“My dog is really old, but I think his quality of life is okay. What should I look out for to see if he’s in any discomfort, or if it’s just old age? When is it time to start thinking about euthanasia?”

Jamie, Manchester

We asked Jess the UK Lead Vet at FirstVet, and here’s what she had to say:

Euthanasia is a tricky subject to handle, and an outcome that we all wish we could avoid. However, some doggo’s can reach a stage in their life where it might be kinder, for health reasons, to consider putting them to sleep.

Here I’ll try to explain everything you need to know about euthanasia in dogs, so that if you’re ever in the position where you need to consider it, you’ve got all the facts to hand. 

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How can I tell if my dog is in pain?

Many ailments associated with old age, such as arthritis, cancer, blindness or obesity, can be treated and your dog will not suffer so much if you catch and treat the symptoms early.

Easier said than done though; while sight loss or obesity are easy enough to spot, pets often don’t show obvious signs of pain, especially when it is chronic pain. They tend to try to adapt their behaviour to cope, bless their little hearts. 

Your dog could be in pain if you have noticed:

  • Obvious physical symptoms such as limping or whining 
  • A loss of appetite
  • A reluctance to interact with you
  • Lethargy or unwillingness to move around
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to get comfortable, or sitting or lying in an abnormal position
  • A change in temperament; loss of enthusiasm, irritability, acting withdrawn 

A dog older than 7 years is considered senior. After this age, it’s worth keeping an eye out for signs of age-related health issues.

If you catch the symptoms early, your pet can be treated and made more comfortable until their life comes to a natural end.

If unnoticed, it may reach a stage where treatment isn’t possible or will be ineffective, and euthanasia is the kindest option. 

Arriving at the decision to euthanise your dog

Sadly very few pets die peacefully in their sleep at home; most reach a point when their quality of life is poor and the decision for euthanasia needs to be made.

Persistent and incurable inability to eat, vomiting, signs of pain, distress or discomfort, or difficulty breathing are all indications that euthanasia should be considered. 

Questions to ask yourself before you reach out to your vet include:

  • Does my dog still have a good quality of life? Do they show signs of pain or distress?
  • Can my dog still eat, drink, sleep and move around reasonably comfortably?
  • Does my dog respond to my presence and greet me lovingly?
  • Does feeding time still attract some interest, or have they lost their appetite?

You may not have enough information to reach a decision right away. In this instance, it’s worth raising the topic with your vet, who can help you find available treatments and set a time period over which you can monitor your dog’s health. If it doesn’t improve during this period, it’s likely time to consider euthanasia. 

If you do decide to put your dog to sleep, it’s common to feel guilty and to question whether you are doing the right thing. 

It is a heart-wrenching decision to have to make, but choosing the more painful outcome for you shows the amount of love you have for your dog, and your ability to put their care and wellbeing before your own thoughts of loss. 

What happens during euthanasia?

You’ll need to make an appointment at your veterinary clinic; you can request a quieter time for your visit. Some veterinarians offer house visits for euthanasia appointments, and there are also mobile veterinary clinics that can visit you at home.

If your pet is already hospitalised, then you can ask to visit and say goodbye if you wish. However, if your pet is under an anaesthetic, it may be kinder to agree to euthanasia without waking him or her up, and you can request to see them afterwards.

Beforehand, your vet will explain how the procedure works and what to expect; don’t be afraid to ask questions or discuss your worries. 

Pets who are likely to become agitated or stressed by the situation can be given a light sedative beforehand to help make their last moments more relaxed, so make sure you raise this with your vet.

You will be asked to sign a consent form to show that you understand what will happen and give your permission for euthansia.

The euthanasia medication most vets use is pentobarbital, and it is usually given by an IV injection in one of their legs. In large doses, it quickly renders the dog unconscious, and shuts down their heart and brain functions within one or two minutes.

Not everyone decides to stay with their pet until the end. It may be a comfort to you to know that euthanasia is usually a quick and gentle process but try not to feel guilty if you feel that you do not want to stay; it is a very personal choice. 

You can rely on your vet and nurse to treat your pet sympathetically and with respect in your absence. 

Afterwards you should be offered the opportunity to be alone with your dog for a few minutes to say a final goodbye. It is entirely natural to feel upset when your beloved doggo dies; don’t be embarrassed about showing your emotions; veterinary staff are very used to it.

What happens after the euthanasia?

Some people ask the vet or the nurse to keep a lock of hair, or they perform a ceremony such as saying a prayer; vets are quite used to such requests and will be very sympathetic. 

Most people opt for cremation to be arranged by the clinic, but there are often local companies in your area that will also provide this service. Alternatively, there will be pet cemeteries in your local area or you can take them home for burial.

Be prepared for the house to feel empty on your return. It may take time for you to adapt and come to terms with your loss. 

Give yourself time to grieve and remember your dog in whichever way helps – talking, writing, looking at photos. 

Try to take time to treasure your memories, and talk to family and friends. It can also be helpful to talk to an organisation that provides professional support, such as the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service.

We hope you find this article helpful; it’s a difficult topic but it’s one we wanted to cover. 

If you’re with your pooch right now, and want to chat to someone about this, you can give FirstVet a call and have a 15 minute video consultation with one of their lovely vets. Or you can visit your local clinic to discuss your doggo’s options.  

Who are FirstVet?

FirstVet is a digital vet service, which allows you to book a video call with one of their experienced UK vets at any time of day or night, instead of heading straight to the vet clinic.  

When you call you will get help and treatment and, if you need it, a referral to the nearest vet clinic. 

Consultations charged for on a pay-as-you-go basis, so you don’t need a subscription – just the app.  

Appointments are £20 during the day 9am-6pm, and £30 out of hours. There’s also a free text Q+A service via the app, where questions are answered by one of their vets within 48 hours.

You can sign up here.

Gudog would like to give a very big thank you to Jessica May, Lead UK Vet and Dr Emma Bower from FirstVet for the professional advice provided for this article. 

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