How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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.

Photos by Jaromir Chalabala (Shutterstock), Alan Hadgis, bagsgroove, megan ann, The National Guard and Jodie Wilson

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

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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

How To Deal With The Decision To Put Down Your Pet

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.


  • I am not a pet owner myself, but I noticed the usual way to show how much you miss your dead pet is to instantly replace it with a new one.

    • I really can’t tell if this is a sarcastic dig at people or a genuine response.
      When a pet has passed away, the decision to get a new one is entirely up to you, if it helps your grieving process to have another around then do so.
      For me, I waited about six months after my last dog passed away and at first it still did not feel like long enough, but that is just how I am.

      For the author, I’m sorry for your loss. I have no doubt that your article will help a lot of people.

      • Two dogs that I knew died yesterday, one from a paralysis tick, and the other put to sleep due to cancer, so this is at the top of my mind.

        When I had to put my great friend to sleep five years ago, I was very glad that I had brought in a second dog a year earlier. I didn’t know that number one son was ill at the time (bone cancer) but I am so very relieved that number two was there to give me a positive focus. I still weep for what I’ve lost, but I’ve been incredibly lucky that I had a smaller hole in my life.

        A friend lent me a book on grieving for a pet. I thought I’d never read it, but when i did find myself looking through it, one point was made very strongly: our lives with other people are often horribly complicated, but the relationships we have with our pets is almost uniformly positive, and that can make the loss seem even greater.

  • Wow, just last night I said to my wife “I dont think our dog has much longer to go. He’s starting to deteriorate quickly.”

  • My brother and sister-in-law had to put their pet down two weeks ago. Thing is it hit me pretty hard as well, bringing up thoughts of my own pets mortality.

  • About four years ago we were forced to put down our four year old boxer. Thinking of her looking into my eyes as that needle slipped in still mists me up today. After a hard fought battle trying to make alternatives work, I logically knew it was the right thing to do, but still felt like an act of betrayal, of failing her. Utilmately I reconcile it as an act of kindness. She was not well. I choose to not dwell on the final moments, but about the time we shared.

  • I had the unenviable decision to put down a cat of ours about 6 months back. Being the 1st pet who’s illness was such that it warranted the choice of a quick or long agonising death , I’d asked all the questions and exhausted all the options.
    Being in the room when it happened was the worst, especially when asking how long does it take just as they injected her. It was pretty much instantaneous, not something I’ll forget anytime soon. As I have a few pets, will likely need to make similar decisions in the future, though not easier having now seen it.

    • This caught me by surprise too. I put my dog down many years ago. I didn’t know what to expect – but it was just a case of the vet doing a quick jab, my dog exhaling audibly (I was assured no pain) and then going limp – all within about 3 seconds. It really puts life into perspective.

    • About 10 years ago, just short of my 18th birthday we had to put our cat of 12 years down due to unknown issues with swelling of her brain. I was there in the room, along with my mum. We bought some vegemite in (her favourite treat) and spent a little bit of time with her before the vet came in. You’re right, it was rather quick, being over in a matter of minutes.

      It really stuck with me, and kind of prepared me and made me loathe a time when we have to make that decision our current cat (who has FIV but is really healthy as of writing)

      So I completely understand and I hope this time around, when the time comes, you’re prepared and have some good support. Having something to distract you really helped. I hired out Metal Gear Solid 2 on the PS2 which took my mind off things.

  • I tell my pets and family all the time what will happen to them (the pets not the kids) if they get too sick so everyone knows the score well before time. I’m probably a little immune to these sort of feelings, I use to volunteer at the RSCPA rescue centre, so when you use to assist putting down 10 or 20 perfectly healthy animals a week you tend to become OK with putting down the really sick ones.

  • Warning: this post is sad. Do not read it if you don’t want to be sad. Seriously.

    You warned me. I didn’t listen. Now I’m sad.


    I am not a pet owner myself, but I noticed the usual way to show how much you miss your dead pet is to instantly replace it with a new one.

    You’re not a pet owner, but you just might be a massive a**hole for even commenting on something you know nothing about.

