I still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a warm and sunny day in March. Our cat, Bagheera, had courageously battled and won against cancer six years earlier. He had exceeded every estimate of life expectancy. Even though he was 19 years old, he still loved his brief jaunts out to the patio to sun himself in the backyard. Then, those last 2 days, he secluded himself in the bathroom. We could feel the cancer coming back in his belly, and it was growing fast. He was much older now, and his kidneys were weak. He would never be able to tolerate treatment again. We knew this day would come, but you are never fully prepared for it. My wife and I knew it was his time. The decision crushed us.
The most difficult part of pet ownership is outliving your pet. Often pet owners ask veterinarians when they should make the decision to “put their pet to sleep”. Although we don’t have a crystal ball to know the perfect time, we do have some insight that may help the decision-making process. There are situations where the decision is straightforward, such as when a pet is in extreme pain with no hope of recovery, or when they have a fatal illness with hours to live. But what about when the decision is not clear cut which is more common.
Most end-of-life conditions involve chronic or slowly progressive diseases. For example, a cat with kidney disease who slowly declines over many years. Another common situation is an arthritic pet who is well managed on pain management therapy for years, but then begins to lose mobility and function. The exact timing of these end-of-life decisions is not exactly known, and the answer may be different for each pet and family. The pet caregiver who is with the pet every day may not see the striking changes that have occurred because they seem slow, but a visiting friend may be shocked by how much the pet has declined. The most helpful concept to keep in mind regarding euthanasia is “quality of life”. This is a broad term that encompasses all facets of life that lead to satisfaction and joy.
I often recommend to my clients to sit down together with their family and friends and ask themselves to define what their pet’s quality of life is compared to a few months or days ago. Is your pet eating or refusing food? Are they engaging with the family, or are they seeking isolation? Are they easily able to make it to go potty, or do they sometimes go where they are laying? Are they groomed and clean, or have they stopped grooming themselves? Are they still friendly, or have they become grumpy and aggressive? Do they still enjoy life and want to go on walks, play ball, or laser chase, or have they stopped playing altogether? Are they losing weight rapidly?
A veterinarian named Dr. Katie Hilst, who operates a hospice and end-of-life oriented practice, has developed an objective scoring system that puts number values on each of these facets of quality of life. A total score is calculated that helps define where that pet’s comfort level and quality of life really is. I have included a link to Dr. Hilst’s website where this worksheet is available in print and digital forms. I hope this discussion and the quality of life tool below will help you when it comes time to make the tough but brave and selfless decision.
These blog comments, although based in scientific research, reflect our professional opinions only and are accurate and true to the best of our knowledge. They are for informational purposes and do not constitute treatment advice, nor should it take the place of seeking medical attention and a diagnosis from a trained professional. We reserve the right to change these blog comments if/as new research emerges.