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Pet Caregiver Support Blog…

The Harmful Old Wives’ Tails, Part 3: Pain and Suffering in Dying Pets

By Brad Bates, DVM

In the first two parts of this blog series, I described misleading “old wives’ tails” behind pet eating and greeting behavior as it applies to dying pets and decisions about euthanasia. I will touch on another very common and harmful one.

I will now touch on another very common and harmful one. It’s also a tough one to discuss because it brings up the word “suffering.”

Here’s a  statement I hear from many of my clients:

  • “I do not want to make the decision unless my pet is suffering, is she suffering yet?”

Pet parents will often add something about their pet’s pain or what pain they perceive them to be in. But this way of thinking is misleading for a couple of reasons. Let’s discuss how veterinarians like myself approach each individual pet’s status regarding pain and suffering.

Euthanasia Bypasses a Pet’s Pain and Suffering

Old wives' "tails" about pets.

Old wives’ “tails” about pets.

Veterinarians are not taught that euthanasia is only appropriate when a pet is suffering. Nor do we wait for suffering before we recommend euthanasia.

Quite the opposite. We often discuss humane euthanasia before a pet enters a state of suffering or at the early stages of what we would perceive as a suffering state.

I call this the STRUGGLING PHASE. We often euthanize pets when they are struggling, especially when appropriate therapy is not effective, ceases to be effective, is not available, or cannot be offered to the pet for a number of reasons.

In my humble opinion, our pet owners need to understand they have the right to PREVENT suffering, or more suffering, in their pets. Euthanasia is especially appropriate when we know the natural progression of a pet’s disease.

It’s Difficult Even for Veterinarians to Diagnose Suffering in Dying Pets

Even a veterinarian cannot easily and objectively draw a clear line between what is suffering and what is not in a being we cannot fully communicate with.

Even if we could do this, a state of suffering or severe suffering can literally occur moments after a period of calm. There are more appropriate ways to look at this:

  • How much is a dying pet struggling?
  • What efforts can we reasonably and effectively prevent more struggling or lessen the struggling?
  • How long can we reasonably do this?

Pain in pets can sometimes be incredibly difficult to assess especially, the degree to which a pet feels pain. We often overlook discomforts, which extend far beyond regular pain we think about. Discomforts include:

  • Orthopedic and wound pain
  • Hunger and malaise from wasting
  • Lethargy, depression, anxiety, confusion
  • Difficulty breathing and exhaustion

Often, one or more of these are present in the struggling phase and these should not be overlooked. They are the very things that happen before a pet crashes into a phase of suffering. Ironically, some of these discomforts can override feelings of bodily pain. It isn’t unusual for pets to hide signs from us that they are in pain, making it difficult for owners and veterinarians to understand what is going on.

Euthanasia During a Pet’s Struggling Stage Versus the Suffering Stage

Often veterinarians in my line of service will ask the questions above and push to prevent suffering, not only end it. To euthanize a pet in the struggling phase versus the suffering stage provides many benefits to the pet and family:

  • Pet families often feel they did right by their pet when they prevented suffering. Above all, they may want more time before they choose humane euthanasia, but our pet families may feel they waited too long. To provide them the opportunity to not feel this way brings a sense of love and acceptance that often combats those usual feelings of guilt and devastation.
  • The pet doesn’t have to wrongfully live through significant suffering. Our pets often become very anxious during these times because they instinctively know something is wrong and can often feel very uncomfortable (see above about the discomforts a pet may feel).
  • We often can provide a much more peaceful humane euthanasia when a pet is in a stage of struggling. Once suffering starts and progresses significantly, the ability of our medicines to provide a fully relaxed, comfortable pet that’s breathing well becomes often impossible. That being said, the sedation process prior to euthanasia will provide a much more peaceful passing and provide a lot of comfort for the pet.

This may not be evident when looking at the pet during the start of the euthanisa process. For example, a pet that is in extreme respiratory distress will probably fall deeply into sedation. The family, however, will continue to see their pet breathing with difficulty. This is because the body will continue to push hard to get enough oxygen. That memory is common and but it does not have to be the last memory a family has of a beloved pet.

This last point brings up one of the most important things we teach our pet families: quality of life is very important but QUALITY OF DEATH can often be more important for the pet and the family.


Brad Bates, DVM, is a hospice care veterinarian with Lap of Love in Philadelphia. logo for Lap of Love














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