Cat at Vet
Every veterinarian has heard it: “I could never do what you do. I could never put a pet to sleep.”

Would it surprise you to know that I believe helping a suffering pet pass on, although never easy, is one of the most important parts of my job?

It’s true. I've always said that a veterinarian is with a pet owner from "pre-cradle to post-grave," from "before the first hello until after the last goodbye.” While welcoming the right new pet into a family is one of the greatest joys of being a veterinarian, the act of euthanasia — done with competence, confidence and compassion (this lump in my throat, these tears in my eyes: They are real) — is a gift to a pet and the family who loves him, and a good way to end a life well lived.

Pet lovers think that this part of the veterinarian’s job is important too. As a veterinarian, about the only time you get a card from a pet owner is after you've helped guide the process of saying goodbye. I can't think of anything more important than helping a pet and pet owner at such a difficult time. Like many of my colleagues, I find that to be true even when all the goodbyes have worn on us emotionally.

I believe in being there, and I believe in helping pet lovers choose the right time to say goodbye. In this, I am not alone.

Getting Help With a Hard Decision

The decision to end a pet’s life is very personal, and as you work with your veterinarian to make it, know that there are no right or wrong choices: There are only those that are best for your family and your pet.

Treatment, hospice care and euthanasia are all options near the end of a pet’s life. When you choose treatment for your pet, consider what her quality of life is without it, what the treatment will involve, and what quality of life she can expect afterward. There are millions of pets whose lives are improved by veterinary care in their senior years, but there are also pets whose lives are prolonged by painful procedures and treatments that do very little to improve their days. Discuss with your veterinarian what the reasonable expectations are for your pet’s condition after any intervention.

Hospice care, no matter who gives or receives it, is all about comfort and pain relief at the end of life. It starts at the point where a patient is no longer being given treatment with the goal of cure or recovery, but instead simply receiving whatever contributes to comfort and ease. Many families successfully give their pets excellent hospice care at home, buying weeks or months of high-quality time. Talk to your veterinarian about hospice options — you may be surprised at what can be done to care for a dying pet at home.

What Your Pet Is Telling You

A good death is the last, best and most loving thing you can do for your pet. You know your pet best, so let him help you decide, along with your veterinarian. Is your pet’s discomfort unmanageable, even with palliative care? Is food no longer of interest, even if made more palatable? Can he no longer do the things he used to enjoy?

The end may come as a series of small and subtle changes, but it’s usually clear when a pet is suffering and no longer enjoying life. Whatever you do, don’t wait too long. As I always say, “I’d rather be a week too early in euthanizing a pet than one minute too late.”

Your veterinarian, and the entire hospital staff, is with you every step of the way. They will answer your questions and prepare you for what you’ll see if you choose to stay with your pet. With the help of your veterinarian, your pet will swiftly be beyond pain, even if the body he is leaving behind still shows small signs of life for a tiny bit longer.

I have cried over enough patients and with enough clients to tell you that if anyone understands your loss, it’s your veterinarian, the veterinary technicians and other hospital staff who have known you and your pet for years. Take comfort in everything you did to give your pet a good, healthy, happy life.

And don’t be surprised to get a card from your veterinary hospital. Your pet was our family, too, after all.