Dog Loss - The Decision

Mar 5 / Sally Gutteridge
One of the most common questions we hear is “How will I know when it’s time to let my dog go?” Many times, we honestly just know when the dog has had enough, but sometimes we don’t. And later we punish ourselves time and again for holding on that little bit too long as the expense of our friend’s peaceful passing when they were ready. It feels like we can’t win doesn’t it – that’s because when we are inevitably going to lose a bundle of love in our life, we can’t.

The veterinarian that put my two little heart condition dogs to sleep used to say that a dog needed to have five good days from seven to have an acceptable quality of life. An excellent vet, filled with compassion he believed that a day early is better than a day late and I’m inclined to agree. How do we know, though, the difference between a good and bad day?

Life Quality

The term quality of life is used regularly within the subject of euthanasia. Whilst only some countries have legalised euthanasia for people, it seems much simpler for us because we can voice the choice for ourselves. Yet with our dogs we must do what we have always done, observe, and use an element of choosing for them. Quality of life is a measure of wellbeing or happiness. It considers the positives and negative things in a life and is very subjective topic, determined by individuality.

Some people say they knew when their dog lost their appetite and stopped being interested in food that their quality of life had deteriorated so much that it was time to let them go. Allowing a dog to go on and on without being interested in food is distressing for the dog to experience and the person who loves them to watch. After we have changed the food type to something soft, digestible, and tempting we can only hope our dog eats and to force that is moving onto taking away their choices.

Incontinence can detrimentally affect quality of life. Most of us will happily keep cleaning, time and again if the dog is unperturbed by their own lack of control. However, it can be really upsetting to the dog being incontinent in the bed and on themselves. So, we must question how fair it is to allow that repeatedly to happen. My two tiny heart ladies when on their medication and towards the end of their lives would merrily flood our wooden floors with the amount of urine you could expect from a baby elephant. Yet when they started flooding themselves, we started to question how they felt about it.

Mental health and CCD can cause problems beyond your control. If a dog is so confused that they are terrified of things they used to like or become aggressive because they don’t recognise their family any more, we have to consider what is in their best interests.

Pain and mobility are huge quality of life factors. Does the dog live relatively pain free and can he move around unhindered? Do his legs still work or is he reliant on being physically manipulated to carry out basic physical tasks such as getting out to the toilet? Anyone can become miserable and depressed if in constant pain and our dogs are no different. Pain relief can work wonders but when we can’t apply any more treatment or have reached the end of treatment availability, we must ask ourselves how fair it is to expect our dogs to live in pain.

Some dogs will hide their pain, and their wagging tail can mask a lot of symptoms. These “good doers” can be difficult to read and decide how much pain they are in. There are lots of subtle signs to watch for including: a hunched back, stiff posture, difficulty getting comfortable, refusing to walk, signs of aggression when touched in a certain area.

Is your dog happy? The happiness factor is very important, but it can be a difficult and subjective decision. You are the person best placed to assess your dog’s happiness, as you have the heart bond and know your friend’s intricacies. It might be obvious that your dog’s happiness is fading when a dog no longer takes pleasure in the things that used to make him excited and happy, such as food, toys, or learning.

Withdrawing Treatment

We have access to a vast range of veterinary treatments for our dogs and the decision to withdraw or cease treatment for one or more health problems will not be taken lightly by the veterinarian. Sometimes we can push the vet to do more, because we don’t want to give up on our friend’s health and presence in our lives. If the treatment has more negative consequences than positive effects on the problem though, we could be prolonging the inevitable and sometimes this can even distress the dog.

Pain relief for example may be necessary but with excessive use it can affect the kidneys and liver to the point where a dog becomes increasingly unwell in other areas. Or dogs that have developed advanced stage cancer may have a slight change of beating it, but the dog would need a huge operation for a slim chance of positive prognosis.

Alongside withdrawal of treatment we may reach a level where treatment is not withdrawn but stays at that point and nothing new can be done. For example; a dog may be on their maximum amount of heart support including veterinary medication, supplements, lifestyle adaptations and suitable diet yet still deteriorating to the point that the treatment cannot be increased any further.

Stabilisation or withdrawal of treatment needs to be a decision taken between you and your veterinarian but led by the welfare of your dog.

Saying Goodbye

When the time arrives that, despite all the possible support the dog is struggling, it can be helpful to talk with your veterinarian about the quality of life your dog has. By this point in your dog’s life you should totally trust your vet and both of you should care for your dog. If your veterinarian is not totally supportive here, you will always relate that to your dog’s departure. You should never feel pressured into making any decision, and never rush into anything you don’t truly feel comfortable with.

If you do come to the decision that your dog is ready to go, and feel that it’s compassionate to help him along, then your vet – at a time and place mutually agreed – will help your dog into his final rest. The physical procedure is carried out through an overdose of general anaesthetic. If you have ever had an operation under General Anaesthetic yourself, you will know that you are told to count to ten and just drift away.

Where you say goodbye to your dog is up to you. I prefer to do it at home and like to make sure my friend takes along a bellyful of their favourite foods. One of my friends lost her older dog yesterday and before he was given the injection, she gave him the Mars bar she had always promised him.

This is painful and there’s no getting away from that. From the time we see the sugar dusting starting to appear on the muzzle of our beloved friend, we dread this moment. Their unstoppable ageing is a daily reminder that they won’t always be with us. We know that the moment will come where we hold them tight, perhaps also whilst they eat a huge pie, and tell them that the privilege has been ours all along. We hold the tears until they are gone, then the waves of grief begin.

It does pass, though, or at least settles down to the point where it’s not so raw. Then we go back, our tears changing to twinkling memories of our dog smiling, paw swiping, and sharing their amazing sense of humour over the years. Yes, it hurts, but it also gets better, and in all honestly, it’s worth every moment with them. 

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