such as steps to help your pal get into the car or onto furniture, or adding non-slip surfaces to tile and wooden floors)
Cold laser therapy
Treatment of the underlying disease. This may include things like fluid therapy for kidney disease, or chemotherapy for certain cancers. The focus would be on maintaining a good quality of life, while treating disease.
*Remember: Never give human medications without checking with your vet first. Many are toxic to pets, and there are safe alternatives available.
Hospice care for pets is somewhat different from the care mentioned above. It may include some of the same therapies. However, rather than focusing on treating or curing the underlying disease, hospice care is primarily focused on preventing pain.
The goal is to keep your pal comfortable for as long as possible, while you enjoy more quality time together.
In many cases, hospice care can be done in your home. But sometimes it’s necessary to visit the vet’s office. You and your pet’s caregiving team should determine what’s best according to individual circumstances.
How to know when it’s time
For pet parents, often the most difficult part of all of this is knowing when it’s time—meaning, when it’s time to end suffering and choose euthanasia.
Commonly, ill or geriatric pets have good days and bad days. Good days, even if few and far between, may make it difficult to decide, because there’s always hope that more good days are in store.
Here, keeping a journal may help. A journal of good and bad days—that shows whether or not your pal still enjoys the activities they used to love—can provide you with objective information about their quality of life during an emotional time and may help you with this decision.
Euthanasia comes from the Greek words for “good death,” and it is intended to end suffering by bringing about a peaceful, dignified death in pets who are terminally ill or suffering.
This procedure is performed by a veterinarian, via an overdose of anesthesia—that way, your pet feels like they’re falling into a deep sleep and doesn’t experience pain at the end of their life. Done well, it’s a kind and gentle way to relieve suffering.
You may choose to be present during the procedure. But, if this is too difficult, your veterinarian will understand, and will perform the procedure respectfully in your absence. Either way, you will have the choice to have your pet cremated or to take their body home for a burial.
Here are some options for how and where to schedule the procedure:
Make an appointment with your primary care vet
This may be the best option if you already have a relationship with your veterinarian and you know what day & time works best for you and your family. Consider calling the hospital and asking about the procedure. Many general practices offer a comfortable, private room and they are already familiar with you and your pet.
This is a good option for some pet parents because it happens in the location where your pet is often most comfortable and at ease—in their own home.
For an in-home euthanasia, you’ll need to schedule in advance for a veterinarian to come to your home. This option may not be for you if mobile veterinary services aren’t available in your area, or if you don’t want to have the memory of the euthanasia in your home. It is also, generally, the most expensive way to have the procedure performed.
Walk in to an after-hours veterinary hospital
This option can be pricy as well, but after-hours hospitals are prepared to provide euthanasia without an appointment. Plus, they are open at convenient times for many families — nights, weekends, and holidays. These conveniences can be comforting to pet parents when all they really want to do is focus on what’s best for their fur kids. On the downside, emergency vets can be very busy with a variety of seriously ill patients and waiting times can be extended.
More recently, veterinary urgent care clinics are now also open extended hours. Like human urgent care centers, these vet clinics are designed for convenience — walk in anytime, shorter wait times, and less expensive than the ER vet and house call euthanasia. Most vet urgent care clinics also have a quiet room set aside for the procedure and special training to ensure that the process is peaceful.
After a euthanasia
It may help you get through this difficult time by celebrating the life of your furry best friend. Consider holding a vigil with your family and talking about good memories. Perhaps place a picture of your pal in your home, as a reminder of fun times together. There are also local or online support groups with pet parents who understand what you’re going through.
Losing a pet can be a particularly difficult time in our lives. It’s important to keep in mind that the feeling of loss will fade over time and hopefully be replaced by fond memories. Sadly, pets’ lives are shorter than our own. However, our lives are so much richer for the relationships we enjoy with our furry companions. When the time is right, another fur baby always seems to come along that needs our attention, care, and love.