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Bark n Wag 15 Minute Vet Talk

Dec 14, 2019

Putting Your Dog To Sleep – When Is The ‘Right’ Time?

‘How will I know it’s the right time to euthanize my dog?’

This is probably one of the most common questions owners ask, and the most difficult one to answer.

I’ve seen (and felt) the distress, pain and internal battle that it causes.

In fact, there may not be a clear-cut ‘right’ time to euthanize your dog, but there is often (although not always) a window where it could be considered the ‘best’ time for a number of reasons.

  • When a dog is in severe, chronic pain which can’t be relieved
  • When a dog is critically injured and won’t be unable to survive the damage
  • If a dog’s quality of life is so poor that he/she is merely ‘existing’ not ‘living’

But, there are more ‘gray’ areas than black and white.

Which is the right choice to make when:

  • Our dog is in long-term chronic pain, but it IS relieved by medication/treatment
  • He isn’t able to run/play and barely eats, but still seems to be comfortable
  • She has a terminal disease, but doesn’t have any insurmountable symptoms – yet
  • Our dog is mostly anxious/confused but has short periods of being her ‘old self’
  • He has no appetite, often refuses to drink and has trouble with incontinence

There are also other potentially difficult situations, such as:

  • When a dog is aggressive to the point of being dangerous, and training, behavioral modification and other treatments haven’t helped.
  • When finances simply don’t allow you to afford on-going, long-term treatment for your dog’s severe, chronic, and eventually terminal health conditions.
  • When your dog could survive for some time to come, but his life will be full of vet visits, painful treatments, anxiety and stress… with no hope of recovery, just management.

As owners, we know our dogs better than anyone else in the world.

We have to rely on our veterinarian’s for professional advice, but it’s important to remember that they only see our pets for very short periods of time – and that their advice will be based on general veterinary principles.

They have to be more objective that we are… and a veterinarian’s objectivity is sometimes essential if emotions are getting in the way of a decision that obviously needs to be made.

If chronic, serious and debilitating illness is the reason you’re trying to decide whether or not to put your dog to sleep, your vet’s input is very important.

But… your vet doesn’t know Fido the way you do.

He can’t tell what your dog is feeling by the way he holds his ears, or ‘read’ the look in his eye…. but you can.

Your dog can’t tell you when he’s in pain, in fact he’ll most likely try his best to pretend he’s fine, so don’t assume that if he’s not crying or whining then he’s fine.

Common signs of distress/pain in dogs include:

  • Excessive panting and/or drooling
  • Excessive shaking & shivering – even in a warm environment
  • A distended, rigid tummy
  • Short, rapid breathing patterns
  • Lethargy, hiding, excessive sleeping
  • Whining, crying or whimpering – when touched, moved or at any time
  • Loss of appetite and/or thirst
  • Vomiting, excessive yawning, retching

For a more detailed look at the way dogs handle, exhibit (and sometimes hide) pain check out this page Is My Dog in Pain? 

Chronic problems like arthritis , poor sight or hearing, incontinence or confusion (such as seen in Old Dog Syndrome) can usually be managed effectively for some time, but eventually there will be a point where you have to differentiate between a ‘fair’ quality of life, and one that is ‘unfair’, to both of you.

But do remember, that what WE as humans might consider a poor quality of life, isn’t necessarily perceived the same way by our dogs.

Dogs don’t worry about the future,

There’s often a relationship between dog and owner that is more ‘sixth sense’ than it is physical communication, and your ‘gut’ may well guide you when it comes to choosing the right, or best, time to help him reach the Rainbow Bridge.

There’s no single way to make this difficult decision, as every dog, every owner and every situation (and combination of these three) is different.

I recently came across a couple of websites which might be of interest to anyone who is caring for a terminally ill senior dog, or grieving (whether in advance, or after the fact) the death of a beloved pet.

There’s information, advice, support, lists of relevant organizations & services (including pet cemeteries and crematoriums) plus newsletters, in memoriams, chat rooms and more. Check these out:

International Association of Animal Hospice & Palliative Care (IAAHPC)

The Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement (APLB)


Dr. Susan McMillan