Older dog lying down

It's the question every pet lover dreads, the one for which there's often no easy answer: "When is the right time to say goodbye?"

Choosing to end a pet's life is the hardest decision we make when it comes to our furry friends, and we can tell you from decades of experience that it's a decision that never gets any easier. Your veterinarian will offer you advice and support, and friends and family can offer you sympathy, but no one can make the decision for you. When you live with an elderly or terminally ill pet, you look in your pet's eyes every morning and wonder if you're doing what's best.

No Rules, No Road Map

Everyone makes the decision a little differently. There's no absolute rule, and every method for deciding is right for some pets and some owners at some times. You do the best you can, and then you try to put the decision behind you and deal with the grief.

Some pet lovers do not wait until their pet's discomfort becomes chronic, untreatable pain, and they choose euthanasia much sooner than others. Some owners use an animal's appetite as the guide — when an old or ill animal cannot be tempted into eating, they reason that he has lost most interest in life. Some owners wait until there's no doubt the time is at hand, and, later, wonder if they delayed a bit too long.

Questions You Must Ask Yourself

The incredible advances in veterinary medicine in the past couple of decades have made the decisions even more difficult for many people. Not long ago, the best you could do for a seriously ill pet was to make her comfortable as long as possible. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine — from chemotherapy to pacemakers to advanced pain relief — is available to our pets.

But even with new options in high-level care, the questions you should ask yourself about easing your pet's suffering still stay the same: Will this course of treatment improve my pet's life? Or will it simply prolong it? If you can have a realistic expectation that a course of treatment will improve your pet's life then those options should be considered. But you must also ask yourself: Am I doing right by my pet, or am I just holding on because I can't bear to say goodbye?

If it's the latter, you know what decision you have to make.

Begin Preparing to Mourn Your Pet

Many people are surprised at the powerful emotions that erupt after a pet's death, and they can be embarrassed by their grief. Often, we don't realize we're grieving not only for the pet we loved, but also for the special time the animal represented and the ties to other people in our lives. The death of a cat who was a gift as a kitten from a friend who has died, for example, may trigger bittersweet memories of another love lost.

Taking care of yourself is important when dealing with pet loss. Some people — the "It's just a pet" crowd — won't understand the loss and may shrug off grief over a pet's death as foolish. I find that the company of other animal lovers is very important. Seek them out to share your feelings, and don't be shy about getting professional help to get you through a difficult time.

Choosing to end a pet's suffering is a final act of love and nothing less. Knowing that your decisions are guided by that love is what helps us all through the sad and lonely time of losing a cherished animal companion.

Finding Help When You Need It

You're not alone in losing a pet, and many resources are out there to help you cope with your emotions during a difficult time. Some veterinary schools offer pet-loss support lines staffed by volunteer veterinary students, and the PetHobbyist.com offers a pet-loss chat every night of the year staffed with volunteer moderators and attended by other pet lovers.

More on Vetstreet.com: