One of the hardest parts of being a dog owner is dealing with the inevitable end of life of the pet. Making the decision to euthanize is emotionally devastating and can lead some dog owners to consider alternatives.
Allowing a Dog to Die Naturally at Home
When dealing with a pet that is terminally ill, pet owners struggle with deciding on when "it's time" to make the euthanasia decision. The decision is hampered by many factors including:
- Emotional fears of loss of the dog's companionship
- Concerns that dog could "get better" and making the euthanasia decision too fast
- Desire to keep the dog from experiencing stress and anxiety of euthanasia at the vet's office
- Lack of consensus between family members about the euthanasia date if some feel it should be sooner or that dog can "hang on" longer
- Some adherents of certain religions believe "killing" is discouraged even for humane reasons though opinions vary
Is This the Best Choice for Your Dog?
Adherents of allowing a dog to die naturally at home would argue that this gives the dog a chance to die with dignity rather than frightened and stressed in the veterinarian's office. Even at-home euthanasia is forcing a final decision on the dog and one cannot truly know when it's the right time for a dog. Allowing Mother Nature to take her course ensures your dog was given every chance to fight their illness and pass away in their own time. Veterinarians would argue however that this is a fantasy view of a dog's final days that does not hold up to reality.
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber states that in his experience, "It is very rare for a pet to be sick, but not be suffering, and then peacefully pass away overnight. When a pet is sick and is starting to fail, death is usually preceded and accompanied by discomfort, anxiety, and/or pain." A dog will begin showing signs that he is dying "well before" he will die on his own and, "the need for euthanasia is clear." Ethically, allowing a dog to die on its own can lead to undue pain and suffering for the animal that is looking to us to make the best decisions for them.
Difficult Euthanasia Decisions
Veterinarian Dr. Gary Richter concurs, stating that there is "so much emotion wrapped up in the decision to euthanize." He has found that owners often delay the euthanasia decision because, "they cannot bear to make it," but he counsels clients that, "the longer you take the greater the chance your dog will make it for you." He relates that "In the over 20 years I have been a veterinarian, in most cases if you explain to the owners what will happen to the dog if he or she is allowed to continue suffering, they are able to make the difficult decision to euthanize." He counsels owners who are struggling with the decision to, "take a step back and see that you can end an animal's suffering."
Interpreting the Signs of Dying
Dr. Werber allows that another possible reason people want to allow the dog to die naturally is that, "Many people are not familiar with the signs of a dog in distress due to disease or illness and don't realize they are only prolonging suffering and not life." Because animals can show signs of pain differently from humans, it's very possible for a deeply compassionate owner to believe their dog is peacefully living through his final days when in fact the animal is truly suffering day by day. "When we see our pet every day and therefore don't notice these changes, we have to try to see them with fresh eyes without making excuses for the decline we see." Providing the dog with pain management may seem to help but dogs can mask pain and be in misery without an owner really understanding it.
Unfamiliarity With Death
Another reason that well-intentioned dog owners may think allowing their dog to die naturally at home is a good reason is a lack of experience. Dr. Richter explains, "Very commonly I see people pushing things farther than I'd like them to go and it's usually coming from a place of someone who's never seen this happen." Watching an animal die is, in his words, "not pretty. The very end stages of life are drawn out and miserable for all concerned." Dr. Werber agrees and believes, "the beauty of euthanasia is a gift we can give back to our best pal who gave so much to us over the years."
Easing Your Dog's Passing
Dr. Werber suggests that owners contemplating allowing their dog to die at home to avoid the stress of going to the vet have humane alternatives. "Many vets provide an in-home euthanasia visit, where your pet can be euthanized in comfort and the loving environment of their home." At-home euthanasia can let you give your ailing pet his final peace surrounded by family and free of anxiety and fear.
Dr. Werber also suggests the option of hospice care for dogs. Lap of Love is a company that has a nationwide network of veterinarians that will provide hospice and house call services, including at-home euthanasia. However, it is different from human hospice care in that, "the goal is to provide very short-term care and support, including fluids, pain medications, and other supportive care, often to 'buy some time' to enable family members to get accustomed to the reality and say their goodbyes." Even active adherents of canine hospice note that pet owners should be ready with a plan for at-home euthanasia if it becomes clear the animal is suffering and palliative care is not improving their quality of life.
The Final Decision
Allowing a dog to die naturally is a deeply emotional subject. Proponents claim it's best for a dog to die a natural death in the familiar surroundings of his home. It also lets the owner feel free of the guilt of euthanizing too soon. However, it is very difficult for owners to be objective about their dog and even the best-intentioned owner can miss the signs of suffering. As Dr. Richter concludes, "I've never had anyone say they did it too soon." As caretakers for our pets, "our job is to be advocates for our animals" and this includes easing their pain at the end of their beloved lives with in-clinic or at-home euthanasia.