By Cherie T. Buisson, DVM, CHPV
Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Veterinarian
We all agonize over the question: “How do I know when it’s time?”. It’s the question most frequently asked in my hospice practice. It’s the question I most frequently ask when my own pets are nearing the end of their lives. There’s no easy answer. There is no “perfect” time. You will likely be too soon or too late by a little or a lot. That’s nothing to be ashamed of – REALLY. We all do our best. I’ve rarely had a client express regret that they put their pet to sleep too soon. I often hear that they feel guilty for waiting too long.
When I diagnose a pet with terminal or quality-of-life-limiting disease (for instance, a large dog with arthritis that will eventually be unable to walk), the first thing I convey to my clients is that any time is a good time for euthanasia. I give them my permission (even though they don’t actually need it). Many clients are shocked and uncomfortable hearing the words. Too many veterinarians and clients are afraid to bring up euthanasia, so I put it on the table first thing. There. It’s been said. Now we can ignore it until we need it. Euthanasia is a treatment option. It’s not a failure or a cruel choice. We aren’t depriving pets of a day where they will have the most epic bowl of cat food ever or a day playing ball that would be worth any amount of suffering.
I explain that pets don’t have a novel to finish (reading or writing). They don’t need to visit the Grand Canyon or get a college degree. I imagine a pet’s bucket list looks like this:
1. Don’t suffer
4. Be with loved ones
6. Sniff stuff/explore/get into things
I grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel. The 59th Street Bridge Song is one of my favorites. Whenever I hear the lyrics below, I think of our pets as they age. We (and our clients) try to make them more human by thinking they need “just one more day” or month or year. In fact, we could learn a lot from our pets by emulating the way they live completely in the present.
“Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.”
I’d rather see a pet go to the Rainbow Bridge too early as opposed to too late. It’s our client’s job to decide. It’s our job to guide them. Just because we can keep their pet alive doesn’t always mean we should. It’s ok to say “we’ve had enough”. When a client calls me with a sick pet with a bad disease, I offer them the options of treatment (if it’s possible), hospice care or euthanasia. I tell them that the only thing that is not ok is to let their pet continue on without addressing their quality of life issues. Whichever option they choose, I support them because that’s what hospice care is all about.