How to Say Goodbye to Your Pet
The decision to euthanize is never easy. Sometimes, it’s the most humane choice.by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
When I was a freshman in college, my mother was offered an English setter by a coworker.
Unable to deny a cute spotted face, she gifted the dog to my sister. They named her Dottie because of her spots — and because of Dippin' Dots. Our family rule is that all dogs be named after beloved food items, like Peanut, Pumpernickel, Cupcake, Schnitzel, and Sweet Tea.
After five years, with Dottie's repeated escapes from the backyard, her getting hit by a car, and my dad developing an allergy, my parents intended to give her away.
"You can't do that," I told them.
"She was a gift. Do you really want a dog to be the reason why your daughter holds a grudge in the future?"
They didn't disagree. The compromise: Dottie would live with me in Los Angeles.
Dottie slipped right into my life, a companion for hiking and jogging, a fixture at dinners with friends, a (failed) lure for boys, and an eventual adopted daughter to my future partner.
She's been with me for eleven years now. These days, her eyes are bad, she needs more trips to the potty ("loose bladder sphincter," the vet says) and spends most hours sleeping in her bed.
We've had our ups and downs: A near-death encounter with pancreatitis. Getting lost for a few hours, leashless, on a hiking trail. Being told by a pet psychic that she has the most sensitive paws in the world. But things have generally been great for this Southern belle turned Hollywood golden girl.
Sadly, her end is nearing.
Over the past year, she's started having seizures and fainting. She has difficulty holding her excrement. She suffers from various effects of dementia, while sometimes seeming uncomfortable in her deteriorating body.
She's happy, generally, but it's hard to gauge her comfort. What is her quality of life at this point? This is the question my partner and I ask. And then we wonder when we need to, you know, do it. When, if ever, is the appropriate time to euthanize her?
Getting help from a friend
I decided to email Dr. Brett Robinson, associate veterinarian at San Dieguito Equine Group. A friend from college, Robinson has met Dottie several times and was eager for updates.
Over a video call, she watched Dottie amble around as I queried her about end-of-life care.
"It's really hard with slow, progressive declines," Robinson said. "It's a weird dichotomy. They're family, they're children — but they're not. The way they live is so different from us, and that's what we love about them. They remind us to live in the moment, to stop and literally smell the flowers."
"We have to think about what their experience really is though," she said, noting that this is how a vet can help. A vet's role is to advocate for the animal, and that includes advising when a pet should be euthanized.
"It's a gift to give the animal," Robinson said of the procedure, as it ends their suffering.
Making the decision
Dr. Harold C. McKenzie, III, professor at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, echoes Robinson's assurances that the decision to euthanize is always situational.
When there's an emergency or when an animal is suffering from an incurable issue, he says, making the choice to end an animal's life is obvious. When the situation is more nebulous, like having a senior pet, one should wait for them to "tell you" when the negatives outweigh the positives of their life.
"I tend to focus on how we know when suffering is to the point that it's inhumane to let it continue," McKenzie said.
He also suggests taking your time when thinking about euthanasia. Health is never predictable and, while a particular moment may seem bad, an animal's prognosis can quickly turn around. And, as obvious as it sounds, you can't "undo" euthanasia.
Money, Robinson and McKenzie agree, is also another big factor to consider, as life-saving care can cost a lot.
One thing I sometimes wonder is whether Dottie will simply pass in her sleep. It seems so idyllic, almost perfect, but it's often unrealistic.
"A peaceful end is uncommon," McKenzie said, stressing the idea that choosing euthanasia is choosing mercy.
Robinson suggests keeping a journal to log a pet's good days and bad days. This can help you monitor the severity or intensity of their pain and guide an educated decision on their quality of life.
My own vet once told us to judge Dottie by grading how well she eats, manages waste, and acts like herself. When she fails in multiple categories — when she isn't eating, fails to urinate or defecate outside, and seems to "forget" us — that's when she may be close to the end.
If you do make the difficult decision to euthanize, the procedure is essentially an overdose.
"It's an injection," Robinson said. "A very large amount slows the heart to the point where it stops. It's very peaceful."
Robinson and McKenzie note that an owner needn't feel pressured to be with their animal when they pass (contrary to a viral post about "abandoning" pets in death). They both also recommend at-home procedures that make the situation more comfortable for all parties.
Once Dottie passes, I can already sense the grief will feel ... different. How is grieving the loss of a pet different from other types of grief?
"It's what we call disenfranchised grief," said Dr. Phyllis Erdman, professor of counseling psychology at Washington State University.
"People don't realize the loss of a dog can often be more tragic than the loss of a family member. If you have a sister or brother or someone who lives across the country, you don't live with them 24/7 like you do a pet."
You might see your dog as a family member, while others very much do not. A pet isn't human, but the relationship, the love and the bond you have with it can be as strong — if not stronger — than your connection with some other humans.
Erdman suggests people take the death however they need to. There is no shame in being emotional — or not being emotional — as we all grieve in our own ways.
Erdman, who has had many dogs who have passed over the years, noted that she keeps a chewed-up shoe from a dog she had forty years ago.
"It's in a paper sack somewhere," she said. "When I die, someone will probably throw it away. But to me? It's important."
This sort of memorializing can help, she says, encouraging pet owners to grieve how they see fit.
Robinson urged me to have compassion and to be gentle with myself as I navigate how to be the caring custodian of an aging dog. It's normal, she says, to feel guilty and wonder whether you're making the decision at the "right time."
"It's never going to feel right because it's a choice. The fact that you feel any guilt means you care deeply — and that means a lot," she said.
"We have to remind ourselves that we're doing a kind thing. Nothing about it feels good. Let yourself grieve."