Our pets have solidified their place in our hearts and home. It is not uncommon to call a friend’s house and hear pet’s names are on the answering machine. During the holiday season, cards come with the pet’s name listed and many of us buy gifts for our beloved family members. Bottom line, we care for our pets as treasured members of our family. But, when the end of life approaches, how do we make our decision? How do we know when to should say good-bye?
Recently, I was driving home when our answering service sent a message to me. I pulled to the side of the road, and called the daughter of a client of ours. The conversation lasted approximately 30 minutes and the same question kept coming up over and over. Her mom had been bringing their Dalmatian to us for many years and she had become ill. After weeks of diagnostics and failed treatments, she asked me the most common question I receive when it appears a pet is at the final stages of their life. “Dr. Hurley, how will my mother and I know when it is time to say good-bye?”
Then, two days after this phone call, I was reading the new posts on PetDocsOnCall (www.petdocsoncall.com). One of the members had posted a very detailed question involving a precious family member. Her pet was a rescue dog that began showing progressive behavioral and neurologic symptoms. Numerous doctors responded to her pet’s plight. After several updates, the owner posted the following statement, “I would also be interested in anyone’s opinion on what constitutes quality of life when the life in question cannot tell you.”
This is a very delicate topic and one I will try to answer for you based on my experience. Veterinarians around the world have this question posed to them in a variety of ways. When we graduate from veterinary school, we all stand and take an oath which states that “we will practice our profession conscientiously, with dignity and in keeping with the principles of vetrinary medical ethics.” Unlike our human counterparts, as doctors for your pets, we are able to help pets when quality of life is no longer what we would expect and the owners are witnessing the daily struggles their pet is enduring. No veterinarian takes this decision or process lightly. So when do you know it is time based on quality of life?
Believe it or not, the simple answer to this question is, you WILL know. One morning you will wake up and just know it is time. Every family member knows the pet and each individual will arrive at this critical crossroads at some stage of the terminal illness or crippling disease. Unfortunately, for each of us, this moment is different and there are no golden standards that make the decision easy.
Your veterinarian is always there to help you talk things through and try to help answer all your questions. I found the discussion often centers on the pet’s eating and drinking, the ability to move around, the noticed weight loss, or just “this is not the pet I remember.” There are published guidelines that an owner can use to answer questions to help them decide whether it may be time. An example can be found at www.veterinarypracticenews.com/images/pdfs/Quality_of_Life.pdf. They might ask you to determine if your pet has more good days than bad, shows signs of pain, or if they are happy. The scale operates on the basis of placing certain values on each question. Some will be on scales of 1 to 10 while others will assign points to each question. These results are then compared against a predetermined ranking system. If the number falls below a certain value, the chart will say the quality of life is unacceptable for your pet. This sounds simple enough, but I would still ask the question “Is it??” Ultimately, the decision lies with you. The guidelines are only there to help.
One day, you will wake up, embrace your pet, look into their eyes and deep down, you WILL know. I know this may sound way out there, but time and time again, owners will come in and confirm this observation. The best thing I can do is be supportive, caring and compassionate. No one knows your pet better than you and only you can truly make this difficult decision when it is time. Veterinarians are there to help guide you, but only you can truly tell us when you are ready. Remember, being ready does not mean letting go of the emotional attachment to your pet, but letting your pet go for the reasons you have come to understand deep down. Until this happens, enjoy the times you share with your pet and trust the bond you and your family have built with you pet.
As always, your veterinarian is available to discuss this sensitive matter with you. They may even have the published guidelines for your use. Your friends and family will be there to offer support. Numerous veterinary schools have support lines to help. Pet Loss Support Lines are available at Tufts University at 508-839-7966 and the University of Florida at 352-392-2235 extension 5268. Please be sure to utilize these services when faced with a very difficult decision or after arriving at your decision.