Euthanasia – When it is Time to Say Goodbye

An article from WWA’s Doctor’s Orders

By Dr. K.C. Brooks, an avid waterfowler, dog lover and practicing veterinarian at Lodi Veterinary Care.

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Waterfowl Association’s March 2020 eNewsletter.

I hope that you have found my previous articles educational and/or entertaining.  They have been very easy for me to write.  In some way or another, they have been about celebrating the bond we have with our dogs.  On one hand, we have talked about how to get the most out of our dog through training or attention to their health.  On the other hand, I have simply shared a few stories that exemplify the joy of hunting with, and sharing your life with a hunting dog.  This article is more difficult.  It is about the difficult decision, and even more importantly the process, involved in ending your dog’s life when circumstances dictate that it is time to do so.

Euthanasia is defined as the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.  In my mind, this may be the most difficult decision a dog owner makes during their pet’s lifetime.  The first portion of this article is meant to give dog owners some guidelines for helping them make the decision of whether euthanasia is appropriate, and very importantly, when to do so.

Gunner Seibert, WWA’s “banquet dog”, owned by now-retired RD Tom Seibert, left us last summer.

It would not be appropriate to write an article concerning euthanasia of a pet without acknowledging that there are some people who believe strongly that intentionally taking a pet’s life is not our decision to make.  As a veterinarian with over thirty years of experience, I strongly disagree, but can respect that belief.  For the vast majority of hunting dog owners, quality of life takes preference over quantity of life.  The normal aging process for dogs inevitably results in changes that may alter our dog’s life significantly, as well as impact ours.  These include:  hearing loss, changes in sight, loss of muscle mass, loss of strength, loss of endurance, and even cognitive dysfunction.  In my mind, these changes are just a fact of life and their impact on your dog is often less than their impact on you.  These are changes that should be addressed with your veterinarian in order to put a plan together that helps your dog “age gracefully” without harming the bond you share with your dog.

The second category of health changes are more severe and often impact dogs and owners in a manner that often can’t be fixed.  These often revolve around advanced aging changes, uncontrolled medical problems or cancer.  Eventually these conditions lead to a situation where medical intervention either cannot control, or the treatment side effects are so negative, that we are unable to change the course of the condition.  It is during these times that euthanasia becomes an appropriate option.  Once again, a discussion with a trusted veterinarian is very valuable in order to fully understand the options available for your dog.

Once the decision has been made to euthanize, there remains several important questions to be resolved.  Deciding when the euthanasia should take place comes first.  Once again, this is rarely an easy decision.  The processes that cause us to consider euthanasia are often progressive conditions which may wax and wane until quality of life diminishes to a point requiring your intervention.  In my experience, most people will know in their heart when the time is right.  Others may wish to be more objective about it and their veterinarian can provide them with materials to more objectively measure quality of life issues.  One of the many challenges comes when there is more than one person involved in that decision, as people can differ dramatically in how they perceive the situation.  Communicating openly and honestly during this time is critical for all those involved in the decision.

A second important decision is deciding where the euthanasia should take place.  Your veterinarian may offer home euthanasia services, or may be able to provide the name of a veterinarian who provides that service.  Some people prefer that the euthanasia takes place in the hospital or clinic.  Many family members choose to be present for the euthanasia, while others choose not to be.  The actual process is generally very peaceful and may provide closure for some individuals, but can also leave others with a lasting memory that is not what they desire.   Finally, a decision needs to be made concerning the handling of your dog’s body after euthanasia.  Almost all clinics should offer cremation services, and taking your dog’s body for home burial is legal in almost all areas of our state.   There are advantages and disadvantages for all of these decisions, and there is no “right or wrong”.  Once again, taking the time to discuss and communicate your wishes to other family members and your veterinarian is time well spent.

No matter how easily the above decisions are made, it is very normal for humans to go through a significant grieving process after losing their hunting companion.  This process is real and predictable.  There is no good way to predict its impact on you or your family members.  Patience, understanding and communication are very important to help you and your loved ones in dealing with this grief.  Sometimes memorials such as a clay impression of a paw print, a lock of hair from your dog, a picture collage, or a eulogy letter to your family and friends may be helpful.

I hope this article finds you with your hunting companion at your feet enjoying the spring sun warming you both.   I hope you both train hard in preparation for another hunting season.  I hope you create many more great memories in the field this coming fall and winter.  I hope you are blessed with great health and a long life.  Finally, if it comes time where euthanasia is needed to end pain or suffering for your canine companion, I hope this article has given you some important information that will make that decision a bit more comfortable.  Enjoy your dog.