Our pets are a source of joy and companionship. Sadly, though, our furry friends' greatest flaw is their limited life span. More likely than not, you'll outlive them. I recently had to make the difficult decision to put down my dog. Here's what I learned from my experience.
Warning: this post is sad. Do not read it if you don't want to be sad. Seriously.
How to Know It's Time: The HHHHHMM Quality Of Life Scale
In certain circumstances, you won't have much of a choice. When the pet is suffering from an unrecoverable injury or medical emergency, the decision to end its life may be obvious.
More commonly, though, pet owners will have to make the decision to euthanase their pet based on the animal's quality of life. Due to changes in technology, animals live longer and survive illness and injury. We can't ask an animal if it's happy or suffering. We have to look at observable criteria. Dr Alice Villalobos, a vet in California, created a scale to help pet owners and other vets.
The HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale asks the owner and the veterinarian to look at the pet's hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, mobility and more good days than bad. You and your vet need to work on the scale independently. Be on the lookout: when I tried the scale for our own dog, I was guilty of manipulating the numbers. I wanted her quality of life to score higher. I answered the questions based on the outcome I wanted, because my heart was trying to trick my head. But changing the numbers won't change the facts.
If you need an simpler criteria for deciding, track the good days vs bad days. If there are more bad days than good, it may be time to end the pet's suffering. Write down three to five things your pet enjoyed doing like chasing squirrels or cuddling. If they can't do these things, that may be a sign that their quality of life has declined.
Ask The Right Questions And Make Arrangements
If you've talked with your vet about the pet's quality of life and suffering, they will understand your decision to have the animal put down and can explain your options. Discuss costs with your vet before the procedure. Pay in advance if you can. After your pet has passed, you won't want to pay as you leave and receiving a bill in the mail later is a painful reminder.
The vet's office will need you to tell them what to do with the remains (disposal by them, cremation, or opting to bury your pet yourself). You need to tell the vet before the procedure and reconfirm immediately afterwards. Humans make mistakes, so confirm your decision with them many times. If you want to bury your pet, the vet's office should help you find a local pet cemetery and tell you of local regulations about home burials. These arrangements need to be made beforehand. (After discussing it with my Rabbi, I chose cremation but not to keep the ashes.)
Some vets will come to your location to perform the procedure, which can be helpful when the pet is too sick to travel. Some people believe it will be a more peaceful transition outside the vet's office.
If possible, schedule the procedure as the last appointment of the day on your vet's schedule. Neither you nor your vet wants to go to work after the procedure The office will be quiet and you won't have to talk to other people when you leave. The vet's office will ask if you want to be in the room for the procedure. Some people find it painful while others want to make sure they are there until the last possible moments. Most animals will go peacefully, but occasionally they may twitch.
I chose to be there during the process because I didn't want my dog to be alone. I knew what to expect and I don't regret it -- but there's nothing wrong with leaving the room, either. Ask your vet and the staff what they think you should do. They will have good insights into you and your relationship with your pet.
The Day Of The Procedure
This is the time many people let the pet be "naughty". If your four-legged friend wasn't allowed on the bed, invite him up. If the rule in the house is no table scraps, consider giving her a few. Check with the vet about fasting or other prep required for the procedure.
Tell your close friends that you're putting the pet to sleep -- you'll want support after the procedure. They might want to say goodbye to the pet. If possible, have one of them meet you at your house before you leave and stick around for when you get back. Coming home to an empty home is rough, and having a friend waiting for you there with a shoulder to cry on helps. They will also make sure you didn't forget anything. This is a time of intense emotional trauma and you may not be thinking clearly. If you have children, you'll need to explain what's happening and assist them in their grief.
You may wish to gather the pet's belongings and put them out of sight before you leave. Afterwards, leashes and kennels are painful reminders of your loss. You don't have to get rid of them, but get them out of sight before you leave. If you have pictures of your pet in the house, you might decide to temporarily put them away. Each time you walk by, the images might remind you of the loss. Bring those pictures back into your life when you're ready.
Finally, take the dog for a walk right before heading into the vet's office. Sometimes a pet will evacuate its bowels after it dies, so you reduce those chances by taking them for a walk. Check with the vet about feeding.
What To Do Immediately After
If you only have one pet, I suggest you donate the pet's leash, kennel, food and other items to a local charity (or a dog-owning friend). Most vets I spoke with suggested not using these items with a new animal. If you decide to get another pet in the future, you should give that pet a fresh start. They shouldn't inherit your former companion's gear. A new pet isn't a substitute for your old companion. Humane societies also suggest that some owners see that gear lying around the house and feel the need to adopt a new pet too quickly.
I decided to keep one of the dog's items as a way to remember her, much like teams keep the jersey of a retired player. I kept my dog's favourite toy and put her old collar around it. You can also create an online memorial. A popular choice is the "Rainbow Bridge", which refers to the belief there is a rainbow bridge that connects animals with their owners in heaven. I sponsored a portion of our Torah at the local synagogue in honour of my dog. You may have your own religious traditions (or lack thereof), so do what's right for you.
How To Cope Long-Term
The death of a pet reminds us of our own mortality and that of friends and family we've lost along the way. The grief is real and gets wrapped up with other pain we've faced in our lives. Don't be surprised if some of your friends and family don't understand the loss of a pet.
You'll second guess your timing: you'll probably feel you should have waited longer and, simultaneously, that you waited too long. Pet grief counsellors say that is common. Again, pay particular attention to helping your children cope with the loss.
Pet ownership often involves routines. You might clean the litter box right before you go to bed or you're used to coming home during lunch and walking the dog. It's time to change your routine a little so you aren't reminded. I was used to working at home and taking out the dog when I needed a break. Now I've got a timer on my computer and I work out of the house more often.
For the first couple of months, you might need to tell some friends what happened before they come into your home. You don't want someone to walk in the house and ask where your pet is while you're struggling with your grief. A simple FYI before they enter the house should be enough. If your guests are children, check with their parents on how to explain it.
To fill the hole left by your loss, you might rush out and get another pet. The Humane Society of the United States advises against adopting too soon.:
Rushing into this decision isn't fair to you or your new pet. Each animal has her own unique personality and a new animal cannot replace the one you lost. You'll know when the time is right to adopt a new pet after giving yourself time to grieve, carefully considering the responsibilities of pet ownership, and paying close attention to your feelings.
The decision to end your pet's life is a painful, yet compassionate choice. A detailed plan of action for before and after can help you focus on your feelings rather than the details. While I miss my dog Tova every day, over time it does get better.