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Making the heartbreaking decision to put your dog down

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, pets...

Letting go of a beloved pet is never easy, but it may be the kindest decision you can make for your dog

Dog owners are blessed with the time they get to spend with their four-legged friends, but we all know there's a time when those moments come to an end. 

For many, the decision to end that time lies in your hands, and it's the hardest decision you'll ever make concerning your pet.

Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM, knows first hand what a heart-wrenching decision this can be for pet owners. "For many pet parents, saying 'good-bye' is one of the hardest decisions they will ever have to make. Despite how tough this decision is, as a practicing veterinarian for many years, we stress to our clients that one of the greatest acts of love is being able to let go before the bitter end and before the pain and suffering end with death," she says.

The causes

According to Osborne, most pet owners decide to euthanize because of chronic, end-stage diseases, like terminal cancer. "Today, diseases like cancer are beginning to strike dogs at younger ages, and euthanasia decisions in these cases are even harder. These dogs occasionally pass naturally, but humane euthanasia is often a necessity due to the severity, cost and complexity of their condition," she says.

More: Should you have the right to euthanize your own pet?

Ups and downs

Sometimes the condition of your dog isn't as clear-cut. It may have a series of bad days followed by a few good ones, leading you to wonder if your decision is too rash. Osborne says this is normal, especially for an older dog.

"Terminally ill dogs can go for weeks with bright, happy days and every now and then have a bad day. This is part of the reality of growing old. If you are lucky enough to get old, you then have to deal with what old age brings to the best of your ability," she says.

Osborne explains that the key to understanding your dog's condition in this situation is to work closely with your vet to try and manage its symptoms and give it as many more happy days as possible.

"Being able to recognize when your dog has had enough, for example when the bad days are out numbering the good days, when they don’t snap back anymore, are lethargic or as some would say, have lost their sparkle, it's usually time to consider other options," she adds.

Knowing when it's time

It's never really easy to know when it's time to put your beloved dog to sleep, but Osborne says there are a few signs that dog owners can look for to help them see that the time might be drawing near.

She says the most important thing to take into consideration is whether or not your dog is enjoying a good quality of life. She says for dogs that generally means eating and drinking regularly, using the bathroom regularly and on their own, breathing normally and the absence of pain. Osborne adds that signs a dog may be in pain are often labored breathing and panting.

More: I had to put my dog down — here's what it really feels like

"As pet owners, you know your dog better than anyone else, including your veterinarian," she says. "If a sudden or serious change in your dog’s attitude, appetite or behavior has occurred — more than just slowing down with age — it's time to take your dog to the vet and have him evaluated."

Listen to your dog

As its owner, companion and very best friend, you'll probably spend a lot of time convincing yourself that it's just not time yet. Sometimes, though, our dogs know before we do, and Osborne says it's important to listen to them.

"We always say one of the most important ways pets tell their owners that it’s been good but now they have had enough is when they no longer want to participate in life," she explains. "Appetite declines to the point where dogs no longer want to eat regardless of what your offer. They are glad you came home but no longer go to the front door to greet you. Most canines lie on the floor barely lifting up their head to acknowledge your presence. They don’t care to get up or go outside and are clearly uncomfortable. In our experience, this is how pets tell their owners it's time."

At the appointment

Once you've decided to have your dog put to sleep, you'll need to decide where it's going to happen. Most pet parents bring their pets to their veterinarian's office to have it done. Most offices will be happy to schedule an early morning or late evening appointment, so the place will be less crowded and the whole thing much less rushed.

Some vets will also come to your home to put a dog down, but Osborne warns that option is often much more expensive. The cost of euthanizing a dog depends on its weight, and she says it generally ranges from $60-$250. Home visits, she says, typically cost three or four times that.

You have the choice as to whether or not you're present for the procedure — some pet parents can't bear to see it happen, while others can't stand the thought of not being with their pup in its final moments. The choice is yours, and neither will shock your vet.

If your dog gets anxious or jumpy when heading to the vet, talk to your veterinarian about sedating your dog before the trip. If he or she agrees this is a good option for your pet, he or she will provide you with the proper meds ahead of time. Your vet may also choose to give your dog a sedative once you arrive, both to make the dog more comfortable and to make it easier to administer a clean injection.

The vet will give your dog a quick injection of drugs, usually an overdose of sodium pentobarbital, a drug used for anesthesia. These drugs will work quickly and painlessly, first literally putting your dog to sleep and soon after stopping the heart. This injection needs to be made into a vein, and most vets use one of the dog's front legs.

According to the American Humane Association, once your dog has been given the injection, it'll become unconscious in a matter of seconds, and the heart will stop in just a minute or two. The vet will confirm this by listening to its chest with a stethoscope.

After the vet has confirmed your dog's passing, its body still has some slowing down to do. You may notice some muscles twitching, a few random breaths and even the possible release of its bladder or bowels. None of this is uncommon, though it's often alarming to pet owners.

At this point, most vets will leave you alone with your pet for a few moments but if they don't, feel free to ask.

Final decisions

Unfortunately, the decision to euthanize your dog is not the last hard decision you will have to make. Even after you've said good-bye to your dog, you'll need to make a decision about its remains. Osborne says dog remains have the same options as humans — most vets will give you the option to bring your dog home for burial or perform a cremation.

If you want, the choices can vary even more. If you opt for a burial, you can do it at your own home or find a pet cemetery — which can come complete with a headstone or mausoleum. If you choose cremation, those ashes can be scattered or kept in a container of your choosing. Osborne says another popular choice is blown glass that incorporates your pup's ashes. Your veterinarian can help you with these choices and guide you through the process.

More: Healing ways to deal with losing your family pet

Saying good-bye to your best four-legged friend is never easy, but Osborne reminds us that sometimes we have to put the ones we love ahead of ourselves.

"Sometimes, pet parents think that waiting for their dog to pass on their own, naturally, is best. In our experience, there are cases in which this is not the most humane decision for that animal," she says. "Allowing death with dignity is a true, selfless act of love. The ability to offer a beloved pet true love and a pain-free alternative to passing naturally is a gift. No pet owner wants to watch their companion suffer until the last final moment."

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