You’ll know when it’s time. She’ll tell you. It will be sad, but you’ll know it’s the right thing to do.
Except it’s not happening that way at all. None of this makes any sense, and every decision seems wrong. She walks so slowly and can hardly be bothered to eat. It must be time, right? Today is the day. But then she seemed so content to lie in the grass and wagged her tail a bit when you said her name. It’s too soon. It has to be too soon. She’s saying she isn’t ready. Let’s see how tonight goes.
People with aging and ailing pets are all too familiar with this agony. In the abstract, it is easy to understand how and when euthanasia is the compassionate choice. Nobody, after all, wants to see animals suffer without recourse, and we’re lucky to have the option available when necessary.
But up close and personal, choosing to euthanize a beloved friend is an act of staggering responsibility. The common assurance that you’ll “just know” is well-intentioned, but a terrible disservice when you find that you don’t. You are ensnared by a confusing and shifting tangle of emotions, complicating an already sorrowful dilemma with guilt and self-doubt. You’re on the verge of deciding one moment, and hating yourself for it the next. How is anyone supposed to make such a painful and irrevocable choice under these circumstances?
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Although I’m asked on a regular basis, I don’t know that I have a very good answer. There just isn’t a preordained set of symptoms that make it the “right time.” Even as a veterinarian, I’ve come to see this matter as more personal than medical. That’s not to say that science and medicine don’t inform the discussion, but once that part is dealt with, we are left with a fuzzy question. Does this animal still have an acceptable quality of life? I find that this is where people struggle the most. They so desperately want this question to have an unequivocal answer. They want to know, with precise certainty, that today is the right day.
It’s one thing when an animal becomes acutely ill with a grave condition. The decision is beyond our control, and there’s an awful clarity to be found in that kind of tragedy. But so many animals spiral slowly into decline. From day to day, there is hardly any change at all. It makes the decision seem so arbitrary. Why should we do this today when things will be essentially the same tomorrow?
Only when we close our eyes and think back—three, six, 12 months—can we see how the decay has spread. I remember my own dog’s final days. He was tired and distant. I couldn’t even tell you how or when he got that way, it was so incremental. I’d wake up in the morning and immediately check to see if he was breathing. He was. And I’d have trouble sorting out if that was a good thing. If only he’d pass away in his sleep. If only the universe would just make this decision so I don’t have to.
We don’t often get that luxury. If you share your life with animals, there will almost certainly come a day when you are forced down this emotionally treacherous path. You will need to think hard and seek help. Talk with your friends and family. Talk to your veterinarian, and know your options. But acknowledge that things may never be as clear as you want them to be. Guilt and regret will trick you into beating yourself up no matter what you decide, and that’s only human. But those feelings are poisonous. You don’t need them right now.
Focus your emotions where they belong—on how much you love your friend, and how that love is guiding every decision you make right now. So long as that remains front and center, you don’t have to worry about choosing the right time. The right time will be whichever one you choose.