Who decides that a pet is better off dead than alive? And how do they decide?

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Euthanasia is irreversible so it seems right that most pet owners agonise over the decision and want to double-check before making it. Unfortunately, anyone deciding on their own can get the timing very wrong…

An informed decision about a pet’s euthanasia (“put to sleep”) takes input from owner and vet. That’s because each of them is an expert on a different aspect of the pet’s wellbeing. So, my answer to “Who decides?” is: normally, the owner and vet should share the decision.

Unlike your vet, you are expert on your pet’s preferences, fears and everything that makes life worth living for him or her. No vet can know this like you do. Instead, your vet is expert in clinical theory and in how that applies to each pet in the pet’s unique context. Even a lifetime of ownership will not give you that, nor can the internet.

How do you and your vet decide?

A simple decision aid is The ABC Yardstick, which vet and owner work through in alphabetical order. But decisions are not simply a matter of ABC or logic or “being sensible”. For most of us, pets are family. We love them dearly and we feel the weight of our decisions and losses very deeply. The next post will look at some of that, such as caregiver burden and guilt.

vet examines white and brown rabbit euthanasia

Later posts will say more about the ABC Yardstick too. Briefly, for now:

A stands for Agony or `Awfulness’

  • Vets are expert in whether a pet is either already suffering or at high risk of starting to suffer very soon.
  • Suffering isn’t only pain; it can involve things like breathlessness and extreme weakness.

B stands for Burden of Treatment (on the pet)

(See next post for the important question of caregiver burden and costs)

  • Vets know what different care options involve, and how likely each option is to help a given pet.
  • Owners know what their pets can cope with. For example, some animals hate anything to do with vets and even the simplest treatments.
  • Veterinary nurses know a lot about their patients too: if a pet has been hospitalised in the past, the nurses usually know how the pet coped with that.

C stands for the pet’s Capacity to Enjoy Life

  • Owners are expert in what gives their pets pleasure.
  • Vets know the likelihood that the preferred care option could restore the pet to that point.

dog looks at owner euthanasia

Putting those together: normally, euthanasia is a good decision for a pet if:

  • A. They are already suffering or are at high risk of suffering very soon, and
  • B. Treatment is either not available or would be burdensome to the pet, and /or
  • C. Treatment has little or no chance of making the pet well enough to enjoy life (–`the life worth living’, from his point of view)

Often, a period of thorough palliative care can keep pets very comfortable and give their owners time to say goodbye. In many cases too, a complete veterinary palliative approach can keep the pets comfortable enough to enjoy life for some while, and isn’t burdensome. This `animal hospice’ is just starting to develop in veterinary practice. More about that in a separate post.

Back to you meanwhile. What is your experience? Do we humans sometimes tend to chase life for our pets at any cost and not think enough about the burdens on pets, and on ourselves? How can we be `kind yet resolute and not foolish’? Share your thoughts and stories on our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram.

Caroline Hewson


Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS
Caroline Hewson is a vet and has a PhD in animal behaviour. She writes and gives talks that translate research relevant to pets’ end of life into points to keep in mind. 


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