How Do You Know When It’s Time To Euthanize Your Dog? My Experience… Personally And While Working For A Vet

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A few years ago, my 15-year-old dog died — an American Eskimo that I’d raised since he was an 8-week-old puppy. His name was Jersey.

Me with Jersey during my college years. Jersey in his prime as a healthy and active senior dog.

Here’s more about Jersey’s last days and what we think we did to help him live to be 15 (or 105 in dog years).

A few weeks ago, my 14-year-old dog died — a Great Pyrenees / Black Lab mix that hubby and I picked out of the litter. Or rather, he picked us… literally. His name was Tenor.

Tenor a couple weeks before he was old enough to leave the litter - sniffing out his potential pet parents. We stood in the dog pen on the farm where these pups were kept with their mama (white Great Pyrenees) and their dad (black Black Lab). I choose you... says Tenor! He was still too young to leave his mama, so we waited another 2 weeks before we took him home.
We picked Tenor out of the litter (or rather he picked us), and we took him home right after Christmas... so he was like our Christmas puppy.

I’ve learned firsthand that one of the hardest things ever is euthanizing your four-legged companion. (I’ve had to do it a few other times before this, as well.)

Did You Know?… “Euthanasia” comes from the Greek word “euthanatos” — which means “good death”.


Is It Time?

It’s so hard to know when to euthanize a dog.

Even though mine were senior dogs, it’s just not something that any pet owner wants to do. You secretly hope that your dog will peacefully pass in the night — sometimes that happens, but not usually.

Instead, dogs that are left to die on their own will typically die from starvation — which is a long, slow, painful, suffering process that dogs do not deserve.

In many cases, offering your pet ‘death with dignity’ can be a pet owner’s greatest act of love. Waiting until that last dreadful moment during which pets suffer needlessly is a horrid experience for any pet, much less a beloved best friend. Our hopes for how our pets will pass don’t always match up with reality. Many pet owners hope their best friend will pass naturally in their sleep. Unfortunately, while that does occasionally happen, it is the exception rather than the rule. ~Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t feel guilty about euthanizing your dog.

Deciding that it was time to let Tenor go was something that we knew in our hearts was the right thing to do — yet it was so hard to realize that he wasn’t going to be with us anymore.

One of Tenor's last days

After working for a vet and speaking with a other veterinarians about when to euthanize a dog (and how to know when it’s time to euthanize your dog that you’ve lived with for years)…

  1. I thought I’d summarize the helpful guidance that I’ve learned firsthand about this difficult time in a dog owner’s life.
  2. I hope if you’re ever in the same boat I was recently (trying to decide when to schedule your dog’s “last vet appointment”), that you will also find some comfort from this information.

Making the decision to euthanize a pet can feel gut-wrenching, murderous, and immoral. Families feel like they are letting their pet down or that they are the cause of their friend’s death. They forget that euthanasia is a gift, something that, when used appropriately and timely, prevents further physical suffering for the pet and emotional suffering of the family. Making the actual decision is the hardest part of the experience and I’m asked on a daily basis, “Doc, how will I know when it’s time?” ~Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice


When Your Dog’s Last Days Are Near…

You’ll know it.

Dog's paws curled under

Here are some signs it’s time to euthanize your dog:

#1 – Your dog may have been slow to get around for awhile now — but now your dog moves so slowly that you wonder if they’re in pain and just not expressing it.

TIP: If your dog does express pain by occasionally whimpering or yelping… then you must get a medication that only a vet can prescribe to relieve your dog’s pain right away!


#2 – Your dog may have lost some or all of their eyesight and/or hearing long ago — but now your dog seems unable (or unwilling) to “notice” what’s going on around them.

TIP: As a dog begins to lose their eyesight, it’s best to not move furniture and other large things around inside your house for the rest of their life. Seriously. It’s important that dog feels safe and secure when walking the same path every day to the most important things in their life: outside, potty, food, water, sleep, toys, etc.


