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Making Difficult Decisions When Your Animal Is Sick: An Insider’s Perspective

The following article was written by Dr. Barry Kipperman, and originally appeared on PETA Prime.

One of the most difficult parts of my job as a veterinarian is communicating to you, the guardian, that your animal companion has a serious illness. My goal is to be empathetic, informative, and clear and to provide you with as many humane options for care as possible. A barrier to meeting this goal is what motivated you to see a specialist in the first place—your emotional attachment to your furry family member.

Our emotions often prevent the rational thought process that is necessary to make good decisions on behalf of our animal companions when they become ill. If a decision about medical care can take place without haste, then our rational side has time to aid us. However, if your animal’s illness is of an urgent nature, immediate decisions must be made.

Either way, our reactions under these stressful circumstances often include those typical of the grieving process such as the following:

  • Denial: “Are you sure he isn’t just tired of his dog food?”
  • Inability to make any decisions: “What should I do?”
  • Anger: This is often manifested as self-directed guilt, such as, “Why didn’t I catch this sooner?” or “How could this happen?” Sometimes blame is directed externally, usually at the veterinarian (“Why didn’t you know this would happen?” or “Why did we pursue the treatment?”).
  • Slow reconciliation: “Well, Doctor, he’s been declining for some time, so I knew this day was coming.”

The years of training I received in vet school did not sufficiently prepare me to handle these emotionally charged moments. I also know that although my intentions are good, I’ve occasionally responded to personal accusations, instead of understanding that my client was acting out of grief. A few weeks ago, a client brought in a very debilitated small dog. The dog was so weak that he could barely stand, and his pale gums suggested severe anemia. I discussed the animal’s poor condition and gently suggested that this had been coming on for some time. If we were to go forward, an immediate blood transfusion was needed. Euthanasia was also discussed as a humane option. The client took more than three hours to make a decision and then elected to take the animal home. The “animal-advocate” side of me was frustrated with the very poor condition of the dog and hoped that a rapid decision could be made to end the dog’s suffering. Yet I knew that this client had likely delayed bringing the animal in to avoid hearing the inevitable bad news about her beloved companion.

I recall the night that my cat Whitney suddenly declined after a long illness. I had always envisioned a peaceful, controlled death for him, in which I would place an IV and say goodbye on our terms, in his favorite bed. Instead, his breathing was labored, he was in distress, and I was torn up, realizing that he could die a bad death in transit from the hospital to my home if I attempted to end things as I had planned. I recall a lot of crying, and even though the decision I needed to make was apparent, I still needed to call a friend for counsel and support. I try to think back to that night to help me empathize with what my clients are going through when they receive bad news.

So, how can you help make the best decisions for your animal companion when he or she is very ill?

1)  Bring a spouse or trusted friend with you to the hospital. He or she is probably familiar with your relationship with your companion and will be a valuable guide to help you make decisions.

2) Have the veterinarian put important information for you in writing. We all know that we forget most of what we hear. Having options in writing allows you to arrive at a better understanding of what’s wrong and make better decisions.

3) Take some time when your companions are older to envision how you’d like their last moments to be spent. Having a plan ensures a greater chance that it will occur.

4) Sometimes saying “Goodbye” to our beloved companions to end their suffering is the most loving decision that we can make for them.

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  • Craig says:

    The past week has been so tough on me. As if it’s not hard enough having literally just starting a full time job on top of my full time schooling, my partner just found out his sister may have cancer of the lymph nodes. On top of all that, he took one of our cats to the vet to address a significant limp he’s had going on and found out he has a tumor in his right shoulder. He’s 17 years old and otherwise in great health. Our options other than just leaving it alone are to feed him pain meds which could possibly lead to more damage down the line, radiation therapy which may or may not help and he may or may not survive, or amputation. My parner wants to amputate, but I just can’t imagine him waking up and having 3 legs. My parner wants so much for him to live as long as possible, but I just want our cat to go out like he lived: blissfully ignorant.

  • Barbara says:

    I have to second the comment on being there for your pet during this procedure. Your pet has been there for you – this is the one time they desperately need you to be there for them. It is hard, and you may not want to watch your animal die, but you should suck it up and do the right thing. They NEED you to be there for them. Anyone who chooses to let their animal die in a strangers arms is selfish and a bad guardian.

