How to Know When it’s Time to Euthanize Your Dog

Trigger warning for animal euthanasia.

I might as well call this “Don’t Read This Article,” because it’s not a topic anyone wants to discuss. However, I’m putting this out there so that people can find it if they need it.

It is a sad reality that we outlive our pets. This means that, as owners, we are required to make the difficult decisions involved with ending our dogs’ lives. It’s heart-rending and terrible and anxiety-producing to make such a decision, and if you wait until your pet is in their last days to think about it, you are more likely to make an emotional decision that is not in anyone’s best interest.

The first thing I can tell you is that I have read thousands of applications for people wanting to adopt dogs from our rescue. Part of the application requires information on previous pets, including how they died and of what. Of these thousands of applications, I have seen hundreds of people worry that they waited too long to euthanize their dog, but I only remember a few who worried about the opposite. So if you are like most of the people I’ve encountered, you will probably lean toward waiting too long rather than doing something premature.

Advance Planning

Because you aren’t going to be able to trust yourself  at the time, it really helps to think about what your beliefs are concerning your dog. For example, do you want to try heroic measures to keep them alive? Are there certain kinds of treatment that you would rule out? Knowing what you will and won’t do in advance is very helpful. It also helps to talk to friends who have lost their pets to see what they experienced (assuming they want to talk about it, of course). Some people will volunteer information about what they would do differently — listen.

The most important thing to think about in advance, though, is your dog’s personality. We always joked that our dog Maggie would want us to invest in “head in a jar” technology so she could stay with us forever. On the other hand, our proud Chow Chow would be humiliated by his weakness and would not want to endure that. Likewise, your dog has a personality, too, and this should be a strong factor in your decision-making.

Once you have made up your mind, remind yourself about it regularly. I told myself every day for several years that on the first day Chowder couldn’t stand up without help, that would be his last day. I didn’t end up having to make that decision, so I don’t know if I would have gone through with it, but I think I could have done it.

When It’s Upon You

When you realize that your dog is in their last days, or that it has received a diagnosis of a rapidly accelerating fatal condition, you will be under an immense amount of pressure to make decisions. Again, I suggest you pay attention to your dog for cues. The most important thing to be alert for is The Look. It’s capitalized because it is a Real Thing. At some point near the end of its life, your dog will make eye contact with you. There will be something about that particular eye contact that you will recognize when you see it. Your dog will tell you, as clearly as if they had it notarized, that they are ready to go. If you accept what you are seeing, you’ll be able to make the decision a little more easily. Even the devoted Maggie eventually gave my husband The Look, and because he knew what he was seeing, it made the decision clearer.

For older dogs, you should also look for signs that your dog isn’t quite with you anymore. They might seem to be lost in a dream. You might see them standing still sometimes, doing nothing. They might be confused. They might not connect as much with you.  When your dog starts doing that, you need to start preparing yourself.

At this point I would also advise you to watch for the “One Good Day” syndrome. If you are at the point where your dog has Good Days and Bad Days, you need to be on alert. It’s so tempting to be heartened by the Good Days, but the reality is that if you are going by the fact that your dog is still having them occasionally, you need to be aware that eventually you will be waiting for a Good Day that never comes. In the interim, your dog is suffering.

Unreliable Sources

It has been my experience that a lot of vets will suggest one more thing to try when your dog is at the end. Some people would say that it’s a grab for money, but I think it reflects the reality that there are a lot of options, and your vet knows all of them. They don’t want to give up on your dog. That’s why you need to be especially wary if for some reason you find yourself with a different vet than your normal one when it is time to euthanize your dog. That happened to me and Victoria with Leo. We knew what we needed to do, but the temporary vet thought it was appropriate to throw out a few suggestions of things he had heard of while we were preparing to have the calming shot administered. Fortunately, I was able to remember and say firmly, “NO.” I failed Leo in a lot of ways that day, but I’m damn proud of myself for not grabbing for that lifeline.

I also advise you not to  let anyone make you feel bad about your decision. If they make you feel worse, IGNORE THEM. Their opinions have no bearing. You are your dog’s advocate, and you know them best. All of these other people can step off. (And by “step” I think you know what I mean.)

I’m sorry you have to go through this. It’s a terrible experience, no way around it. The only thing you can do is prepare and endure. Hopefully this article will help.

By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

15 replies on “How to Know When it’s Time to Euthanize Your Dog”

You are correct Moretta in saying that it is a difficult topic to talk about but you did a good job of providing information a emotional support all at the same time. I had a wonderful veterinary doctor who so beautifully helped us make this decision for our very elderly cat. She said that your “head” knows all the medical information and all the reasons why its time to let your pet go. But your “heart” loves that pet so much and wants as much time with them as possible. Those two facts seem to be at odds with each other. But be very observant of your pet and there will be that moment when your “head and your heart will come into alignment” and you will know it is “time”. I think she was describing what you described as the “look” from your pet. Thank you for your sensitive piece on the subject.

