How to Know When It's Time to Put Down the Family Pet

Family Matters on 02.18.13
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Image: Sarah Fernandez

Last August, I wrote about 5 Ways to Help a Child Prepare for the Loss of a Pet. Our 12-year-old family dog, the dog that I have had since before I even knew my husband, was not doing well, and we thought she had only days to live. It turns out that we were very wrong. Her gigantic tumor quickly shrunk with an antibiotic prescription, and since then she has survived being hit by a car (a horrific incident that my children and I witnessed) and beat the tumor another time. We have been joking that at some point she was cross-bread with a cat because she clearly has nine lives. But now the tumor is back, and it is back with a vengeance, and no medicine is helping it. She is still eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom, but her quality of life isn’t what it used to be. She lounges on the couch or the floor. We hold our breath as she goes up and down the stairs in hopes that she won’t fall down them. Every time I come home, I check to see if she is still breathing. So how do we know if the time to put her down is now, especially when we have to explain it to the kids?

To be honest, I was really thinking that it is time. I don’t want to, but I was ready to call the vet tomorrow and put her down because if there is anything I really don’t want it is for her to suffer. She is almost entirely deaf, she has horrible arthritis in her back leg that requires constant medication since she was hit by the car, and she has a tumor that no medicine can treat and that is about the size of a football on her neck. I can’t help but think that I’m being selfish for keeping her alive. Her life has been reduced to nothing but sleeping, eating, and going to the bathroom. She can’t walk further than maybe 100 yards, and she certainly isn’t playful, although she’ll still gobble up any treats or dropped food, and she tolerates our three-year-old wrapping her in a giant hug. I wonder if I’m now keeping her alive only for the sake of our family and not to her benefit, but how do I know for sure?

I started doing some research online and I found a handy questionnaire called the Pet Quality of Life Scale to help determine what her quality of life is, something I’ve been really struggling with, and how to know when it’s time to euthanize. Mentally she is all there (at least as much as she ever has been), but physically her life just isn’t the same. I was nervous to fill in the questionnaire for fear that it was going to tell me that the time has come, but what I found was that the results really confirmed my gut instincts.

The survey offers a general scale to base your pet’s well-being on, and after answering the questions I found that our dog is not doing great and may require some assistance, but she’s not ready to be put down yet. Her days are numbered, but she will most likely make it to her 13th birthday (at the end of this week), and the affirmation via this survey that she is comfortable enough to keep on going a bit longer is enough for me to allow her to do so. But what I know for sure is that no matter how hard it is for me or my husband or my children, the right thing to do is to put her down when her quality of life has deteriorated to a certain point, and I’m thankful that I’ve found a tool that will help me determine when that time is because it is never easy to make that decision.

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