Owning a dog is a terrible responsibility – we care for them, and look after them, and love them, but sometimes the best way to show that love is to be able to say goodbye when the pain or the suffering becomes too much. However, that can be a really hard call to make – especially as, sadly, dogs rarely die peacefully in their sleep. Normally, they struggle on and on, with life becoming increasingly difficult and painful – and that’s something we need to be able to help with.
So, how do I decide?
The first thing to do is to think about your dog, as an individual. It is useful to do this before they become old and ill, but you can do it at any time. Firstly, make a list of all the things your dog loves doing most – the things that their life wouldn’t be worth living without. This will, of course, vary from dog to dog – which is why it’s important that you do this; even as vets, we can’t do it for you!
Then, secondly, make a list of the things they really hate, the things they truly cannot stand.
When they become old, or ill, you’ll be able to take those lists out and compare them with your dog’s current life.
- Are they still having a good quality of life?
- Can they still do the things they love?
- Are they able to avoid (mostly!) doing the things they hate?
- Are they getting more good days than bad?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to take a long think about their quality of life and decide if it’s time to “call it a day”.
How do I prepare myself and my family?
It is usually best to get everyone on-side – serious disagreement over this is toxic. If necessary, bring your family and your pet to the surgery, and one of our vets will be able to talk to you about quality of life issues, to help everyone make a collective decision.
In the case of children, it’s really important to make sure they’re kept “in the loop” – even if you decide that they aren’t ready to be involved in planning the decision, make sure you “signpost” it really well – that the dog is really ill, and (for example) very old; or that they are in a lot of pain or suffering. You may well find that doing this helps you to gain some perspective as well.
What will happen when we decide to have them put to sleep?
Although it’s a common turn of phrase, “put to sleep” isn’t always a helpful phrase (we’ll discuss why a little later). The technical term is euthanasia, which literally means “a good death”.
If possible, make an appointment well in advance – that way we can arrange to have the staff and time to make sure that everything goes smoothly. If your dog is stressed or anxious, we may give them a sedative to help them settle, and we’ll often leave you alone with them for a few minutes while that starts to work. Then, a small area of fur (usually on a forelimb) will be clipped so we can see the vein, and a veterinary nurse will give your dog a big hug while raising that vein. The vet will put some surgical spirit onto the skin (because it makes the vein easier to see). They will then give an injection of an anaesthetic. It isn’t a nasty poison or anything painful – it’s just a massive dose of anaesthetic, so they go peacefully to sleep and don’t wake up.
You can stay in the room while we work, or not – it’s entirely up to you – but whether you stay or not, we’ll still treat your dog with the respect they deserve. If you do stay (which most people choose to), don’t be alarmed if there are some movements or even gasps after the injection. This isn’t them reacting or suffering, but simple reflexes, and it doesn’t mean anything’s gone wrong.
There are a number of different options to deal respectfully with their remains – typically, home burial, group cremation or individual cremation with ashes back. Talk to one of our staff for more information, but if you can’t make your mind up, it isn’t usually necessary to make the decision there and then.
It’s quite normal to feel grief, anger, depression or even guilt – these are normal parts of the grieving process. However, everyone deals with grief in their own way, so try to be supportive of people who seem to move through the process faster, or more slowly, than you do. Don’t beat yourself up believing, though, that “it was just a dog” – they were part of your family!
Children in particular need to be handled carefully at this time. However, it doesn’t matter how young they are, they should always be told the truth – don’t lie to them to salve their feelings, as this is usually severely counterproductive. In addition, it is not unknown for children to develop a phobia about bed-time because they had it drilled into them that their beloved pet was “put to sleep and didn’t wake up”, which is why I’m reluctant to use the phrase if young children are involved.
How they understand death and handle grief will vary with age as well as maturity and temperament, but there’s plenty of information here to help you if needed.
Likewise, there are a range of support sites and literature to help you through, if needed – if you want to talk about this to any of our staff, please give us a ring.
If you’re not sure whether it’s time, please give us a ring and talk to one of our vets. They’ll do everything they can to help you, whether, in terms of medical care or making a decision, we’re here for you and your dog.