Thank you for this post! I am facing this now with my 13-yr-old standard schnauzer, who has become blind this past year from cataracts ($4,000 for surgery!), so I can’t rely on “the look.” He is also very lame from arthritis, but can still struggle up most of the time. He wants to be outdoors all the time now, lying in not-unusual places, and can’t find his way around inside the house he’s lived in for years. He eats very little, but at least something daily. But – bloodwork is good, and he still enjoys the heck out of a treat, and carries his pink bear around, and rouses himself to bark at imagined foes, and wags his tail stub…so I’m going to put it off a little longer, maybe reassess when the winter locks in. Vet will come to the house, which is some comfort.

Aww, what a sweet little face full of personality. It sounds like he is doing well on the informal rules of thumb our rescue uses to determine how much pain a dog is in — if a dog is eating (even if it’s mostly treats), sleeping, peeing, pooping, they still enjoy life.

Oh Gods, I’m almost tearing up. We’ve been always ‘lucky’ with our pets passing without needing us, and I hope it will continue this way.

But yes, I’ve experienced the look. It was followed by hiding away in the bushes and dying that night. It’s insane how it works.

The hiding part is hard to deal with. However, it’s important to remember that a dog who does that knows they are dying and is not afraid — they are doing what comes naturally. We have had a dozen applicants or so who told us that their very senior dogs disappeared one day and they could never find them again. It was clear that the dog knew it was time to die and had left the confines of their yards to find the right place. It is really hard for the owners to get closure that way, but it does happen.

We’re not dog people, but I inherited my inlaws’ fat, fluffy, cranky, gorgeous cat who loves treats and me and not much else in the world. She’s been with me for about ten years now (we toom her when the inlaws separated because she’s difficult, hates strangers, and we knew she would never survive a shelter or find anither home that would love and not just tolerate her) and we’re getting to the point where we don’t know if she’s got another year or another five or ten left. I know in my gut that i’ll have to make this decision one day, maybe soon, and it is breaking my heart. Thanks for the reminder that we need to have that discussion so. Weirdly, we have talked about end of life measures for ourselves, but not the kitties.

One of the reasons we stay with our vet, even though it’s at-a-minimum a 30 minute drive (used to live a half mile away) and 2 out of 3 pets have AWFUL car manners, is how they handled our end-of-life process for Missy. She was old when she was diagnosed with cancer. They fully supported our decision to manage her pain and offered to do something helpful to keep other vets from second guessing us (don’t remember exactly what) in case her time came when our vet wasn’t available.

This, as opposed to a vet who told my parents that if it was THEIR 13 year old dog with esophageal cancer, THEY would do the surgery with a less than 50 percent chance of the dog even making it home from the hospital, let alone having significant time with a decent quality of life. Still pisses me off, and it’s been 20 years.

So, we had to make this decision last September (I can’t believe it’s been a year already) for our male Chihuahua. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. His health hadn’t been good for a while, and in the last few months was in a very quick decline as he basically stopped eating after being treated for a serious eye condition, where it was a crapshoot if the infection might kill him or the medication might.

My husband and I couldn’t bring ourselves to let him go, until the final week or so, when we knew a decision was necessary and to prolong it was cruel. One of us would stay up with him at all times, and the day we knew it was time, he was wandering around the backyard all morning, lying down in random weird spots he had never been drawn to before. We made the decision that morning, and spent a few hours with him out in the sun. I’m crying my eyes out just typing this. We took pictures that morning that I still can’t bear to look at.

I know it was the right decision, maybe made a little too late because of our inability to let him go. Everyone kept telling us we’d know when it was time, and neither one of us knew what that meant, until we absolutely did. We have another senior dog, and I know that decision isn’t that far away, and I can’t imagine having to do it again.

Oh, honey. It’s just heart-rending. I didn’t mention it in the article because I thought the implications could be a little too upsetting, but the lying down in strange places is another key sign that they are ready to go. It’s so easy to second-guess yourself, but it sounds like you did everything you could and that you recognized what he was telling you. In addition, you know more now, and that can only be good. Big hugs.

Our yard is fenced-in, and I think if he could have wandered out of the yard, he would have. I knew the lying down in weird spots was an “it’s time” sign, and it’s really what pushed us into making the decision then. I’m not sure it’s going to be any easier to let go the next time around, because the little jerks just crawl their way into your heart and wrap their little paws around and don’t let go.

Thanks, Moretta. This has some great advice. My mom just took on a 12+ year old dog, that my aunt could no longer take care of. (She lives in an upstairs apartment, and Jack has arthritis that makes it nearly impossible for him to climb the stairs 3x a day.) My aunt insists he’s only 7 or 8, but the vet (and mom) know better. Mom’s worried she’ll have to make the call against my aunt’s wishes, and I know she’s looking for resources on things to look for and how to prepare. I, personally, am really glad you wrote this.

(That having been said, living in a one-story house is great for Jack, and he’s off of quite a few of his pain meds. It means he’s living in less of a fog, so he’s been considerably less aggressive towards her other animals lately, which is a great thing.)

Your mom sounds awesome. It’s good that she is preparing herself, even though it’s no fun. I’m glad Jack is showing signs of an increased quality of life, too. What a blessing. A dog with arthritis can be incredibly crabby, so the fact that he is not trying to scare off other animals lest they accidentally hurt him is a really good sign.

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