  • My little doggy had to be put down early last year. It was a case where she basically had a collapsed trachea and there was little they could do. Maybe extend a short while, get a stent in from overseas but it was never going to solve the problem. Just extend, no guarantee. Extend any suffering. The whole thing was so sudden and writing this makes me sad, but we just knew at the time it was the best thing to do for her.

    We were not there for it, but I think that was for the best. She was already under because she had to be on ventilation. Glad I wasn’t there for it. I can imagine it’d be harder to actually have watched her slip away.

    I don’t know why they don’t put the dog to sleep with owners to say good buy, see them alive. Then do the deed later when they are away. I’d rather that.

    • I don’t know why they don’t put the dog to sleep with owners to say good buy, see them alive. Then do the deed later when they are away. I’d rather that.

      I’m sure this is a choice that you can discuss. Each option may be seen as insensitive depending on point of view.

  • We’ve had to make this decision twice in the last 18 months. We had two cats (sisters) from kitten. A few years back one of them started to become arthritic. Through careful management and regular use of medication we were able to extend her quality of life and give us all a few more years together. Then it became evident that the time had come for Louise to leave us after 16 years. It’s hard to explain, but one day you just know it’s time. Having her Euthanised was one of the hardest things my wife and I have ever had to do (we don’t have kids), but it was also one of the most right things we’ve ever done (if that makes sense). Within 6 months Louise’ sister, Thelma (I kid you not) was obviously going down hill even though she had always been healthy. She stopped eating and drinking, the vet tried numerous tests but could find nothing wrong – she really missed her sister. Again, we had to make a gut-wrenching decision and do what was right for our cat.

    In response to Single(brain)cell, 12 months on we have two new kittens. No, they are not, and never will be, a replacement for our other two cats. They are beutiful animals in their own right, with their own personalities. I miss Thelma and Louise nearly every day, but love our new kittens too.

  • Just over a year ago I decided it was time for my 19 year old cat to go. He’d had a stroke which left him very unsteady on his feet, but he recovered pretty well from that. He had trouble maintaining body weight, and his normally very high personal hygiene standards started to slip : the pure white parts of him were a bit yellow. Despite this he seemed to be happy with his life and he remained incredibly affectionate. We’d only have to look at him and he’d start purring. He needed lots of attention and at 19 he’d had a good innings. I was intending an overseas trip and I didn’t want to leave him for our cat sitter to deal with a possible further deterioration. We live outside a country town, so getting a vet to visit wasn’t an option, and he hated being in the car, so on the appointed day I acquired a 200 mg vial of Ketamine and 100 mg of suxemethonium from work. He had his favourite food and we went for a walk and then sat in the winter sun in the garden. I was patting him and introduced the Ketamine with an injection into the tissue between his shoulder blades. He barely noticed it and just drifted off to sleep. Once he was deeply asleep I gave him the sux which paralysed him. After a few minutes with no sign of respiratory effort I was confident he was gone. I buried him in the garden bed.

    • Today we had to make the heart breaking decision to put our beloved Morris to sleep. He had a blood tumor and was in so much pain and discomfort. He was 10. We stayed with him the whole time and also after he passed away. Such an upsetting time for all. Still can’t believe he has left us.

  • What a lovely thing this site is for all grieving parents of our much loved critters. I can’t express enough how hard it has been for me to let my almost 14 year old Burmese boy go, with heart problems nearly 9 months ago.
    We were able to have him euthanised at home which was an experience far kinder to the little man in his own lovely back yard with Champagne to toast his life- no fear of going to the Vet.
    I am still at a crossroads of whether I could go through it all again, but one day there could be a new maddening crazy life force that will test us yet again, invited into our home.
    My thoughts are with all you crazy animal loving people. XXX

  • Am I a bad person if I want to send my dog to heaven. He is 4 years old, he is aggressive, none one can’t visit us or my daughters. Is not a pleasure to walk with him, he bit everyone in the family except for me. We have tried for 4 years and I’m just feeling tired. I need support to take this decision. Thank you in advance.

  • I had to put my 23 year old cat to sleep yesterday, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. She was such a beautiful girl. I feel so sad and cry for her all the time. My heart is heavy.
    Miss you Mim. : (

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