Updated: Feb 2, 2020
It is not always easy to talk about the death of a furry family member. Some lives are lost suddenly and it is very upsetting, but for some pets, they can live into the late teens - a long life for dogs and cats. Even when our pets are on borrowed time, it can be difficult to know when the time is right for them to pass on with assistance from a veterinarian. In veterinary medicine, we are given the power to end pain and suffering. Today's case of the day is brought to you by a little dog who has started to have neurological issues with his hind legs. I suspect he has some disc disease and compression of his spinal cord. When your patient is going on 17 years of age (which for this breed an average of 14 years of age is a good lifespan), and has stage three of four kidney disease, surgery is not a viable option. Veterinarians may get stuck in the middle of a family dynamic. When children come in with the pet, it becomes even more difficult to have the End of Life discussion.
There are owners whom I sway in one direction or the other based on the prognosis for continue long term survival and appropriate care of their pet. As long as a patient is not in pain and does not appear to be suffering, and you have a dedicated owner, palliative care is an option. If I feel like the owner needs to do some minor adjustments to their pet's care for the pet's comfort, I will tell the owner my honest opinion, in that I won't end their pet's life, because they have X,Y,Z minor options - this is one of the ethical dilemmas of a veterinarian's work.
In many cases however, I let owners know that it is a family decision. Everyone in the family needs to come to a consensus. I can let owners know options, either for further testing or for pain management, but ultimately, these owners need to come to a decision on their own. In the past week, I have had "Quality of Life" discussions with four different pet parents. These owners just want to know when is the 'right' time. There may not be a 'right' time. All four of these pets are still eating and still interacting with their owners. Some owners feel selfish for keeping them going for longer than necessary. Some owners are not ready to say goodbye. One partner will be ready, but the other one wants to do everything that they can for the pet.
There are some questionnaires online that can help owners make this decision. A Google search for 'Quality of Life' for dog or cat will bring you to some such as this. There have been a few owners who are against humane euthanasia, which is their choice, usually for religious/cultural reasons, and for me as long as the pet is not in pain, then I am ok with their decision. There are other pets whom I have euthanized due to owner's neglect, coming in to the clinic in such poor condition, and clearly suffering for months. It is difficult to not judge these owners. Owners with their own mental health problems can be difficult to handle, because they need to be handled gently. Other owners who neglected giving their pet even pain control, not seeking assistance from a veterinarian to guide them through the final months of their pet's life. Then there are the family members who bring the pet in, and they are not the legal guardian of the pet (the owner we have on file), and these legal guardians did not authorize for their pet to be brought in to be put down. Oh, the family drama we are put in the middle of!
In the end, it is our decision as the veterinarian. We have to ask ourselves, is this in the best interest of the pet - because we are their advocates, and we are the ones who have to live with the decision to take a pet’s life.