  • baconeatingjew says:

    You have to remember to “put yourself in the animal’s shoes” so to speak, to make sure there is no unnecessary deaths. Healthy animals and sick animals that can be cured are euthanised every day.

  • Di says:

    Dear all sad ex furrbabies lovers. How can any one really define the responsibility, the loss and the incredible devastation. My beautiful cat arrived just when I needed him and although he was FIV positive, pretty well saved me too. He turned up on a hideous cold and rainy night and somehow he knew he had the right person. My beautiful cat to be had severe mange and was literally christened Mr Fluffy Bum,the rest of him was pretty well horribly defurred. He was an incredibly tough cat, super tom and I don’t think he had ever had a person he could count on. I did all the right cat owner things and he came very close to dying after neutering, a week on the drip routine and daily visits from me in tears to encourage him to eat. He was so strong at this point although already mature, he rallied and we went home to his new life indoors and he coped brilliantly with the change. From nomadic wandering tom to domestic and very much loved. He would always sit with me and just show his love, he would purr and dribble and ‘talk’ to me. I adored him and even though I had other cats he never did the territorial battle thing. He was with me for 5 wonderful years. He fought the green needle at the end and I will never ever be able to come to terms with that. I stayed up with him for 5 nights in a row and the time off work, tried force feeding, cuddles and everything I could think of including a massive dose of antibiotics. My poor boy was so desperately unwell he kept trying to munch on kitty litter. I tried so hard and my vet tried so hard to keep him going. I will never forget him and the experience of making the ‘decision’ rationally I know it was right but in my heart I will always struggle and the grief is forever. Goodbye beautiful boy and thank you.

  • priscilla shaw-phillips says:

    I never have any problem with having a pet put down. If they’re suffering it’s the kindest thing to do. It’s the only advantage they have over humans – we have to fight for the privilege of ending our lives if life becomes intolerable. So please, all you pet owners out there, don’t be selfish, do the kindest thing.

  • yvonne says:

    I’ve had to make that choice for my beloved pets more then once and it’s never easy. When I found out my kitten was positive for fe-luk I made a promise to her that I would be with her until the end. When she became sick at about 1 1/2 years old I tried to help her. The vet I was working with was compasionate, but not real positive or to me really trying. I read the one post where the person felt the vet was trying to make money, to me this vet just didn’t really want to try to save my baby. In the end I was with her as she crossed over but I felt guilty I did not do more or seek out another vet who may have tried other options. I still miss my sweet cat, and I still have guilt. I can’t blame the vet alone, but I do think they could’ve done more.

  • Jan Lowe says:

    Thank you for this article. I have just gone through this with our little angel called Buddie in Feb ’12, a friend for over 15 years, it was so sudden – she greeted me with the love and vitality she did every day, but an hour later she was asleep for ever. It was horrific, but she just collapsed and we rushed her to the vet, but she has internal bleeding from a cancer. I didn’t see the signs, she was OK with her food, but was very tired. But our vet said that she was too far gone to bring her back, and there also was no guarantee and the suffering. It was terrible, but I know it was for her that we decided on letting her go by euthanasia, never though I would, but we had too. She was our most treasured member of our family and will always be remembered.

  • islandcrab says:

    Peta should put out an article explaining what euthanizing is and how the drugs work. One of the commenters “Sam” thinks that it is a slow poisoning of the animal. This is not so. As pet onwers we have the added responsibility to put aside our sadness and be THERE for our pet as the pet has always been THERE for us. It is very sad but letting the pet live on in pain and suffering is selfish at best on our part. The animal is looking to you, it’s beloved owner for relief. The pet dosen’t understand why it is hurting.

  • Jade says:

    I can agree to this to a certain point. I agree that when our pets are in awful pain and cannot be helped should need to have their owners make that decision. But what happened a long time ago when all animals were wild? It makes me wonder how they took care of themselves when something like that would happen. Did they have a way of treating themselves to ease the pain or did they just suffer?

  • RatLady says:

    I was hoping this article would give me tips on how to deal with vets who try to prolong the life of a seriously ill and suffering pet just for financial gain. My vet wanted to do thousands of dollars worth of surgery on my 16 year old dog who suffered from severe separation anxiety. (She had a tumour in her lung.) If she woke up at all, it would have been in a strange and sterile place with strangers. She would have been terrified and I’m sure that would have killed her on the spot. He laid a terrible guilt trip on me when I tried to refuse – tried to make me feel like I didn’t love her and was just being cheap. I opted for a mobile vet who came and helped her cross over at HOME. Safe and secure in loving arms.

