When is it Time to Say Goodbye?

Making the commitment to owning a pet means recognizing that one day you will have to say goodbye. Sometimes (just like with our human loved ones) we do not have a choice or a say as to when this will happen. Other times it is on us to make the decision as to when that goodbye will happen. The most difficult decision a pet owner can make is the timing of that goodbye.

We don’t want to cut short the life of our best friend, but we don’t want our best friend to suffer either. So how do we know when it’s time to say goodbye? As painful as it is for us, it is so important that we put the needs of our pet first when we make this decision. As a pet professional, I have clients ask me periodically if they should put their pet to sleep – if
it’s time. It is never my decision and I try to make that clear to the pet parent that I cannot make that decision for them. But I can give them some guidance.

Here are some of the questions I ask my clients who are trying to make this most heartbreaking decision. These are the same questions I’m currently facing with my beautiful, 14 ½ year old best friend, Cashew.

1.  Does she still greet you at the door when you come home? If she doesn’t hear you come in due to hearing loss, does she still greet you with enthusiasm when she realizes that you’re home?

2.  Is she still interested in food? Does she eat her usual ration of food at each meal?

3.  Is she enthusiastic about eating? Does she go to her regular eating spot on her own, or do you have to bring the bowl to her now?

4.  Is she still excited by treats?

5.  Does she still engage family members (human or other animals) and seek love and affection?

6.  Does she still engage in play – either accepting the offer of another or initiating play on her own?

7.  Does she still enjoy outings – car rides, trips to the park (even if her actual activity level at the park is lower than it used to be)

8.  Is her potty training still good? Can she control her bladder and bowels and go to the right spot for elimination?

9.  Can she still groom herself – clean her genital region?

If you answered yes to these 9 questions, then your dog still has a good quality of life and is still clearly living.

1.  Does she fail to greet you when you get home – little more than acknowledge you with a lift of the head or a stilted wag of the tail?

2.  Has she lost interest in eating?

3.  Has she stopped coming when you call her for dinner?

4.  Does she seem depressed and lethargic?

5.  Is she sleeping significantly more (or increasingly more and more) than usual?

6. Is she sleeping more during the day and restless/pacing at night?

7.  Has she lost interest in treats?

8.  Has she lost interest in playing?

9.  Has she stopped actively seeking attention and affection?

10.  Has she lost interest in outings?

11.  Is she unable to control her bladder/bowels? Is she having accidents when she didn’t used to?

12.  Can she no longer groom her genital area?

13. Does she seem confused, panicked, does she vocalize frequently for “no reason”?

14.  Is she physically in pain?
a.  Has her mobility decreased? Is she limping, having trouble getting up,  managing stairs, walking on slick surfaces, etc?

       b.  Does she have other health ailments like cancer, heart disease, kidney disease?

If you answered yes to these 14 questions then quality of life is suffering or non-existent.

The likelihood is that you answered ‘yes’ to some questions on each list. And this is where we find the grey area. It is here that we need to weigh the individual answers and try to determine if our dog’s quality of life is suffering. To me, this is the key. When my Cashew’s quality of life is diminished to the point that she is getting no joy out of continuing on, I will be forced to say goodbye to my best friend of the last 14 years. And I have some ‘yeses’ on both lists. She still greets and engages in play and is excited by food and the concept of outings, but she also has a very painful pinched nerve and significant muscle atrophy that sometimes makes it impossible for her to put weight on her left hind leg. So far, I have managed this with medicine, acupuncture and carrying her up the stairs when necessary (all 60 lbs of her). But I’m aware of it and I’m watching it. So far, the ‘yeses’ on the first list outnumber and outweigh the ‘yeses’ on the second list.

When she can no longer groom herself… when she is no longer interested in food or seeking attention, I will know that we have reached the end of our journey. I will know
that the balance has shifted.  I dread that day, but by being realistic and responsible and putting Cashew’s needs ahead of my own, I feel that I am helping myself be as prepared as I can possibly be. I’ll never be ready to say goodbye, but I can be prepared by giving myself some clear guidelines by which to help me make that decision.

UPDATE: Cashew’s fecal incontinence began to increase in frequency, and her inability to manage stairs become more pronounced, such that I needed to help her down stairs every time, and nearly every time she wished to go upstairs. She still tried to play, and she continued to be very food motivated up to her very last hour. In the end, for me the deciding factor was looking at a birthday photo I’d taken with her. I saw such a vacancy in her expression, that it was suddenly clear beyond doubt that she was no longer in there. She was not the dog I’d loved for 14 years. She was still here, still living for me, not because she had any living left to do. And so, 5 days after looking at that photo, my family and I (including my other two dogs) helped Cashew pass peacefully to the Rainbow bridge in the comfort of our home. We kept her for a few hours so that the family (and the dogs) could process that Cashew was no longer with us (I’ll write a blog about that in the near future). I do not regret the timing of my decision. I don’t for a moment believe that I made her hang on longer than she wanted (causing her to suffer), nor do I feel that I cut her life short. I truly believe that I got the timing of this just right. I miss her every second of every day, but I believe she is at peace now and waiting my arrival to the rainbow bridge.

Cashew 11/1997 – 7/9/2012  A best friend, teacher, confidante, travel companion & inspiration. She taught me patience, forgiveness and unconditional love. She is the reason that I am now a teacher of canine obedience and behavior modification.

Cashew at 2 years and full of life


 Cashew at 14.5 yrs. This is the pic that made the decision for me…

About Jody

I have a masters degree in Animals and Public Policy with a minor in Animal Behavior. I am a board certified Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) - one of fewer than 60 certified animal behaviorists in the world. I am also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and a Certified Fear Free Professional. For more than 14 years I have been helping families create more harmonious homes - one dog at a time. I train basic skills and manners to help dogs learn to live in our world. I also work with families with behavior issues from dog-dog reactivity to stranger-danger, from inappropriate jumping to resource guarding, and with a special affection for the timid/fearful pups amongst us. I work with families and their pets to overcome these behavior issues and help their dogs to be their best selves.
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