The short answer is, you won’t. That is, you may never be completely sure, and your pet may hide signs of suffering from you. Unless you wait until the point where your pet is actively dying, you will have doubts. And that’s okay. It means you have a conscience, and that you are concerned about doing the right thing for your pet.
Despite thousands of years of domestication, most animals still retain their instinct to hide injury, illness or suffering. In the wild, animals that are weak, injured or ill will starve or be killed. So there is a very powerful evolutionary drive to mask any outward signs of problems.
Another contributing factor here is that unlike you, your pet isn’t worrying about tomorrow. Your animal buddy lives exclusively in the moment, whatever that moment may be like. Your pets will continue to try to go about their canine or feline business, until they simply can’t, anymore.
So my advice is this: you know your pet best. You will be the best judge of when his or her quality of life has decreased to the point that you should be thinking about euthanasia.
Quality of life can be assessed in a couple of ways. You can start a journal, and log good days and bad days. When the bad days far outnumber the good, it’s time to start thinking about your pet’s quality of life. This is a tough method for some people, because one good day in a month of bad days can give false hope.
Or, you can take a mental inventory of the things your dog has always loved to do. Does she love long walks? Playing with a favorite toy? Investigating every bush in the back yard? Following you around to see what you’re up to? Whatever the list, be aware when favorite pastimes drop off the daily schedule. Older animals do sleep more, but when your dog spends all but one hour a day sleeping, you have to wonder about his quality of life.
You have to be realistic. Your 17-year-old Labrador who can barely walk with arthritis is not going to miraculously get a lot better next month. How much can you take? Your lab will keep going until she gives out. Do you wait until she’s down and can’t get up? Many people do, because that’s what it takes to see that she is suffering.
One thing I find a lot of people have a very difficult time assessing is their pet’s daily level of pain. There is an anthropomorphic assumption many people make that their pet would cry or whine if he or she were in pain. Sure, we would, but human beings are wimpy, particularly compared to dogs and cats. If it takes your dog a minute and a half to reach a standing position from lying or sitting down, he’s painful. If your cat can’t jump up on the couch, she’s painful. If movement is restricted to to and from the food dish, or in and out to pee or poop, he’s painful. Unless you startle a dog or cat with a painful stimulus, you probably aren’t going to get the crying you expect from pain. I have seen dogs and cats with broken bones, who only vocalize when the break is palpated.
There are more subtle indicators also. A dog that breathes heavily and pants when he hasn’t been exercising or hot, is probably a painful dog. A cat that sleeps 23 out of 24 hours in a day is probably painful. You simply can’t assume that because he never complains, pain is not a constant presence in your pet’s life.
I wish that I never saw patients whose quality of life had so deteriorated that they were essentially already gone. I wish everyone was on the same page as far as preventing suffering and that no animal would have to suffer before the decision could be made to humanely euthanize. But the reality is that everyone is different. Everyone brings their own emotions and experiences to this decision. And many times, suffering has to occur before a person can feel like euthanasia is the right thing to do.
It’s about love. It’s about loving your pet enough to let go, and make the transition from life to death smoother and more comfortable for your faithful animal companion. What we do when we euthanize is to create the death everyone wants for their pet, snuggled in the owner’s arms, falling asleep. If you have ever been anesthetized, you know what it’s like. You are there, and then you are not there. It’s as peaceful as we can possibly make it. I believe that it’s our responsibility as pet guardians to provide this act of love if it’s needed.