Is It Time to Put My Pet to Sleep?

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on September 23, 2014
3 min read

It’s one of the hardest calls animal lovers have to make: Is it time to put your pet down?

There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal matter for each pet owner. The goal is to keep your friend with you for as long as they are comfortable, but let them go if they are in pain.

The first step is to talk to your vet about your pet’s outlook and pain levels. The vet may not tell you whether they think it’s time, but they can give you a clear picture of the animal’s health.

If your pet is sick and you know they won’t get better, focus on how to relieve their pain (or confusion in the case of dementia).

“The suffering of the pet is paramount and should be the first concern,” says Karl E. Jandrey, DVM, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis.

When you’re home with your pet and the vet isn’t there, how can you tell whether they are worserthis week than last?

Andrew D. Nguyen, DVM, veterinarian at Columbia Pike Animal Hospital in Annandale, VA, says to think about all of this while your pet’s still healthy.

He suggests making a list of your pet’s five favorite things. Running to the door to greet you when you get home? Fetching? Treats? Catnip? Toys?

Next, tune in to how your pet interacts with their environment. Know that one day they won’t be able to enjoy their favorite things.

The key, Nguyen says, is to create guidelines ahead of time. That way, when your pet’s health declines and you’re upset, you can check the plan you made when you were more clearheaded.

Is it time to say goodbye when they no longer enjoy two of their five favorite things? Or three of the five? Or all five? It’s your decision.

“It’s whatever feels right to you and will be most compassionate for your pet,” Nguyen says.

There’s a wrinkle, though. Often, an aging or ill pet doesn’t suddenly lose their ability to enjoy walks or treats. Instead, the changes come little by little. Then it’s time to think about their quality of life. Do they enjoy treats or walks 30% of the time? 50% of the time? Or not at all?

Think about how your pet feels, Nguyen said. Their organ systems are a lot like ours. So it’s likely that kidney failure in a dog feels about the same as it would for a person. Ask your vet what your pet is feeling.

"Imagine yourself super thirsty -- so thirsty that you’re constantly nauseated,” Nguyen tells pet owners. “People can relate to that. That often helps them make their decision.”

Sometimes it’s clear that it’s time to let your friend go. You just know. They don’t eat. Or they can’t control when or where they poop and pee. Maybe all they can do is lie there. And due to their illness or age, you know that none of this will get any better. It’s a bleak outlook, but it makes the decision easier.

But what if signals are mixed?

A pet that has severe arthritis can seem happy and hearty, even if their joints have given out and they can no longer walk.

“Those are the most devastating decisions to make -- when the pet is still bright and alert, and their organs are fine,” Nguyen says. “To help, I let patients know that I view the musculoskeletal system as another organ system that is a requirement for life. When your legs go out, and you can’t move, that’s not a good quality of life.”