Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Many Questions Surround Euthanasia Decision

Pet Column for the week of October 20, 2003

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Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Pet owners faced with an older, sick dog have to wrestle with a tough question: when is it time to euthanize my pet? Unfortunately this is not a question with a clear-cut answer.

"When considering euthanasia pet owners ask themselves many questions. What is the right decision? How do I know when is the right time? Will I just know one day?," says Elizabeth Kennedy, a licensed clinical social worker and the client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

"A good place to start is by asking 'What is my pet's quality of life?' We want every animal to have a great quality of life."

One approach to assessing an animal's quality of life is to pick five things your pet enjoys doing. These activities can be as simple as snuggling on the couch, eating, going for car rides, or even looking up at you when you enter the room. As your pet loses interest in these things, then you know its quality of life is changing.

"Most people decide to euthanize their pet when the bad days start outweighing the good days. Every situation is different, and each owner is unique in drawing the line. If there's time, it's important to say goodbye. Take a few days or weeks with your pet. Spoil him rotten and cherish those times," advises Kennedy.

Chronic illness opens the door to anticipatory grief. This is when people begin thinking about the loss of a pet and what it will mean to them. Kennedy encourages owners to write down their thoughts about the decisions ahead. Answer the tough questions, then put the answers away until it's time. This helps keep owners from dwelling on it.

For those who have never owned a pet, grieving over an animal may sound silly. It's not. There are people that think of pets as just animals. They will tell you to "get over it" or "it's a dog, get a new one." But it is completely normal to feel grief over loss of a pet; it is not something to be ashamed of.

"Lots of pet owners view their animals as their four-legged children. These animals sleep on our beds, go on family vacations, and are full-fledged members of the family. It is normal to grieve for them as we do for people. Grief is expected and is going to happen," says Kennedy.

"After the loss of a pet people wonder when it's appropriate to get another pet. I tell them, 'When you want a new pet, then that is the time to go get one.' There is no time limit, no period of grief where you shouldn't own a pet. Bringing a new pet into your home does not mean that you didn't love the one you just lost," she says.

Resources are available for pet owners who feel alone during this difficult time. Talking to your veterinarian is a good place to start. He or she can lend an ear and also point you in the direction of help. Friends and relatives are there for support too.

There are pet support groups you can join. Books on the subject offer comfort. The C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal-Related Emotions) Pet Loss Helpline at the University of Illinois, which operates several nights a week, has compassionate veterinary students who are taking a class on bereavement issues and are trained to talk with pet owners facing this difficult decision.

If you are struggling with the difficult decision of when to euthanize your pet or dealing with grief from loss of a pet, contact your local veterinarian or call the C.A.R.E. Pet Loss Helpline at (217) 244-CARE or (877) 394-CARE.