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When the End of the Road is Near

*This post discusses euthanasia and may be upsetting to some readers.

Tiger’s harvest gold-green eyes might belie her age if she weren’t skin and bones, shrunken in Andrew’s lap. With a little imagination, one can see that her alternating burnt orange and ginger-striped fur was regal in earlier days. But renal failure has taken its toll in the past year. Refusing favorite foods was accompanied by weight loss, then repeated infections, and revolving door trips to the veterinarian.

Her human one-and-only, Andrew, smiles sadly at her. “She’s stopped cleaning herself.” Tiger has lived with Andrew since she was a bold, friendly kitten. Nearly 20 years later, she is often hiding in a closet or under the stairs. Andrew has administered subcutaneous fluids at home every other day for the past year. In the beginning she was tolerant, and it kept her stable. Recently, it is a struggle and she is still declining. “I’m starting to wonder if it is time, but I want to make this decision for her, not for me.”

If you have ever been a pet owner, you know what “wonder if it is time” means. Weighing your pet’s quality of life, worrying about pain or problems walking, concerns that your furry family member is declining -- these all add up to a decision that feels impossible. Making it even harder, those factors can vary. Several bad days in a row, you might be thinking that euthanasia is the right choice… follow that with some good days, and you lean the other direction... “Maybe those bad days weren't as bad as I thought?”

These thoughts occupy the mind of every owner of a pet with a terminal condition. If this is where you are, you are not alone. And give yourself permission to recognize that your pet’s quality of life is not the only factor that matters in this decision.

In a study published by our team earlier this year, we examined factors contributing to an owner’s consideration of euthanasia for an elderly or seriously ill dog or cat -- in other words: how close is a person to making the decision to euthanize? We looked at variables related to the pet’s illness (for example, health-related quality of life) as well as owner variables (for example, caregiver burden).

Although the pet’s quality of life was the factor most strongly related to the decision to euthanize, a close second was caregiver burden in the owner.

What does this mean in simple terms? It means that if you are like Andrew, thinking about euthanasia, but wondering if those thoughts are related to your pet’s condition or to your own stress, you are in good company. And both need to be assessed when you are making this difficult decision.

Many different factors go into a decision to euthanize a beloved pet—the impact of your pet’s condition on his or her quality of life is high priority, but the impact on you and your family must factor into the decision, too. Are you feeling stressed, noticing that you feel angry or frustrated, and like you are burning the candle at both ends? Are you experiencing financial strain from the cost of medications or fixing illness-related damage to your home? Is your body able to keep up with the heavy lifting that caregiving sometimes requires?

None of us are unlimited in our resources, and all of these issues must be weighed in this decision. Looking at the total picture is important. This study shows that it is not only okay, but it is “normal” to be considering your own limits.

Owners often feel guilty for considering their own needs, alongside their pet’s. But thinking about your pet’s euthanasia and talking with your veterinarian does not mean you love your pet any less. If you are considering euthanasia, chances are that your veterinarian has thought about it, too, and they will not judge you for asking these questions. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to be human. And if this is a decision you are in the midst of making at this moment, we wish you strength and support. ~

The information offered on this website does not constitute psychological or veterinary medical advice. Please consult with an appropriate professional who can make recommendations for your specific situation.


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