As pet carers, the decision about whether or not to have a precious animal companion euthanised (or ‘put to sleep’) is one that many of us will have to face. If you have a pet that’s terminally ill or very old, the chances are that the topic of euthanasia will be on your mind.
You may have a lot of questions.
Should you let nature take its
course? Is euthanasia preferable to a ‘natural’ death? Will you know when it’s
the right time?
The question of timing can be one
of the most daunting – we don’t want to let go too soon but what if we leave it
People will often tell you that
you’ll know when it’s the ‘right’ time to euthanise a pet but the reality is
that it isn’t always obvious, especially if your pet is experiencing a slow
Quality of Life
The concept of a ‘quality of life’ recognises that life is made up of good and bad experiences but that there must be a balance between the two. This is particularly discussed in the context of animal welfare.
We all know that poorly animals can
have good and bad days, just like humans, but many feel that when a tipping
point has been reached and an animal has more bad experiences than good because
of their health – and if there is no reasonable hope of recovery – then we have
to ask whether there is still an acceptable quality of life.
Knowing this, experts have devised
a number of different systems for measuring an animal’s quality of life.
It may sound dispassionate but some
people find that these systems can help you to review whether or not your pet
is suffering at a time when it’s hard to see clearly.
The right to five freedoms
One such system is the ‘Five Freedoms’. According to the Animal Humane Society, these are internationally accepted standards of care that affirm every living being’s right to humane treatment. These standards were developed by Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1965 and adapted by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians for companion animals in shelters.
Although the Five Freedoms
initially related to husbandry practices when keeping farm animals, they are a
good starting point for assessing your pet’s quality of life.
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Every animal should have access to
species-appropriate food as well as fresh water.
We can use this freedom as a
measure for quality of life.
Is your pet able to eat and drink?
A good quality of life is often still possible with a change of diet, hand
feeding and other adaptations. However, if your pet is no longer physically
able to eat or drink, it may be a sign that their body is shutting down.
Freedom from discomfort
Animals should have the right type
of environment, including shelter and somewhere comfortable to rest.
If your pet is no longer able to rest
without discomfort or move easily within their environment then this can be
another sign that their quality of life is decreasing.
Freedom from pain, injury or disease
The Five Freedoms state that
animals should have freedom from pain, injury or disease, either by prevention
or by rapid diagnosis and treatment.
But what happens when you can’t
cure an animal because they are hurt beyond repair or terminally ill?
In most cases, it will mean looking
at the other four freedoms. Is your pet still able to eat and drink? Can they
sleep without being in pain or move around? Are they calm and relaxed?
Freedom to express normal behaviour
Freedom Four says that an animal
should be able to stand up, lie down, turn round, stretch their limbs and groom
all parts of the body.
You may feel that ‘normal behaviour’
covers other things that your pet enjoys or needs, like being able to go to the
toilet or showing interest in their surroundings.
If your pet is no longer able to
express their usual behaviour then it’s important to discuss this with your
vet, as well as your pet’s immediate family.
Freedom from fear and distress
Freedom Five is about your pet’s state of mind as well as their physical state. Of course, it’s hard for an animal to tell us if they feel frightened or afraid but you know them better than anyone. If you feel that your pet is distressed and that their condition is unlikely to improve, you might want to consider euthanasia.
‘Quality of life’ questionnaire
Even with the Five Freedoms, it can
be difficult to determine your pet’s quality of life. What if they’re
struggling with one of the five freedoms but seem okay in the other four areas
Another challenge that many of us
face is when the animal’s quality of life deteriorates slowly or you’re
presented with a diagnosis that tells you they will decline rapidly over a
short period of time in the near future.
In all of these scenarios, when is
the right time to consider euthanasia?
One helpful tool is a quality of
life (QOL) questionnaire. This can help you to define your pet’s quality of
life today and then monitor how it progresses.
A good example is on the Cinque Port Vets website.
As you can see, this questionnaire
asks you to score your pet’s wellbeing in six key areas (score 2 for
normal/good, 1 for poor/reduced or 0 for none):
- Mobility (Good/poor/bare minimum)
- Appetite (Good/poor/none – vomiting/nausea)
- Hydration/thirst (Good/poor/requires oral or
intravenous (i.e. a drip) fluids)
- Interaction/attitude (Normal/reduced/none – only
contact is when you instigate it)
- Toilet habits (Normal/reduced/little to no
- Favourite things (Normal/reduced/no
You could also add categories for
your pet’s heart rate, blood sugar or other measurable factors and score in
quarter and half points if you notice a slight increase or decrease in any of
There are, of course, various other QOL scales/scoring systems. An online search will lead you to others to consider until you find one that works for you and your pet.
What the Quality of Life (QOL) score means
When using a questionnaire like
this, it’s advised that you think about what the different overall scores mean to
For example, you could decide that
a score of:
- 12-9 means everything is OK for now – your pet is
still enjoying their life
- 8-6 means that your pet may need support from you or
the vet – this could mean that their treatment needs adjusting to increase the
- 5-0 means that your pet’s quality of life is
significantly lower than you would want it to be and it might be time to
It can be helpful to have this sort
of baseline in your head. That way, you can remind yourself that “Today’s QOL
score is eight. It’s not time yet” or “His score is just four now, which means
he’s got little to no normality in most aspects of his life”.
If you don’t have to make an
immediate decision, you will probably find it helpful to track your pet’s QOL
score on a daily basis.
With an elderly or terminally ill pet, it can be hard to pinpoint a clear downward turn in your pet’s quality of life as there is often a mixture of good and bad days.
You may find, however, that when you track the QOL score every day, you suddenly notice that you’ve hit a week when there were more fours and fives than sixes. Knowing this, you might feel that a tipping point has been reached.
Trust your instincts and intentions
In many ways, euthanasia as an
option for our pets is both a gift and a curse. The ability to prevent
unnecessary suffering when there is no hope for recovery is often described as
the ‘last kindness’ that we can give our pets. Understandably though, it’s a
decision that weighs heavy on pet carers.
Trust that your vet will advocate
for your pet and will only suggest euthanasia when all other reasonable options
have been exhausted.
While finding ways to measure your
pet’s quality of life can be useful, knowing the ‘right’ time usually comes
down to trusting your instincts and good intentions towards your pet. You know
them better than anyone and you only want what’s best for them.
Different people make different
decisions for their pets but that doesn’t make either person wrong.
Whatever you face right now, know
that you’re not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support