End of life for pets

Anyone who has loved a pet dreads the time when the pet seems to be suffering so much that you feel that the humane thing to do is euthanasia. But that decision is never obvious nor easy because there will be very bad days when you think that the time has come that are followed by better days and you are grateful you did not go through with the decision. This up-and-down can go through many cycles and you never get over the guilt of finally making the fateful and irreversible decision.

In this article Bernard Rollin, who is a professor of philosophy, animal sciences and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, begins with some information that will shock and disgust anyone who has a pet.

In the 1960s, I knew people who, before going on vacation, would take their dogs to a shelter to be euthanized. They reasoned that it was cheaper to have a dog euthanized – and buy a new one upon returning – than pay a kennel fee.

But he says that in general people’s attitude towards pets has vastly improved.

Two decades later, I was working at Colorado State’s veterinary hospital when a group of distraught bikers on Harley-Davidsons pulled up carrying a sick chihuahua. The dog was intractably ill, and required euthanasia to prevent further suffering. Afterwards, the hospital’s counselors felt compelled to find the bikers a motel room: their level of grief was so profound that the staff didn’t think it was safe for them to be riding their motorcycles.

He says that this dilemma about when to put down a pet not only has deep emotional effects on the pets’ caregivers, it also affects the veterinarians who have to do the euthanizing.

In a paper that I published entitled Euthanasia and Moral Stress, I described the significant stress experienced by veterinarians, veterinary technicians and humane society workers. Many chose their profession out of a desire to improve the lot of animals; instead, they invariably ended up euthanizing large numbers of them, often for unethical reasons.

These ranged from “I got the dog to jog with me, and now it’s too old to run,” to “If I die, I want you to euthanize the animal because I know it can’t bear to live without me.”

In other cases, the animal is experiencing considerable suffering, but the owner is unwilling to let the animal go. With owners increasingly viewing pets as family members, this has become increasingly common, and many owners fear the guilt associated with killing an animal too soon.

Ironically this, too, can cause veterinarians undue trauma: they know the animal is suffering, but there’s nothing they can do about it unless the owner gives them permission.

He suggests ways to for pet caregivers to recognize when it is time.

Here is my suggestion to anyone who is thinking about getting a pet: when you first acquire it, create a list of everything you can find that makes the animal happy (eating a treat, chasing a ball, etc). Put the list away until the animal is undergoing treatment for a terminal disease, such as cancer. At that point, return to the list: is the animal able to chase a ball? Does the animal get excited about receiving a treat?

If the animal has lost the ability to have positive experiences, it’s often easier to let go.

This strategy can be augmented by pointing out the differences between human and animal consciousness. As philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, for humans much of life’s meaning is derived from balancing past experiences with future aspirations, such as wishing to see one’s children graduate or hoping to see Ireland again.

Animals, on the other hand, lack the linguistic tools to allow them to anticipate the future or create an internal narrative of the past. Instead, they live overwhelmingly in the present. So if a pet owner is reluctant to euthanize, I’ll often point out that the animal no longer experiences pleasant “nows.”

That may help but I think the feeling of sadness and guilt never quite goes away. It is so for me with my first dog Copper whom I still miss even more than a decade later.


  1. kestrel says

    Gone through this many times myself, and my mother is just going through it now with her cat. I raise livestock, and when you have livestock, sooner or later you’re going to have deadstock, that’s just how it works. I tell people that if it’s about YOU, well… you might want to think about that. I personally don’t think it’s right to make an animal suffer just because I would feel bad if it died. Animals look to us for everything and I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to put how they feel first. It does not necessarily make it easier to lose an animal, but there is some comfort in knowing I did the right thing for them.

    Now if only we would stop allowing humans to suffer to death…

  2. Bruce H says

    I have a mixed breed dog, a Labrador/Chow-Chow, and she’s been a faithful companion for nearly sixteen years. But she can still climb stairs (painfully) and she still wants to be at my side nearly all the time. I figure when she can’t get up and down the stairs, or has trouble walking without falling all the time, and when she no longer tries to go where I go, that will be the time. I’m hoping for another year, maybe a bit more.

    As Marcus says, I expect she’ll let me know in her own way. It’s also possible she’ll pass in her sleep, safe in her own bed, which would be okay too.

  3. Bruce H says

    Hmm, I expected the image to load in the browser, not download. So proceed as you see fit.

