Recently, the Courier-Post published an article titled “to know it’s time to bid an ailing pet goodbye,” a topic all veterinarians are intimately familiar with.  As the former owner of a veterinary practice, I have counseled hundreds of owners deciding whether to treat a critically sick or injured animal, or to have that animal euthanized.  It would make matters far worse if these very personal decisions became legal battles, where some third party was able to interfere legally if they did not believe the owner was making the proper decision.

In most cases there is no “proper” decision.  There are usually one or more options available that should be considered for each patient, on a case-by case basis.  With the advancements in veterinary medicine, those options are continuing to expand.  With the help of their veterinarian an  owner can determine which option is best for their animal, based on  these core factors:

  • The patient’s prognosis with and without the proposed treatments;
  • The pain and discomfort expected with the proposed treatment;
  • Any alternative treatments available, and the prognosis and discomfort associated with each;
  • The patient’s temperament, and expected stress related to the alternate available treatments;
  • The extent of care required for each alternative;
  • The owner’s ability to deal with the patients’ chronic illness, treatment, and/or death; and
  • The cost of treatment

There is no one answer for any condition, patient, or owner.  I know for me personally, the decision to euthanize one of my own dogs is extremely difficult.  The first dog I owned as an adult taught me the most about the process of letting go.  Sheba was an Old English Sheepdog I had purchased just before I graduated from college.  Sheba was with me throughout veterinary school, my internship, residency, wedding, and the birth of my first two children.  We had a very special bond.

When it became clear that Sheba, at 14 years of age, was suffering from a chronic degenerative condition resulting in neurologic and muscular deficiencies in her hind end, I knew that the end of her life was near.  I decided to manage her pain until she was no longer able to walk.  I could have continued to medicate, hydrate, feed, and clean Sheba, but instead, I chose to end her suffering.

That was the right decision for Sheba, for me, and for my family. But this decision is one of the most difficult an owner will face, particularly when there is an extraordinary connection between owner and animal. This decision should be made by the animal’s owner, with the advice and in consultation with the patient’s veterinarian, and hopefully, not in a court of law.