One of our readers asked me this week to write about when to “let go” when a pet is struggling with medical issues. This is such a difficult subject. We’ve all been through loss. Some loss hurts more than others. Sometimes we can’t fathom going on without a loved one. Sometimes it takes years to overcome the sorrow of loss. Sometimes we never get over it. Sometimes that loved one is a pet. Unfortunately, pet owners have to make big choices as to the medical treatment of a pet, including end of life decisions.

What we do for our pets is fundamentally what we would do for ourselves, what we would personally endure medically to beat or manage a disease. This goes beyond finances and available local medical expertise. This is a very personal choice. For example, I personally think it unlikely that I would put myself through chemotherapy if I get cancer. I hope I don’t ever have to find out! I’m all for medication and I’d be fine having some part of me amputated or having some other surgical procedure and probably even radiation. Nonetheless, unless there was a pretty darned good chance of ridding myself of cancer, I don’t know that I’d take chemo. I’ve seen it do wonders for friends and for veterinary patients, but I’ve also seen some nasty side effects. As I’m unlikely to put myself through chemo, I am less apt to put one of my family pets through it (unless there was a high rate of success). Since there has been a fair bit of cancer in my family I’ve thought this through. Again, it comes down to an individual choice and every situation and prognosis is a bit different. My last 2 dogs had cancer and I did not opt for chemo.

Diagnoses like cancer or organ failure often proceed to a quick demise. More commonly in medicine, we manage chronic diseases. Particularly with older pets we may be managing several diseases. Sometimes, despite our stellar efforts we are left wondering if the pet’s life still has quality. Hence the question of when to let go.

Over the years I’ve come up with a short list of criteria to help clients make such choices. Rarely can a veterinarian tell a client that it is time. Sometimes when senior pets present for examinations they get so excited in the clinic situation that it is difficult to tell how the pet behaves on a day to day basis. Really, this is a choice that owners must make themselves. My questions to owners struggling with end of life decisions include: Are there more bad days than good days? Does your pet greet you or maintain his or her normal habits? Is your pet still eating? (Food is one of life’s great pleasures). Are we able to control pain? Do you think your pet is enjoying life?

If you do opt to say goodbye, surround yourself with people you love. You don’t need to say a darned thing, but try not to be alone. Of course, there may be some folks who feel the need to be alone, but I think most folks do better with company who know how much our pet meant to us and can distract your mind from the sorrow.

Seek a counselor if needed. Don’t be embarrassed if you need a grief counselor. Remember, pets are the family that we choose. If your aunt is a little on the nutty side, she is still your aunt. We don’t choose our relatives. Dogs and cats are the family we choose. Our relationships with our pets are often more harmonious than relationships with our human family members.

Finally, when you are feeling low, force yourself to redirect your mind to happier times and joyous memories. Loss hurts most when the memories are so good. Honor your pet by remembering the good times. Cherish the memories. When I help send a pet to heaven I often ask pet owners what the pet’s best adventure was.

NOTE: Consult your veterinarian to confirm that my recommendations are applicable for the health needs of your pet.

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida.
Dr . Joi Sutton