There is probably no question as difficult to answer as when a veterinary client asks, “When will I know it’s time?” in regard to euthanizing their pet.
We cringe, because we know when it’s coming, and because it’s not an easy question to answer. I learned from my good friend Val that there is an easy way to discuss “quality of life” with a pet owner.
Basically, you ask the family, what five things does the pet enjoy the most? Going for a car ride? Chasing the squirrels in the yard? Snuggling in bed? A favorite toy or treat? Then watch and see if, and when, the enjoyment in those things becomes less and less.
The pet may be too weak to chase squirrels, too nauseated to eat a favorite treat, and seem uninterested in riding in the car. Perhaps the family cat is choosing the closet to sleep in, rather than the bed. These are signals that the quality of life is declining. That will help the pet owner judge when the time is approaching.
What about another phrase we use at times, when we tell the pet owner, “You can see it in their eyes.” It may just sound like a convenient way to end the conversation, but in fact it is nearly always true. They know their pet the best, and when they see that looks that conveys “I am just too tired to keep fighting,” then the time is approaching as well.
It’s a message that the pet conveys to the person they love, and when it is received in the spirit of that love, than there is no question about what to do next.
But that’s NOT the phrase I wanted to point out in this blog. The phrase I want to mention comes after these other discussions, when you simply inform the family that the guilt WILL come. At some point, sooner or later, they will wonder if they waited too long to euthanize and caused the pet needless suffering, just like they will wonder if they didn’t wait long enough, and the pet still had a few more good days left.
Regardless of the timing, this guilt is part of the grieving process, especially when humane euthanasia is chosen as the last gift of love we can provide our pets. If the pet owners are aware that the guilt will come, they will not be as shocked and knocked to their knees when it arrives.
We can help manage not just the moment we are standing there with pet owners, but also their expectations of the future, to help them cope with what is to come.
We also have to realize how important our advice will be for this family. As animal lovers, we have likely surrounded ourselves with pets all our lives, and so we know what loss feels like.
As veterinary professionals, we have worked with countless numbers of families who are going through a loss, maybe for the very first time. It may be easy to fall back on the phrases that we have used over and over again, so we need to always take a deep breath, center ourselves in the moment, and deliver them with empathy and compassion reserved for this family alone.
If we let them know that the guilt will come, they will be better prepared for it when it arrives. It may be one of the last gifts we can offer these families.