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How to Know When It's Time to Put Down Your Pet

Must-read advice from an animal-behavior expert on how to make this dreaded decision

It's the moment every pet-owner dreads: the one when you realize your precious dog or cat or parakeet is too hurt, in too much pain, or too uncomfortable to go on. But deciding whether or not to euthanize is never easy, no matter how obvious the answer.

This Old House turned to the American Kennel Club for a few guidelines, courtesy of Mary R. Burch, PhD, the club's Canine Good Citizen Director and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

“For me, the bottom line for euthanasia is that I would never let a beloved pet suffer,” Burch says. “While there may be pain or discomfort from a medical procedure from which the animal is going to get better—such as the removal of a tumor in the mouth causing soreness for several days—I would not let my pet suffer long term because I was having a hard time saying good-bye.”

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Burch notes that senior dogs and cats may let you know when it's time. “In cases where there isn't extreme pain, but perhaps the animal has gotten old, my experience is the light goes out of their eyes,” she notes. They may not eat or drink; may sleep all day; and may not have any interest in playing with their favorite toys. “While many dogs will still wag their tails when you pet them, the 'spark' is gone.”

If your pet is suffering from cancer or has had an accident resulting in injury, making a choice for surgery or other medical procedures to prolong the pet's life can be difficult. Sadly, in some cases, depending on cost and the owner's financial situation, medical choices aren't an option.

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Assuming the owner can afford a life-prolonging medical option, Burch says there are many factors to consider. While there is no answer key for these types of decisions, the following factors may help you decide. Think about:

How long your pet will live. "Would you go forward with surgery if it will add five more years? One more year? Two weeks?"

Your pet's quality of life. For instance, would you go forward with surgery if your pet would be immobile afterward? Or if you had to feed it through a tube?

The impact of your pet's condition on you and/or your family. "As an owner, will you be able to physically carry a 60-pound dog inside and outside?"

Whether your pet will be suffering. "Would you go forward with surgery if your pet is 15 years old and there will be extreme pain during recovery from this surgery?"

“For me, the main issue is whether or not the dog will have a good quality of life following treatment," says Burch. In other words, don't think about you—think about them.