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Deciding When to Put Your Dog to Sleep

Mychelle Blake
Man embracing his faithful friend the dog

Owning a dog means a lifetime of love and companionship that you'll never forget. Unfortunately, with the wonderful side of dog ownership comes the bad, which is the short lifespan of your canine best friend. Making the decision about when to euthanize your dog can be devastating but needs to be considered carefully to make sure you are doing right by your dog.

When Euthanasia Should Be Considered

There are several situations where a dog owner may need to make the difficult decision to put their dog to sleep and each comes with their own list of considerations.

Serious Illness

A dog suffering from a serious terminal illness such as cancer or kidney failure is a compelling case for deciding on euthanasia. As some diseases progress, your dog may be in constant pain and discomfort. If you have exhausted your treatment options and they continue to deteriorate, it's time to have a discussion with your veterinarian about whether treatment or supportive care should continue or if it's time to end the dog's pain.

Physical Injury

A dog that suffers a critical physical injury can also be a candidate for euthanasia depending on your veterinarian's diagnosis. For example, a dog involved in a car accident may be wounded so extensively that surgery will be a long and difficult process with a poor prognosis for a life where he or she will eventually not be in pain. Many dogs get through injuries fine, even with drastic surgeries like amputations, but others may not be so lucky and may face a future with a poor quality of life, assuming they can survive the initial surgery.

Old Age and Quality of Life

Some senior dogs never really get critically ill but their quality of life still slowly fades over time as old age takes effect. Older dogs can become disoriented and often confused due to canine cognitive dysfunction or find it difficult to walk or move from their bed if they develop arthritis. They may slowly lose interest in eating, drinking and interacting. In this situation, it's very difficult for a dog owner to make a decision about euthanasia if there's no clear "disease" but the dog's quality of life has clearly deteriorated due to age and infirmity.

Serious Behavior Problem

Behavioral euthanasia refers to putting to sleep a dog that has a serious behavior problem such as aggression. In this situation, these are dogs that may be a danger to other animals or to people and their level of aggression does not respond to intervention by a behavior professional and medication. Note that this does not refer to common behavior problems such as barking, digging, anxiety and even mild-to-moderate aggression. Putting a dog to sleep for a serious behavioral issue that is a healthy dog despite their mental state is an excruciating decision for any dog owner and discussions with your veterinarian and behavior team is strongly advised.

Senior Woman With Dog On Sofa At Home

When Euthanasia Shouldn't Be Considered

While there are many legitimate and heart-wrenching situations where euthanasia is a reasonable choice, it can also be used inappropriately.

Changes in Life Circumstances

Dogs may find themselves victim to the changing life circumstances of their owners, which can include moving, pregnancy, loss of income or housing, or even their daily schedule and commitments. While it's not unusual for dogs to end up in a shelter through no fault of their own based on these life changes, some dog owners may ask a veterinarian or the local shelter to euthanize their dog instead which is known as convenience euthanasia. If the dog is healthy and can be placed into a new home, euthanasia is not an acceptable option, and a veterinarian is not required to comply with such a request.

Minor Behavior and Training Issues

Dogs can engage in many behavior issues that can be difficult for owners to deal with. This can include barking, digging, destructive behavior, and house training issues. More severe behavioral problems include aggression and separation anxiety. Most behavior problems can be worked on if a dog owner puts in the time and commitment to do so and consults with a behavior professional. Many issues can be solved by enrolling in training classes and practicing daily with your dog and changing your own behavior. Unless the dog is experiencing a severe behavioral problem where the safety of others is at risk or is suffering from crippling fear and anxiety, euthanasia is not an ethical solution. If training and behavior modification is not an option due to financial or time constraints, a dog owner should work with their veterinarian and local shelters and rescue groups to rehome the dog.

Making the Decision to Euthanize a Dog

If you've come to a point where you realize euthanasia may be necessary, you may find it difficult to come to a decision. There are some steps you can take to help you work through this agonizing process and find peace with your choice.

1. Talk to Your Veterinarian

Your veterinarian is your guide to all things medical regarding your dog. He or she can give you information on your dog's prognosis, what options for treatment are still available and the level of discomfort your dog is in. Realize that for many veterinarians who have treated your dog for his or her entire life, this decision is just as sad and painful for them. Don't hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian and the clinic's staff for guidance as they want to make sure the right decision is reached as well and are there to support you and your dog.

2. Use a Quality of Life Scale

The HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale was developed by veterinarian Dr. Alice Villalobos. The scale looks at seven factors in a dog's life and asks you to rate them on a scale of one to 10, with one being the lowest and 10 being the highest score. The factors are:

  • Hurt which refers to your dog's daily level of pain and what's required to keep him comfortable.
  • Hunger is a measure of your dog's interest in eating day to day.
  • Hydration looks at how much your dog is drinking and whether fluid therapy is required.
  • Hygiene is how often you keep the dog groomed and clean, especially if the dog has house training or incontinence issues or open wounds and sores.
  • Happiness is a look at your dog's overall day-to-day mood and apparent joy, or lack of it.
  • Mobility rates how well your dog is able to get around on his own or with assistance from yourself or medical devices like carts and ramps.
  • More Good Days Than Bad is a measure of how your dog's life overall appears: "When bad days outnumber good days, quality of life might be too compromised."

If your dog has a total score over 35, discuss with your veterinarian other ways to provide supportive care for your dog. If the score is under 35, you should begin euthanasia discussions with your veterinarian. Of course, every dog is an individual and each case will vary. The scale is meant to be used as a tool to guide your decision but is not an absolute determinant.

3. See the World Through Your Dog's Eyes

Aside from the medical and physical considerations, often times owners keep a dog alive because the grief of losing a pet is overwhelming. Other times owners will say they are waiting for the dog to "tell me when it's time" but this can lead to a dog lingering in pain far longer than necessary. In these cases it helps to take some quiet time to sit with your pet and look at his or her day-to-day life from "their eyes" and try to remove yourself from the equation. Think about the constant symptoms he or she may be feeling like nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, disorientation, and physical pain. Some veterinarians suggest making a short list of things your dog loves to do, like chewing a bully stick, fetching balls and snuggling on the couch. If your dog is no longer doing these things and takes no joy in them if he or she does, it's a sign that your dog's time may be near.

Photo of dog next to collar

4. Seek Bereavement Help

If you're struggling with the decision and know it's the right thing to do but are devastated at the impending loss of your pet, don't delay seeking out assistance for handling your grief. You can look for a mental health professional close to you for short-term counseling. They may also be able to direct you to pet loss grief support groups in your area. Your veterinarian and local shelters may also know of pet loss groups local to you or counselors who specialize in this population. The Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement also runs an online chat group for "anticipatory bereavement" to help pet owners to cope with the euthanasia of their pet prior to their passing.

When Is The Right Time to Euthanize a Dog?

No one can really say when the "right time" is to euthanize a dog as there are so many factors involved. It is truly a heartbreaking decision that every dog owner dreads. Don't hesitate to ask for guidance from your veterinarian and get support for yourself in this difficult time. Ultimately you want to make sure you can make the best, most loving decision for your dog while taking care of your own imminent heartache and loss.

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Deciding When to Put Your Dog to Sleep