#3 – Your dog may have stopped going up and/or down stairs awhile ago — but now your dog finds it difficult to simply “get up” (after laying down) or “lie down” (after standing up). This is usually a sign that your dogs hips, legs, and/or joints are really weak — arthritis may have set in, among other things.

TIP: If your dog is struggling to get up or lie down, most likely there is pain involved. Be sure to see your vet for a medication that will alleviate the pain. (My dog was on Truprofen — the same thing as Carprofen or Rimadyl — for the last 6 months of his life, once the pain became noticeable.)


#4 – Your dog may have started eating less and drinking less in his senior years — but now your dog rarely wants to eat or drink anymore.

TIP: If your dog doesn’t become excited by the smell and taste of their all-time favorite dog treats… then you know it’s getting close to “that time”.


#5 – Your dog may have started peeing or pooping in the house, despite the fact that they’ve never had issues with this as an adult dog in the past.

TIP: If your dog is incontinent to the degree that they frequently soil themself (you find your dog laying in pee or poop)… then you know that they’re losing control of their own bodily functions and “it’s time”.


Dog with difficulty walking

Those were the 5 signs that my dog showed. And veterinarians agree — those are signs it’s time to euthanize your dog.

For my dog, those 5 signs pretty much appeared rather quickly. His last 6 months were not terrible, but they just weren’t very enjoyable for him… or for us. And they say when it becomes a “quality of life” issue… it’s time to start thinking about your dog’s last days.

Here are some of the ways other dog owners have said “they knew” it was time.

TIP: Write down the top 5 things that your dog loves to do. When they can no longer do 3 or more of them, their quality of life has been impacted to a level where many veterinarians would recommend euthanasia.

But keep this in mind:

It’s normal for your pet to have good and bad days toward the end. Owners shouldn’t feel as if they have done something wrong if the euthanasia takes place on a day their pet is feeling well. I would much rather somebody plan — we had a good day, went to the park, came home, had the ice cream sandwiches, and we let that pet go — than to say, ‘OK, let’s play it day by day,’ and suddenly I get a call, ‘My dog is in distress, can you come today?’ It’s OK to be a good day. There is no perfect time. Nobody will ever know the perfect time. ~Dr. Fiona McCord, founder of Compassionate Care Pet Services


Advice From Veterinarians When To Euthanize A Dog

For my dog Jersey (mentioned at the start of this post), the words from our veterinarian that helped us decide were:

“When you start having more bad days than good days, you’ll know it’s time.”

Old senior dog

When pets have good days and bad days, it can be difficult to see how their condition is progressing over time. Actually tracking the days when your pet is feeling good as well as the days when he or she is not feeling well can be helpful. A check mark for good days and an X for bad days on your calendar can help you determine when a loved one is having more bad days than good … Dr. Alice Villalobos is a well-known veterinary oncologist. Her “HHHHHMM” Quality of Life Scale is another useful tool. The 5 H’s and 2 M’s are: Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Happiness, Hygiene (the ability to keep the pet clean from bodily waste), Mobility, and More (as in, more good days than bad). Dr. Villalobos recommends grading each category on a scale of 1 to 10 — with 1 being poorest quality of life and 10 being best. If the majority of categories are ranked as 5 or above, continuing with supportive care is acceptable. ~Dr. Any Rourk, DVM


For my dog Tenor who just recently passed, the words of another veterinarian friend of ours summed it up best:

“If you can tell that your dog isn’t happy because when he’s “here” and he wants to be over there, he’s frustrated that he can’t get there. And when he’s “there” and he wants to be over here, but he can’t get here… that’s when you know it’s time.”

Senior dog resting more

That last quote mostly pertains to dogs that have mobility issues, like ours did. He had TPLO surgery for a torn ACL when he was 2 years old. As a senior dog, in his last 2 or 3 years, that leg wasn’t very stable anymore and he eventually had to stop using stairs… running… walking any farther than the porch step without falling down… and getting up or down on his own.