  4. says

    It’s not difficult to know when it’s time, you just have to listen. You also need to be very clear-eyed about the whole thing. This should not be “oh, maybe I can get another three months out of her!” bullshit, which is just people being selfish and not wanting to face up to reality from their animal’s point of view. People really should talk about, and make plans when their dog gets to be 5 to 7 years old. If you have plans in place, they can help to make that decision later on, even if it is years later.

    Just went through this in March, with our 16 year old. The Awful Goodbye. Doll would have soldiered on, but she was in tremendous pain every day, and having to say goodbye ripped our hearts out. Afterwards, I felt the best thing I could do for her was to share our experience with a hybrid, to hopefully save another like her from years of abuse.

  5. ionopachys says

    One of the worst parts is cost. We just lost our dog a couple of days ago. She collapsed and we took her to the vet. The examination and initial treatment over just one morning racked up $400. It would have taken weeks in intensive care to keep her alive and then a heart pill that would cost ~$80 per month. My mother was filled with guilt that we had to consider the expense. In effect, we were saying that the dog’s life was not worth a bit more financial hardship.

    As it turned out, when they brought her into an exam room to put her down, the veterinarian was delayed, and she started to die before the vet could get there with the drugs. By the time the vet arrived, she was in agonal breathing. She still had a bit of a heart beat, so the vet injected the barbiturates directly into her heart, but her eyes were fixed and glazed, and there was almost no blood pressure. She was gone already. I think it eased my mother’s guilt a bit to know the dog was so sick that she died before the euthanasia process started (not that I told her the grisly details).

  6. Mano Singham says

    Geoffrey @#6,

    Thank you for your concern and I will try not to alarm you again!

    Baxter the Wonder Dog is now approaching 13 years of age and while he is showing signs of age, he still enjoys chasing birds, squirrels, and rabbits in our back yard, though he has never even come close to catching them and I think would not know what to do if he ever did.

  7. Mano Singham says

    ionopachys @# 8,

    I am so sorry for your loss. Just reading what you went through is so hard because all of us pet caregivers know what it is like.

  8. says

    We’re waiting for our 17 year old cat to start going down hill, at the moment he’s quite stable on anti inflammatory drugs and still enjoying life. It will be very sad when he has to go to the vet for the last time.

  9. Holms says

    I still regret clinging to my childhood dog for an extra week or so, hoping she’d pull through an obviously terminal cancer. But she had 15 years of bursting health, and was even recovering well from a spinal injury, so I had delusions of invincibility.

  10. Trickster Goddess says

    I had 2 sister tortoiseshell cats I adopted as kittens. One lived to 16 years old when she started fading. I could tell she was going but she wasn’t in distress so I didn’t seek any medical treatment for her. Unfortunately, I had to leave town for 10 days and was worried she might not last til I got back, so I left instructions with the sitter and a written directive with the vet authorizing her to be euthanized if her condition became critical.

    While I was away I phoned home every day and talked to my cats through the answering machine speaker. When I got back she was still hanging in. The next morning she ate her breakfast, then refused all further food and expired the following day.

    Her sister continued in good health until age 19 when she started losing strength over a period of months. One day she stopped eating then died two days later. Her final hour was cuddling on my chest as I sat in the recliner watching the sun go down. She finally stirred, arching her neck to nuzzle her head against my throat, then gave a final sigh and was gone.

  11. rich r says

    Your stories have me crying at work. I have been lucky to have 7 dogs in my life, in a lot of ways they shaped my upbringing and adulthood, 6 of them have gone in various ways, each hurt(s) in its own manner. The proverbial wounds that never heal, but they all taught me how to enjoy the present, to love the people you are with, a tasty treat, playing in the dirt and grass and a nice nap in the sun…truly the best things in life

  12. Mano Singham says

    Trickster Goddess,

    I think that all of us wish for our pets what we wish for ourselves, after a long life a peaceful ‘natural’ death in the presence of those whom we love. Your cats seem to have had that.

  13. tecolata says

    Have been through this too many times. Sometimes the cats lived long lives (Celia lived to 18 and her sister Rosalind to nearly 21) but other times just too short. Orlando was only 9, Rudy 11, my little Zoey only 3 when she suffered heart failure from a congenital defect. I think of the line in Shawshank Redemption, get busy living or get busy dying. The cats always let me know when they were busy dying. They would withdraw, not respond to attention or treats. My job was to make the dying easier and end pain and fear. I am the one who had trouble, not the cats. The cats had, variously, cancer, renal failure, an injury so severe the leg would need amputation and the cat already ill, congestive heart failure. It was their time.

