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Euthanasia: A most difficult decision

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If you are considering euthanasia for your pet, here are some guidelines to help you decide what is ultimately best for your beloved pet. When you adopt a pet, you enter a unique relationship of total responsibility and care that satisfies our very human need to give and receive love and nurturing. Yet, there very well may come a day when you will need to "play God'' and make difficult decisions about your animal's future, based upon medical guidance and your own instincts.

The mere fact that animals get sick can be upsetting to owners, and facing the choice of whether to euthanize is the hardest decision a pet owner will ever face.

Dr. Susan Cohen, a nationally recognized therapist in pet loss counseling and director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center of New York, offers her experience and advice for pet owners struggling with the decision or dealing with feelings of guilt after the event.

Since pets can't weigh in with their opinions like human beings usually can, pet owners feel greater responsibility (and guilt) to their pets. Cohen reminds us that looking at all the factors around an animals' health is a balancing act, not a perfect science, and can be based on any of the following factors when a pet faces a life-threatening medical condition:

  • Your pet's temperament (Is the animal nervous at the vet or able to receive treatment?)
  • Your pet's chances of survival (Does the pet have only a two percent chance of survival?)
  • Your financial resources (How much can you spend on medical procedures?)
  • Your available time (Do you need to give the animal medical treatment five times a day, but have a full-time job?)
  • The likelihood your pet will have a "normal'' life after treatment

Every situation is different

In Cohen's experience with patients, the decision to euthanize usually involves looking at more than one factor and weighing them against one another, rather than making a swift easy decision. Again, remember that every situation is different, and that you'll have to make decisions based on the animal's condition and the resources available to you.

"One woman had two cats that had the same kind of cancer. One she gave the maximum treatment. The other she gave a much less aggressive type of treatment. It wasn't because she loved one more. It really came down to the fact that one of the pets would go to the vet calmly and one wouldn't. Every animal is different. So, she made a decision based on what the cat could handle,'' Cohen said.

It's important to reach out to counselors and veterinarians for support and objective advice about euthanasia. They can help you weigh your options and limitations realistically.

Loving choices

Most people do everything they possibly can to ensure their pet's survival. But, a line is usually drawn when you witness your pet really suffer while their possibilities for a future quality life are very slim. In such a scenario, ending their suffering with compassion and care can be the best and most loving choice you can make for your pet.

However, a certain level of guilt and second-guessing yourself ("Did I do enough?'' "Was it the right decision after all?'') after euthanizing is completely normal and emotionally draining.

If you feel terrible guilt, revisit the facts that swayed you in the end. Or talk to your vet again. It might be helpful to view x-rays or medical reports that show the animal's inevitable decline. You also might want to visit pet loss support groups where others might be experiencing the same feelings.

As Cohen says, "In my experience, people euthanize only when death is better than the alternative.''

It's important to remind yourself that you did everything you could to ensure your pet's health and happiness right up until the end.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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