For those of you who don't know, The Rainbow Bridge is a piece of writing about a mythological place to which a pet goes upon its death, before eventually being reunited with its owner.
The death of a pet is always difficult to come to terms with, no matter what the circumstances, but when an owner has to take part in making the decision to cause that death, it can cause intense feelings of grief, fear and guilt. It will probably be one of the most difficult things you ever have to do. As a society, we are relatively sheltered from death and although we know it happens, we are not prepared for circumstances where we have to play a part in it.
If you have a poorly pet that is not going to recover, is in constant uncontrollable pain or has very little quality of life ( we'll discuss this later) then you will probably be considering euthanasia for your friend.
Some people choose to leave their pet to die without help, to avoid being involved in causing their death. I believe this to be wrong for a number of reasons.
When you take on a pet, you also take on the responsibility of making sure it has its basic needs provided and is healthy. If your pet becomes unwell, it needs to be treated so it either recovers or can live comfortably. If it is in pain, or can no longer do the things it once enjoyed doing, then it's quality of life is no longer good. Just existing from day to day is no life for an animal. If there is no hope of recovery, then it's the owner's responsibility to make sure it has a 'good death'. The word 'euthanasia' means exactly this, and a smooth euthanasia should cause the animal no added distress.
If a pet is terminally ill and obviously declining in health, it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering if it's left to die 'naturally'. I'm often called out to put to sleep old cats, who are in the end stages of kidney failure and have been basically comatose for days. They might not be in uncontrollable pain but I don't think they were entirely comfortable before they lost consciousness. Some can be roused for short periods of time to be fed small quantities of food and water but this doesn't mean they are improving.
A third point is it's much nicer for you, the owner, and your family to have memories of their pet being relatively happy and well before they died. I've had many more people say they wished they had chosen euthanasia sooner, than I've had saying they'd done it 'too soon'. Letting your pet go with his dignity still intact seems to be an important factor in the amount of guilt owners suffer afterwards.
So how do you know 'when' to do it? No one can make that decision for you, but your vet should be able to guide you towards a time that's right for both you and your pet. Some people say that 'you'll know' but it isn't always that straighforward.
Owners often find it helpful to make a 'quality of life' chart. This can be done when a pet is quite young and can be invaluable if an healthy animal is sudden struck down by illness or an accident. Make a list of all the things that your pet likes to do -go for walks, eat, play with a toy, climb trees etc- and then decide how much of their quality of life these activities represent.
Once your pet can no longer do the majority of things it used to enjoy, then it may be time to give your friend the greatest gift you can- a painless, 'good' death.
Next time, I will be talking about the act of euthanasia itself and explaining what to expect when your pet is put to sleep. I will also outline some of the options that might be available from your vet.