    And I think of my mother who died a slow and agonizing death, who suffered breast cancer, uterine cancer, blocked colon, congestive heart failure, had “lesser” problems that were extremely painful but could not be treated because her heart was too weak, and think my cats would never have suffered like she did.

    The only time the cats did not tell me was when I had to euthanize two kittens, Cassidy & Sundance (I liked that movie) who were not yet 6 months old. They were rescue cats, born feral. I got them at 5 weeks. By 8 weeks I noticed they were awkward and Sundance had a tremor. The vet said they had neurological damage, probably due to mother catching a virus during pregnancy. While they had to be strictly indoors as they could not run, climb or jump normally, there are no feline presidential candidates mocking disabled kittens, and we hoped they could still have a happy life. At first they did, they played and chased even with limitations, but their condition deteriorated until they could not walk, I had to hand feed and groom them. But they were organically healthy and very young, so to the last day of their lives they never withdrew, never “got busy dying”. Yet we were afraid that in a very short time they would no longer be able to even chew and swallow. They simply were too damaged, left in the wild would have quickly starved or been killed by a predator. I gave them a few months and easier death.

  14. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    The drawback to having pets is that most of die before me -- they are neither treecats nor furcots. So if I want to have pets, I will have to make these end of life decisions. It’s not easy, but it’s the last kind act you can do.

    The are they having pleasant experiences or do they hurt too much to chase the ball check points are a good idea.

    They might end up like one frail old cat I had -- every day she would totter slowly out into the yard and sit in the sun watching butterflies, occasionally patting on if it got close enough, then totter back in for a meal and a nap. Not an exciting or active life, but she was quietly content for several years. When she lost interest in food, it was time.

  15. blf says

    There’s a recent opinion column in the New York Times on this, What It Means to Be Loved by a Dog:

    As a measure of how deeply dogs are embedded in our own lives, consider what happened when Emma, our 15-year-old dachshund, died last month. Three friends brought flowers. One brought chocolate. One brought a homemade strawberry pie. One brought a barbecue supper and an original poem. Two little girls who loved her made candle holders. (“I need some water, some glue, a jar and a lot of glitter,” the 7-year-old told her father.) On Facebook, 158 people wrote messages of condolence.


    As it happens, Emma was my mother’s dog first, and losing her has been a double grief. I miss her inimitable sandwich-snarfing, bookshelf-climbing, purse-raiding, cabinet-unlocking, smoothie-stealing, ever-grinning rascal self. I miss the way, even in her nearly blind, completely deaf, partially paralyzed old age, she wanted to be right beside me, tugging her little bed till it was directly under my feet while I worked.

    I miss her, but I also miss taking care of her — rushing her to the emergency vet at least three times a year for eating everything from chocolate bonbons to rat poison, carefully dispensing her medicine twice a day, constantly pushing the chairs under the table to keep her from climbing up and launching herself off from the table’s full height. Protecting Emma from herself felt like a way to keep caring for Mom even years after Mom was gone.


    Two weeks after [mom’s] funeral, Emma went missing when she was outside with me. That tiny, dapple-colored dog was both willful and invisible: She never once came when called, and she could disappear beneath the lowest bushes, behind the smallest fallen branch. I turned that yard inside out looking for her. When I finally thought to check at Mom’s house across the street, I found her at the back door, jumping up and scratching to be let in. She had been scratching so urgently, and for so long, the paint was chipped away from the doorjamb.

    That’s what it means to be loved by a dog.


    My family’s dog, who I grew up with, was mercifully — for both him and me (and the rest of the family) — put down after I started university (i.e., I was not there at the time). That didn’t stop me crying and crying when I learned of it, but it was clearly the best thing that could be done.

  16. bmiller says

    I waited too long for a couple of my dogs. Denial of reality is an unfortunate personality trait. 🙁

    The food thing should have been a sign. I let Tasha get far, far too thin. 🙁

  17. Mano Singham says

    bmiller @#19,

    This is never an easy decision and whatever one does, the nagging feeling of maybe the opposite should have been done never goes away.

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