Since the day you and your cat or dog or other animal companion picked each other out as buddies, you have been exchanging gifts. He or she has given you unconditional love, companionship, and some funny and perhaps poignant memories. You’ve given back love, attention, and the practical items of food, shelter, medical care, and so on. The last but arguably most important service you may have to do for your pet is decide when to end his or her life.
It’s not an easy decision, and it seems to get harder as veterinary medicine holds out more hope for increasingly precise diagnoses and increasingly beneficial -- and, unfortunately, expensive -- treatments. Now there are medications for heart problems, epilepsy, and hormone and chemical imbalances that would have spelled the end for pets just a decade ago. Advanced surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment are increasingly available.
But all these treatments come at a price, and not just a financial one, although that can be considerable. Certain types of treatment, such as chemotherapy, may require you to spend a lot of time taking your furry friend back and forth to the vet’s office. During other treatments you may have to leave your pet at the clinic for days in a row. Sometimes you have to keep animals being treated with radiation away from small children, and they may not be able to cuddle with other family members, either.
Hopefully when you first adopted your pet, your family talked about such issues as how much money you could afford for catastrophic medical treatment, and how you would weigh treating a pet’s medical condition against its quality of life. But even if you answered these questions, changes in your lives -- more or less income than when you first brought your pet home; new human or animal family members; a stronger emotional bond than you first had with your pet -- may also have changed your family’s answers to those questions.
When your pet first shows signs of an illness, you may want to surf the web with his or her symptoms, or talk to friends with animal companion experience. Those are good ways to find out what types of questions to ask of your vet.
The vet visit itself, which may include lab work on your pet’s blood, urine, and other samples, will likely give you the definitive information about your four-legged friend’s condition. Your vet may give you an overwhelming array of treatment options while trying to stay neutral about which treatment to pursue.
To get your vet’s actual opinion, you may have to press the vet with very specific questions, such as:
- “What would you do if this was your dog?”
- “What do statistics say about how much longer my cat is likely to live if we try Treatment A instead of Treatment B?”
- “What results have you seen when you tried this treatment with other patients?”
If your vet doesn’t give you enough information, or if the information they give you doesn’t make sense to you, visit another vet for a second opinion.
Quality of Life
The hardest question you’ll have to answer is whether your pet’s quality of life will be too adversely impacted. At the end of the treatment, will your pet be able to enjoy life like he used to? If the treatment requires leaving him at the clinic for a long stay, might separation anxiety outweigh the medical benefits? Is the cost of the treatment a good investment for your family, or is it likely that your animal companion’s health will continue to fail, or be badly compromised by side effects?
Your pet’s age and personality must be factored into the equation when making this judgement.
If your cat or dog is just a few years old and the treatment being offered is very likely to restore full health, it may be worth having to confine your pet for a few months and deal with side effects. A high-energy animal might find such long confinement depressing, though.
If your furry friend is within a couple years of the usual lifespan of his breed, and/or weak enough that recovery may not be complete, those are factors that weigh against radical treatment. Ask your vet about palliative care, such as pain medication or appetite stimulants, that might let you spend a few more days with your animal companion.
If you decide to euthanize your pet, several vets practicing on the coast are willing to make house calls so that you can say goodbye in comfort rather than in a clinical setting. If your vet isn’t one of them, ask for a referral.