Saying Goodbye

Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet can be one of the most heartbreaking and difficult choices anyone ever has to make.  It is a fact of life that dogs and cats have a limited life span compared to ours, and most pet owners must face end of life decisions for their pets at some point. Here are some insights from the other side of the exam table that may help pet owners to be at peace with a decision they may need to face.

The word euthanasia comes from the Greek words meaning good death.  Clients often ask veterinarians how we can go through this process on an almost daily basis.  We can assure you that while we spend most of our days trying to heal and save lives, we find saying goodbye to our patients emotionally draining and extremely sad.  We may or may not cry with you, but we feel and understand your pain. On the other hand, helping a family through the decision making process and providing the pet with the final gift of a painless and gentle passing is a job we feel privileged to perform.  Clients often express that they wish human medicine provided the same humane options we have for our pets.  As veterinarians we are uniquely empowered to help clients make decisions that are truly in the best interest of our patients.

How do I know when it is time? The answer to this question is different for every pet and every family.  Quality of life is absolutely more important than quantity.  Keeping daily scores of your pet’s appetite, mobility, pain, attitude and awareness can be helpful.  It is sometimes difficult to see gradual changes in condition of a pet you see every day, so periodic reassessment by your veterinarian can help get a more objective picture of how things are going.  Dogs and cats don’t share our sense of time; .they live in the moment.  For a dog or cat whose quality of life is poor, continuing their life for one more day, or week, or until the next holiday may not truly be in the pet’s best interest.  The rational sides of our brains may know that the time has arrived, but our emotional attachment is what makes it so very hard for us to let go.

Dealing with Grief and Guilt The loss of a pet is one of the most potentially difficult traumas people can experience.  Pets provide companionship, emotional support, and unconditional love, and losing that close bond and constant presence can be harder than expected.  Don’t minimize your feelings; talk to like minded friends, and seek professional help or a support group if the sadness is prolonged or just too much to bear on your own.

What about the children?-For many children, losing a pet is their first experience with loss and death.   It is important for parents to let children know that their feelings are normal and appropriate.  Very young children seem to process pet loss differently than adults; we often hear children asking for a new puppy or kitten right away, whereas many older children and parents need a longer time to be ready for a new pet.  Parents should always be as truthful as possible with children; but keep the conversations appropriate for the child’s age and level of understanding.

Should we get a new pet?  Whether or not to adopt a new pet right away is a very individual decision.  Pet ownership should never be an impulse decision, so take your time to be sure your family and other family pets are ready.  A new pet is never a replacement for a lost friend.   At our practice we always joyfully celebrate when clients open their hearts to a new dog or cat, even though the memory of the lost pet is always in all of our hearts.

Although the pain of losing a beloved family member can be profound, the companionship, love and joy  that pets bring to people’s lives is immeasurable  As veterinarians we are truly honored to be a part of that human / animal bond, and to be there for our clients and patients when the circle of life comes to a close.