Making the ultimate decision to have your beloved pet put to sleep due to injury or ill health is never an easy one, even when you know that it's in the best interests of your pet. Most of us view our companion animals as a member of the family, and our closeness to our pets can make making the right decision incredibly hard when faced with the ultimate question- Is my pet suffering to the point that keeping them alive would be unkind, and would it be best to have my pet put down? There is often no easy answer.
While the decision to euthanize should always be made in conjunction with your vet, the question on what to do cannot easily be answered for you by your vet in all cases, if the prognosis is unclear or treatment or palliative care may be possible with indefinite results. While your vet can of course advise you, explain your options and give their opinions, the ultimate decision is down to you and your family.
Your pet may be suffering from a moderate to severe amount of pain constantly or recurrently, which cannot permanently be resolved. Perhaps there is no cure or long term respite treatment possible for your pet's illness, or an accident or injury means that your pet will not be able to enjoy the same quality of life which they have done previously. It's possible that palliative care may be an option, to take care of your pet during the final stage of their lives and manage their pain so that they are comfortable. Or it may be the case that there are some treatment methods for the problem available, but that the treatment or surgery and subsequent recovery will be difficult, and may only have a limited positive effect on your pet, or the ultimate success or otherwise of the treatment is unclear.
It's unfortunate but true that we don't all have the time or financial resources available to deal with a potentially sudden or unexpected illness or accident, and as uncomfortable as it may be, you will need to factor this into your decision. Even if you can afford to pay for a possibly costly surgery or treatment programme, if your pet will need a high level of care or constant supervision after they get home, you simply may not be equipped to deal with this. It's important to consider all aspects of the situation at this stage- do you understand the nature of the ongoing care involved, and can you cope with it? If your pet did not respond to treatment well or suffered a relapse, would you be able to manage it?
In a lot of situations, surgery or treatment may be possible for your pet to prolong their life, but a full recovery may not. Similarly, even if a full recovery is possible, the length of time the treatment takes and any associated side effects of the procedure or recovery may lead you to having to make a choice as to whether going forwards with treatment is in the best interests of your pet, or would lead to a marked reduction in their quality of life and wellbeing. Just two common scenarios which come up time and again in veterinary practice involve the use of chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer, and amputations or operations on the limbs or joints as a result of an accident or illness. In both of these situations, treatment may be possible, but when balanced against the toll taken by treatment and the potential best and worse case scenario end result, the decision to treat may not be the obvious or best choice in all situations.
You know your pet better than your vet or anyone else, so only you can answer the difficult questions such as 'how would my pet cope with reduced mobility or the loss of a limb?' 'Would my pet suffer from treatment to the point that their quality of life becomes untenable?' A lot of the deciding factors will depend very much on your pet and their personality. A pet which is very territorial, shy of other people and nervous may find the environment of being an inpatient for a protracted period of time in a veterinary hospital and being handled by and treated by many new people so distressing that it would not be fair to put your pet through it, even if there was a good chance of ultimate success. Your pet's happiness and general outlook can make a massive difference to the effectiveness or otherwise of any given treatment- if your pet is positive and happy in themselves about it all, they may take it in their stride. If they are not, then even the most suitable treatment method may not prove successful or viable for them.
Whether you are faced with a sudden decision as the result of an accident or illness, or if your pet is simply getting older and more infirm and not coping with things as well as they used to do, the way your pet reacts to the situation and manages things can be a big indicator of the best decision for you. Our pets cannot tell us how much they are suffering, how much pain they are in, or if they are unhappy and what they would like us to do- if they could, the ultimate decision would be so much easier. You can, however, take your cues from your pet's personality and behaviour.
If your pet is still interested in food, happy to see you, generally comfortable and not constantly depressed and unhappy, then it may be viable to manage any pain or symptoms with veterinary assistance and carry on monitoring the situation until something changes, which may be some way down the road. If an animal has 'given up' and is chronically depressed and has lost their lust for life as a result of their health issues once pain management or treatment have been attempted, then euthanasia may be the best option when all other options have been exhausted.
Making the ultimate choice to have your pet put to sleep is never an easy one, even when you know it is the right decision. It's natural to be upset or even devastated, and you may question your decision for a long time after the deed has been done. Grief is natural, and unfounded feelings of guilt over your decision or the choices you made leading up to it are totally normal, and it will probably take you a long time to come to terms with the loss of your pet and for the cloud over you and your family to lift. It can be hard to find someone to talk to about the loss of a pet, and people are often concerned that their grief is disproportionate, or that others will not understand their feelings of the loss of what is, to some people, 'just an animal.' However, there is help and support available to you when you're feeling low and want to make contact with other people who know how you are feeling and to help you come to terms with your loss.
Here are some links to organisations that can help.
Chance's Spot Pet Loss Support Forum
Living with Pet Bereavement
Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service
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