Knowing when to euthanise your dog

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is the term used to describe the 'putting to sleep' of an animal. Euthanasia literally means 'a good death'. For pets, this process is performed by a veterinarian, and usually involves an injection. The medication used is an overdose of an anaesthetic so that the pet quickly falls into an anaesthetic sleep, then passes away.

Why do we euthanise our pets?

Pets are usually euthanised by veterinarians to relieve suffering or pain when a pet is very unwell or suffering from an incurable disease. Some are also euthanised to protect members of the public, e.g. an aggressive dog.

How do we know when 'it's time'?

This is never an easy decision. Often people say that you'll just know when it's the right time to euthanise your pet. The reality, unfortunately, is not always that simple. Many owners worry that their dog is suffering but, because they love their companion so much, they don't want to part with them. Discussing the situation with a veterinarian can make a decision easier to reach.

Some factors you may also consider include:

  • Are they eating?
  • Are they able to walk around comfortably?
  • Are they able to move away from their faeces and urine? (For dogs that are normally well toilet-trained, this can be a very upsetting experience)
  • Are they still enjoying a good quality of life?

There are often other factors to be considered too, and it's best to discuss them with your vet.

Am I really doing the right thing?

Feeling guilty is very common. Many owners think they might be letting their dog down, or they're simply not doing the 'right' thing. They are also concerned about their own grief in losing a much-loved member of the family. Discussing this with your veterinarian or other dog owners who have gone through the same difficult time can help address these feelings.

What will the children say?

It can be very tempting for well-meaning parents to euthanise their old or unwell dog while their children are away or at school, then offer them an untrue explanation like "Rocket ran away" or "we took Bruiser to a farm where he is enjoying a better life." This is done in the hope of shielding their children from experiencing some of the strong emotions they themselves are feeling. All too often, though, children don't believe the story and never will – and a bond of trust between parent and child is broken. In other cases, children believe the story temporarily, only to resentfully recognise the lie later on.

When a pet is removed from the home and suitably-aged children are not involved in the decision-making process, they often come to the conclusion that they've been excluded because of something they've done wrong. The guilt of that perceived wrongdoing can be felt for years. For this reason, children over the age of 10 should be as included as any adult. They should also be given the option of being present at the euthanising.

For children between 5 and 10, use clear words to help them understand what is happening to their dog. This means avoiding jargon such as 'put to sleep' as children of this age might believe their dog will one day wake up. Explain to them clearly that their pet is going to the vet to die peacefully and that they need to say goodbye because their pet won't be coming back.

Children younger than 5 generally don't have a good understanding of death. It is important to use clear words with them whenever they try to seek out their deceased pet.

For children of all ages it can be helpful to perform some kind of ceremony after the euthanasia. This could involve planting a tree in the garden, erecting a cross, or even making a pile of special stones. Some families choose to light a candle. Making a scrapbook with photos and drawings of the family dog can be a great source of comfort. Many of these things are also very beneficial for adult owners.

Ultimately, deciding whether or not to involve children in the decision-making process depends on their age and maturity.

To share with others how wonderful your dog was and how much you miss them, you may like to write on our 'Loss of Companion' forum.