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By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Choosing to End an Animal's Suffering is a Final Act of Love

It's the question every pet lover dreads, the one for which there's often no easy answer: "When is the right time to say goodbye?"
Choosing to end a pet's life is the hardest decision we make when it comes to our pets, and we can tell you from decades of experience that it's a decision that never gets any easier. Your veterinarian will offer you advice and support, and friends and family can offer you sympathy, but no one can make the decision for you. When you live with an elderly or terminally ill pet, you look in your pet's eyes every morning and wonder if you're doing what's best.
Everyone makes the decision a little differently. Some pet lovers do not wait until their pet's discomfort becomes chronic, untreatable pain, and they choose euthanasia much sooner than others would. Some owners use an animal's appetite as the guide -- when an old or ill animal cannot be tempted into eating, they reason, he has lost most interest in life. And some owners wait until there's no doubt the time is at hand -- and later wonder if they delayed a bit too long.
There's no absolute rule, and every method for deciding is right for some pets and some owners at some times. You do the best you can, and then you try to put the decision behind you and deal with the grief.
The incredible advances in veterinary medicine in the past couple of decades have made the decisions even more difficult for many people. Not too long ago, the best you could do for a seriously ill pet was to make her comfortable until that wasn't possible anymore. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine -- from chemotherapy to pacemakers to advanced pain relief -- is available to our pets.
But the addition of high-level care shouldn't change much when it comes to easing suffering: If you can have a realistic expectation that a course of treatment will improve your pet's life -- rather than simply prolong it -- then those options should be considered. But you must also ask yourself: Am I doing right by my pet, or am I just holding on because I can't bear to say goodbye?
If it's the latter, you know what decision you have to make.
Many people are surprised at the powerful emotions that erupt after a pet's death, and they can be embarrassed by their grief. Often, we don't realize we're grieving not only for the pet we loved, but also for the special time the animal represented and the ties to other people in our lives. The death of a cat who was a gift as a kitten from a friend who has died, for example, may trigger bittersweet memories of the other love lost.
Taking care of yourself is important when dealing with pet loss. Some people -- the "It's just a pet" crowd -- won't understand the loss and may shrug off grief over a pet's death as foolish. I find that the company of other animal lovers is very important. Seek them out to share your feelings, and don't be shy about getting professional help to get you through a difficult time.
Choosing to end a pet's suffering is a final act of love and nothing less. Knowing that your decisions are guided by that love is what helps us all through the sad and lonely time of losing a cherished animal companion.
Finding help when you need it
You're not alone in losing a pet, and many resources are out there to help you cope with your emotions during a difficult time. Some veterinary schools offer pet-loss support lines staffed by volunteer veterinary students, and the website offers a pet-loss chat every night of the year, which is staffed with volunteer moderators and attended by other pet lovers. - By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
Halter problems? Try a harness
Q: I've heard that head halters can cause serious injuries if used incorrectly. A too-abrupt tug could jerk a dog's head, causing neck or spinal injuries, couldn't it? -- S.T., via email
A: Anything's possible, which is why I don't recommend using a head halter with one of those long, reel-type leashes. The force of a running dog hitting the end of a 30-foot line does have the potential to cause injury. And if you want an eye-opener, do an Internet search for "retractable leash injuries" for some cautions on their use. People and pets have been seriously injured with retractable leashes, which is why I don't recommend them at all.
But in truth, just about every piece of canine equipment has the potential for problems if used incorrectly. Slip-chain collars can choke a dog or injure his neck. Breakaway collars, designed to release a dog who's caught on something, can result in a dog being off-leash when it's least safe, such as next to a busy street. Head halters can jerk a dog's head around, and people have lost fingers to retractable leashes.
One of the more benign pieces of dog gear is the front-clip harness. There are a few different ones on the market now, and they all work on the same theory: When the leash is clipped to the front of the harness (as opposed to the top center of the back), a dog's own forward momentum is used to keep him from pulling. Watch for fit and wear: An improperly fitted harness can rub a dog raw.
It's important to remember that a front-clip harness does not teach your dog to keep the leash slack. If you switch back to a collar, your dog will pull again. The best long-term strategy is to get a trainer's help to instill good leash manners for life. -- Gina Spadafori
Do you have a pet question? Send it to    

No concerns over pet microchip ID

  • Veterinary experts say there is no evidence that cancer is a problem in microchipped pets. More than 14 million-plus microchips have been implanted with only four cases in question. That's a fraction of the number of pets who have been returned to their owners because of an identifying microchip. 

  • Mister Ed, the talking horse of the 1960s television show, is buried under a wild cherry tree near Tulsa, Okla. The palomino lived to the ripe old age of 33.

  • Aging cats can develop a feline form of Alzheimer's disease. Some 28 percent of pet cats aged 11 to 14 years develop at least one age-related behavior problem, and this increases to more than 50 percent for cats over the age of 15. Experts suggest that a good diet, mental stimulation and companionship can reduce the risk of dementia in both humans and cats. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

Date Published: 7/8/2013 7:52:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 07/08/2013


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Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at

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