When to Let Go

Cat Closeup

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was let my 14-year-old kitty go. She fell into my lap as a tiny, helpless kitten when I was 18 years old, and I dutifully bottle-fed her every 3 hours for days, sacrificing sleep and vital work shifts.

She was with me through the hardest times of my life. All the big life changes, the moves, the ending of relationships I thought would last forever.

My brain couldn’t fathom her not being right there by my side--purring and gazing lovingly into my eyes.

The question on my mind was the same as anyone's in this situation: Will she pass away on her own, or will I need to make the call? I knew that she was in pain and had her on a consistent dosage of pain medication. I watched her deteriorate more each day as the cancer spread to every corner of her body.

When it reached her lungs, she began having trouble breathing, and I knew it was time. I couldn’t let her suffer any longer because I didn’t want to let her go.  

Quality of life 

When to let go comes down to determining your pet’s overall quality of life. Because each person may interpret what that means differently, here’s a fantastic quality of life scale for you to fill out and get a better idea of where your pet stands. 

Animals live in the moment; they don’t contemplate on the past or consider the future like we do, so most of what they know is how they feel in the present.

Small dog and cat relaxing on same pet bed

If your pet goes from enjoying life more than suffering to suffering more than enjoying life--despite treatment--it may be time to consider euthanasia. Let’s break it down.

How do I know if my pet’s quality of life is poor?

  • Declining health:  your pet has a condition, illness, disease, or injury that is not going to get better despite veterinary care.
  • Pain:  your pet is in constant pain, even when on pain medication.
  • Activity:  your pet can’t stand or move around on its own.
  • Eating and drinking:  your pet has mostly stopped eating or drinking water over time.
  • Breathing:  your pet is having increasing difficulty breathing due to an illness or condition.
  • Happiness:  it has been a while since your pet did its favorite things: snuggling with you at night, crawling into your lap, or begging to go outside for a minute.
  • Self care:  your pet can no longer groom itself or is consistently urinating/defecating on itself. If your pet is unable to move itself, it will not only be exposed to its own feces, it will also develop painful bed sores. 

So I have a good idea of when I should let my pet go, but how do I know when it’s the time?

Man hugging and kissing brown dog

There’s no special sign to watch out for, unfortunately. Every animal and every situation is unique, so we should consider a combination of the above factors and make our best call. If your pet is not particularly old, a second opinion is a great way to go.

Otherwise, asking your trusted veterinarian (and pet-loving family and friends) can help you decide.

If your pet dislikes going to the vet--as most do--many vets offer home euthanasia at a reasonable cost, so your beloved pet can pass away in the comfort of your home.

Measuring quality of life can be unpredictable at times. Your pet could have a series of bad days, causing you to make the dreaded appointment, but then - the morning of the appointment - start walking around looking for treats and petting. Then you cancel the appointment, only to find that your pet has regressed to its prior state by the next morning.

While you may want to wait until you’re absolutely sure it’s the right time, waiting until suffering is nearly constant isn’t the best option for your pet.

The best we can do as loving caretakers is carefully monitor our pet’s quality of life after a significant decline in health--with no hope of recovery--and make our best decision, putting their happiness first.

Dog Paw Prints in Sand at the Beach

It Is Going To Be Okay

Just like with any family member, death usually brings on grief and pain that can make us very depressed. It is important to take care of yourself during this time, and realize that it is not your fault. It is natural for us to begin to wonder "what we could have done", and it can be easy to forget how much shorter a dog or cat's lifespan is than ours naturally. 

Talking to trusted family and friends or a therapist can help immensely in the healing process. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to your support system or connecting with resources if it helps you. Did you know that there are even loss and grief support groups for pet parents here in Portland? 

Northwest Neighborhood Veterinary Hospital Grief Support

Dove Lewis Grief Support