  • Vickie M. says:

    Having had to make this decision on more than one occasion in my 54 years of sharing my life with furry family members, it never gets any easier. But putting a suffering pet out of their pain and misery in this quick and humane way is ultimately easier than watching them continue to suffer and die a slow painful death. The vets that I have had the pleasure to work with have all been compassionate and caring individuals who have never recommended euthanasia for a treatable illness. Thank you, PETA, for reminding pet owners to prepare for this difficult decision. Sad to say, but you should consider this even before you bring a pet home because not all life-threatening illnesses occur in elderly pets.

  • Rev. Meg Schramm says:

    I feel I must say this: if you feel your best option is to put your companion to sleep, do your companion the honor of staying with him/her during the procedure. Don’t let your companion die in the arms of strangers. Your companion was there for you during difficult times; you should do this for your beloved animal companion.

  • Rachel1066 says:

    This is a wonderful analysis of the painful decisions that sometimes need to be made for our animal companions. One of my beloved cat came down with a severe illness a few years ago, and I had to make the painful decision to euthanize. I don’t regret the decision, as I know it was the most humane thing I could have done, but I know how hard it is to make the decision for our animals. In the end, we have to remember they can’t tell us what they need or want, and we have to be strong for them, even if that means making a decision more painful for us.

  • Allen L. says:

    THANK YOU PETA!!! I wished i had this advice a long time ago. I too have been in the same situation many times with my Dear sweet friends that suffered from Cancer. It is Very hard to say goodbye to your devoted friend(s) and your mind gets filled with all kinds of questions and you are faced with the what you should have done sooner or what to do next to help your friend. One thing I have learned is that IT IS NEVER EASY. Thank You for putting this on your website, Great advice and I hope and Pray that everyone will read this and make it a little easier on helping you say goodbye to your dear friend.

  • Elizabeth Simons says:

    Thank you for this wonderfully understandable description of making this very difficult decision….I so appreciate the insight. A compassionate Veterinarian at this time is invaluable. I remember my animal doctor telling me “animals do care how long they are here, the care about having a good day”, this has always helped me when faced with these heartbreaking decisions.

  • Michele says:

    Thank You for this very wonderful article, this information is wonderful ! :) And very appreciated !

  • Raina Spaziani says:

    In my over 50 years, I have found that sometimes you just have a lousy vet. We have a local vet that will ALWAYS recommend Euthanizing the anial. He is lazy and dim witted. I have had stellar vets that have saved animlas that many vets would have killed so be VERY careful about your vets advise.

  • Crocus says:

    This is good advice. Having lots of “practice” after many years of living with companion animals does not really make this painful process easier. Also, saying goodbye to a long-time friend is not easier than a much younger one because you’ve had that many more shared years. Logic tells one that old age signals that the end of life is near, but it still hurts!

  • bethmason64 says:

    This article is particularly relevant to me. My old bulldog is nearly 14, and has lost most of his hearing. He limps, due to arthritis, and I worry about his well-being. I need to take him for a check-up immediately! Thank you for the wake-up call.

  • AlexandraIrene says:

    Fortunately I have a good relationship with my vet and trust her implicitly. I always ask ‘what’s best for the animal’. Although I am crying just thinking about it, I believe that there is a time to be our animals best friend and let go. To think of them and not ourselves. I stay with them until they have passed. And yes, I do believe they all go to heaven. I’m not always sure about me but I am about them.

  • Sam says:

    “humane way possible” aka killing them. Lethal injection is in no way humane, slowly poising your insides on top of the illness? Can’t believe I read this article through PETA

  • Lin says:

    This is an excellent article. I have a healthy 16 year old Lhasa who is deaf but can still see about 50%. I dread to think of the day when I have to make that decision. I think that if she goes blind, I will have to make my decision. I personally feel that the quality of life is low when that happens.
    I have my son for support and a great vet that will help me finalize my decision.

  • amycl says:

    i cried just reading this.

