How to Know When It's Time to Put Your Dog Down

Girl hugging old dog

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While advances in veterinary medicine are allowing your pet to live a longer, healthier life, the most difficult decision you can make regarding your best friend’s care is when to let her go. There’s rarely a clear-cut answer as to when is the “right” time to put your beloved dog down—rather, it’s a culmination of a variety of factors. While no one can make this difficult choice for you, there are a few things that can help.

Talk to Your Veterinarian

One of the most common questions veterinarians hear is, “When should I put my pet down?” This is an intensely personal decision, and many veterinarians are reluctant to give a concrete answer, unless it’s plain the pet is clearly suffering. When asking your veterinarian for advice, she can guide you through this challenging task and help you reach a decision. Your veterinarian will let you know the medical issues your dog is battling, and the prognosis and progression of disease. 

For example, your miniature schnauzer has been struggling with diabetes and glucose regulation for the past two years. Over time, cataracts have developed, rendering her blind, and she was also recently diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, which makes managing her diabetes even more difficult. Never able to fully adjust to being blind, your dog stumbles her way through life, fearful of bumping into objects and not able to enjoy her previous favorite activities. Now faced with a Cushing’s diagnosis that’s paired with extensive treatment and monitoring, you may have reached your limit. Your veterinarian will help guide you through determining a scale of quality of life issues for both you and your pet to avoid suffering and ruining your bond. 

Whenever you have any questions about the medical aspect of your dog’s quality of life and what you need to watch for, contact your veterinarian. She will be able to walk you through indicators that your dog is suffering that you may be unable to detect. She will also explain the euthanasia process to ease your stress and anxiety by allowing you time to prepare in advance. 

Tip

Although you’d likely prefer for your dog to fall asleep and pass away naturally without euthanasia, this type of peaceful death for a pet is rare. A natural death can be a long, painful, and anxiety-provoking process for a dog, so take steps to learn about a quality of life scale.

Track Your Pet's Quality of Life

In younger dogs who suffer from a catastrophic trauma or illness that there is no cure for, such as a devastating car accident, a toxicity that damages organ function beyond repair, or a congenital defect unable to be surgically corrected, choosing when to euthanize your beloved dog is an easier decision. But, when faced with an older dog who is slowly declining, knowing the exact time to end your pet’s suffering is much more difficult. Use the aid of a quality of life scale to help determine how comfortable and happy your pet is on a daily basis. 

One of the most commonly used quality of life scales is the HHHHHMM scale developed by Dr. Alice Villalobos. In the HHHHHMM scale, seven categories of happiness and comfort are evaluated to determine your pet’s quality of life:

Hurt

Is your dog uncomfortable and showing signs of pain, even with pain medications, alternative therapies, and home modifications? Signs of pain include panting, licking the affected area, whining, moaning, reluctance to move, decreased appetite, inability to get comfortable, and decreased activity.

Hunger

Is your dog eating regularly with a good appetite, or is she refusing food? If your dog is refusing to eat, or is suffering from nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, you may have to hand-feed her or feed her through a feeding tube to ensure she receives the proper nutrition. Many medications and diseases can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal upset. For pets who are nauseous and vomiting because of a disease process, speak with your veterinarian about anti-nausea medication. 

Hydration

Is your dog drinking normally? If she’s drinking more or less than normal, abnormal drinking can be a sign of an unmanaged disease process. If you are unable to coax your dog into drinking enough to maintain adequate hydration, intravenous catheterization with fluid therapy or subcutaneous fluid administration may be options. 

Hygiene

Is your dog able to maintain normal grooming habits? If she has developed urinary or fecal incontinence, is she mobile enough to move out of the mess? Development of urinary or fecal incontinence is a deciding factor for many pet owners, especially when combined with immobility. Struggling to move a large dog out of her own urine and feces day after day is a difficult burden to bear and often damages the bond between owner and dog.

Happiness

Is your dog happy? Does she still enjoy her favorite activities, and can she still perform them? Does your dog still greet you with enthusiasm when you come home? Has your dog shown signs of anxiety and depression, isolating herself from the family? If your dog no longer enjoys her normal activities, consider if you are prolonging her life for your sake, rather than letting her go. 

Mobility

Is your dog able to move comfortably? Has she developed severe osteoarthritis or another crippling muscular or skeletal disorder? Are there medications, therapies, or surgeries that can improve your dog’s mobility? If your dog is unable to walk or stand unassisted, consider the toll immobility will take on her mental health, happiness, and hygiene. 

More Good Days Than Bad

Does your dog have more good days than bad? Or, have the bad days begun to outnumber the good? Towards the end, you may look for a few moments throughout the bad days to remind you of the good times—a tail wag for a favorite treat, a brief game of gentle fetch, or the devotion of following you from room to room throughout your home.   

Since making the decision to euthanize your dog is incredibly difficult, we’ve included a few questionnaires and quality of life scales to help you determine how your pet is feeling:

If your canine companion is having more bad days than good, consider letting her go peacefully with the aid of your veterinarian. After your loss, turn to resources and lean on family and friends to help you cope with grief.