When is it time to let go?

As much as we all hope that our dog having lived a long and healthy life will one day just go peacefully to sleep in his bed, the truth is they hardly ever go on their own. It does happen, e.g. through heart failure or a fatal accident, but it's rare, unless we wait too long. We all wish that their bodies would have the sense to quit, when they clearly have serious health issues and are no longer enjoying life. But that is very rare. We almost always must decide for them that enough is enough.

Keeping a dog alive by whatever veterinary means are necessary because you cannot bear to lose him may not be in his best interests.

As hard as it may be, we must be prepared to accept that the way we feel about euthanasia and death may not define the way your dog feels about these things. For example, for a dog there's no difference between being anaesthetized for a dental clean or for euthanasia. He just goes to sleep and that makes all anaesthesia equal, regardless of whether the dog is going to wake up again or not.

For millennia dogs have become more and more adept at recognizing and absorbing human emotions and emotional reactions to the end may do more harm than good: if you get stressed your dog will get stressed, and that should be the last thing anybody wants. To ensure a peaceful end of your pet, it is therefore vital that you delay your grief until after the end has passed.

Making the switch from "doing everything you reasonably can to keep them going" to "the kindest best thing you can do is ask the vet to help them not hurt" is so hard. It can feel monstrous. Even when you are sure it is time.

But how do you know it's time?
Here are some symptoms to watch out for. Often it is a combination of several symptoms.
  • Is your dog obviously in pain? Is he restless, panting, limping, shivering, shaking or reluctant to move?
  • Does your dog still enjoy his food?
  • Does your dog still show joy and interest in his surroundings?
  • Does he still play with his toys?
  • Or does he seem listless, anxious, bored or afraid?
All that matters is the quality of life.

When you know your dog well - and you don't close your eyes to reality - you will know when the time has come.

If today is not good, there's no reason to think tomorrow will be better. Even though some days are better than others, is there a general overall deterioration happening? When there are too many bad days in a row, quality of life is becoming compromised.

You don't want it to get to the point where most of your last memories of your dog are bad ones. Being a few days too early is far better for the dog than leaving things a little too late. Your grief won't be any less when you postpone the final visit to the vet.

As awful as it is, it's a gift that we are able to make the choice. We don't have to watch them suffer for days or weeks, waiting for their valiant hearts to finally stop. We can prevent that drawn out suffering.

Memorial at Kilverstone, Norfolk, UK

When is it time? Further reading which may be helpful when the time comes to make a decision to end the suffering.