  • texasrose6699 says:

    Oh my goodness how all of this is so true. I will never forget I raised a tiny miniature Schnauzer from 2 months old named Cracker. He was my life and my joy. He ate with me, slept with me, walked with me and rode every where I went. As he got older it was to the point he had trouble seeing, was losing his teeth, couldn’t jump on and off the bed anymore or go down the backyard stairway to go potty. So I carried him everywhere. Every single month I would go to the vet to have him checked and each time crying I would ask the vet “Is it time?” The vet told me that cracker had a very strong heart and to just let him stay home with his mommie. Eventually watching him deteriorate as time went by I felt that keeping him alive was more selfish of me than to let him go. So I called the vet to make the arrangements. Now this is the worst part, I called on Thursday and they told me they couldn’t do it until Monday. Do you have any idea how hard that is when you finally come to terms and then have to anticipate that day through a whole weekend? I had a special box made for him with his little bed, clothes and his favorite toys and a baby blanket for them to wrap him in all prepared. Monday finally came and fear of what was about to happen set inside. Here i was with my baby, all alone and knowing what was fixing to take place. Was I making the right decision? Should I turn around and just leave? I was so in tears that I couldn’t even go in when they took him. I heard this tiny little yelp and then silence. When they brought him out he was wrapped in his baby blanket and they had placed flowers on the top of his box. I asked if that was him that yelped and they said yes. I cried that much harder and the guilt really set in. Why didn’t I go in there to be with him and hold him to let him know I loved him and was there for him?
    Death of a beloved animal is extremely hard, they are very much a part of the family and just like children you become attached to their every need.
    Do I still question the fact of if I did the right thing? All the time, but in my mind I know he is running free with no health issues and he is in doggy heaven living happy and free. I also know that he knows he will forever live in my heart.

  • Amanda says:

    Very good article. My husband & I had to put down our Queen kitten (our baby) 4 months ago. She lived to be 21 years old.

    Dr. Kipperman has many great points in this article. No one wants to think about a pet’s end of life but it will happen and the sooner plans can be made, the better. It definitely helped us. It’s something that really should be done before you get your pet.

    One other thing I would recommend and I didn’t see this in the article is to see if your vet will make a house visit for the euthanasia to help lessen the stress on you and your pet (if of course you’re ok with this). I don’t know if anyone knows about this service. It will cost a bit more because of their travel, but for us, it was worth it.

    Had I known that our vet would also do house check ups, this would have helped in our situation with an elder cat. Again a house visit would cost more.

    For us, the vet brought a tech with him and it only took a few minutes euthanasia. It happened so fast. Rather than having to drive home after this, and who does, we were able to say goodbye with our Bella comfortable in her favorite place in our house. You can’t put a price on that.

  • Colleen says:

    I have held 2 very beloved pets for their last breath. One my cat companion and one my dog companion years apart from each other. They were very much loved and as much as it hurt I was with them when the vet administered the no more suffering medication. I rescued my dog 6 years prior from our local humane society and she was about 6 or 7 at the time of adoption. My cat I had since he was a kitten. I talked in length to my vets and knew the future for my friends did not look promising. It hurts like hell and I still feel guilty for causing their death. Lots of guilt sometimes. But I think I would not have wanted them to suffer anymore.

  • bridget says:

    You touched a nerve there. I had cats all my life and whenever one of my beloved cats died, I couldn’t cope. A decision had to be made when our 12 year old cat Panda (who was born on our sofa and whose life we had saved at birth as his mother ignored him) suddenly got sick. He was diagnosed with hepatitis which cleared up but then the vet discovered liver cancer and he got weaker and weaker. He was given Prednisone injections that made things better for a few days. We had to give him pills twice a day and he fought this so much despite being so weak. eventually, we had to have him put to sleep (2 days before Xmas) and although this was now 4 years ago I never got over it, We have to healthy cats but I am already afraid that one day they might die…very good article. thank you,

  • Jenifer says:

    Very great article. Definitely crying at my desk right now at work.

  • sarah says:

    Dear Dr. Kipperman,
    Thank you for this article. I wish I’d seen it before, but it brings comfort anyway. I lost my little cat Scarlet to lymphoma a little over a month ago. She was diagnosed at Xmas, so it was all rather quick. It is quite amazing how such little beings can take up so much space in our lives. I miss her terribly, but I am grateful that I had her for 11 years. For all those out there whose favorite four-legged is ill, I wish you much courage. We are blessed by their companionship.
    In memory of Scarlet.

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