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Pet Euthanasia: One of Life's Most Difficult Decisions

Pet Column for the week of February 20, 2006

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Services - Human-Animal Bond

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

A unique responsibility we have when we own pets is deciding whether or not to end their lives peacefully if they are suffering. This can be one of life's most difficult decisions, often coupled with guilt and grief. Cheryl Weber, licensed social worker and client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains that euthanasia can be difficult to choose even when it's the right decision.

"When facing a decision like this, pet owners need to ask questions to be informed, plan ahead, focus on living and enjoying what time they have left with their pet, and seek out the support of others who care."

There are many situations in which a pet owner may consider euthanasia. Sometimes the decision comes after a lengthy incurable illness such as kidney disease or heart disease. Sometimes it comes when physical pain cannot be relieved or when the animal is suffering or has poor quality of life On the other hand, an owner may have to make the decision quickly when an animal is suddenly injured due to an accident.

Weber offers these suggestions as guidance during the difficult decision-making process.

"First, talk to your veterinarian to learn about your animal's condition. What's wrong? Can it be treated? What are the options for treatment? What's the prognosis? What are the costs?" Part of the decision is the cost of treatment and whether owners can perform the care needed; this can mean getting pills down their cat, giving their diabetic dog daily injections, or providing IV fluids for the pet with kidney disease.

Unless it's an emergency, take some time to think about your options before you make a decision. Ask questions of your veterinarian until you understand. You can take notes when the veterinarian is explaining things to you, or bring a list of questions with you to the visit. You may talk things over with other family members, or consider getting a second medical opinion.

Second, says Weber, is to try to stay realistic. Look at both the positive and negative facts before you. Remember, there are no guarantees in medicine. There is no crystal ball to predict how your pet will do. Each animal is unique. Sometimes, things don't go according to the textbook. "I suggest that people hope for the best but be prepared for the worst."

Third, enjoy the time you have with your pet. Make every day count. Don't take it for granted. Do the things that you and your pet enjoy: a walk in the park with your dog, play time with your cat, a game with your bird, snuggling with your bunny, or brushing down your mare.

Many people hope that their pet will die peacefully in its sleep, but that's usually not the case. Talk to your veterinarian about treatments to make your pet as feel as comfortable as possible for the rest of its life. In some cases, physical pain and quality of life factors such as incontinence, inability to eat and inability to get around may not improve, preventing a pet from enjoying its favorite activities. The decision whether to continue treatment or to euthanize can be made in consultation with your veterinarian. "When an animal is suffering and cannot get better, I think we have a responsibility to try to alleviate suffering and consider euthanasia."

If a pet owner chooses euthanasia, Weber suggests planning ahead for the other decisions that accompany the loss of a pet. Consider which veterinarian you want to perform the procedure and whether you want the procedure performed in your home. If you or any of your family members want to be present for the procedure, talk to the veterinarian about how the procedure is performed and what to expect. Some people may want a veterinarian to perform a post-mortem examination (called a necropsy). Some owners may choose to bury a pet at home or in a pet cemetery, and some may choose cremation.

"Choosing euthanasia is a tough decision; you do it out of love, to keep your cherished animal companion from suffering," says Weber. Feelings of grief and guilt are normal. Seeking the support of people who understand your relationship with your pet can be helpful. Pet loss hotlines, books, and Web sites can be a source of information and support. "It can be a final act of kindness for a best friend."

For more information on euthanasia or pet loss, consult you veterinarian. For information on pet loss resources, call the University of Illinois CARE Pet Loss Helpline toll free at 877-394-2273 or visit