14 years for a big dog is a long time!


Here is some additional advice from other veterinarians:

“When they stop wagging their tail and stop drinking water, they are not having fun and it’s time to let them go.”

“When you’re seeing signs that indicate your dog is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life, then it’s time.”

“If they are frequently vomiting or having constant diarrhea — those things cause dehydration and/or significant weight loss and may be a sign that your dog is nearing the end.”

“If your dog has incurable suffering that can’t be fixed, it’s time to let them go.”

“When they have chronic labored breathing and coughing, it’s usually a sign that there is fluid in the lungs and/or heart failure, which are common in a dog’s final days and makes the dog feel like they’re drowning in their own boy.”

And some of the best advice I’ve seen is this little gem:

Remember that pets live in the moment. One of the most wonderful things about animals is how they embrace the present. Every time I walk into my house, my faithful Vizsla throws a one-dog ticker tape parade. The fact that I have entered the house thousands of times before, or that I will leave again in a few hours, means nothing. All that matters to him is the joy that he feels right now. When our pets are suffering, they don’t reflect on all the great days they have had before, or ponder what the future will bring. All they know is how they feel today. By considering this perspective, we can see the world more clearly through their eyes. And their eyes are what matter. ~Dr. Any Rourk, DVM


Do You Want To Be There While Your Dog Is Being Put To Sleep?

Personally, I was with them from the beginning — so I definitely wanted to be with them at the end. Through the good times… and bad.

Tenor's first vet appointment

I have always been there when each of my dogs was put to sleep. And I wouldn’t have it any other way — for my dog’s comfort level and my own peace of mind. I can’t imagine my companion of so many years being in a strange, cold environment… not knowing what to expect, and alone.

But some may simply not want to remember their dog’s last moments in that way. If that’s you, don’t feel bad about it. The process is rather quick when the dog’s owners are not present.

You will also need to decide whether you want your dog to be put to sleep in your home or at the vet’s office.

My first thought was, “At home… of course! What dog owner wouldn’t want that? It’s so convenient and it would be nice for the dog to be in their own familiar surroundings.”

But then my husband reminded me that we would always be thinking, “He was put to sleep right there.” That’s a memory (and feeling) you can’t forget. Another example… a friend of ours told us her cat died unexpectedly and they found him in the guest bedroom. To this day, she can’t go into that guest bedroom.

So yeah… that’s a feeling I didn’t want to have in my own home. So I opted for doing it at the veterinarian’s office.

He was right!… There was a place along the way to the veterinarian’s office that we stopped to let Tenor use the bathroom. And to this day, I always get a weird feeling and a sad memory when I drive by that spot.


What The Process Of Euthanizing A Dog Is Like

Have no fear… it is a calm and peaceful process for your dog. And veterinarians and their assistants are trained to make you and your dog feel at ease the entire time.

One valuable thing I’ve learned from my veterinarian friends is this: It’s best when the veterinarian gives your dog a sedation drug first (as a shot). The sedative helps your dog have a gentle transition from consciousness to unconsciousness — they simply feel like they are falling into a deeper and deeper sleep,

Veterinarian giving dog sedation prior to euthanasia

Otherwise, the process of your dog’s body shutting down may cause the dog to suddenly jerk or gasp — which can be scary for your dog to experience and unsettling for you to see.

Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbitol. This is most often done in pets that are not likely to hold still for the IV injection. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take effect in about five to 10 minutes. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection. ~American Humane

It can take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes for the sedation drug to work.

My last few moments with Tenor  I told him what a good boy he was and how much I loved him.  Dog euthanasia is a difficult but necessary time in a dog owner's life.

TIP: Be sure to take off your dog’s collar during this time — unless you intend on burying your dog with their collar on. (We had our dog cremated. Then they spread his ashes on the farm.)

Basically, these are your final moments with your dog awake. The dog is 100% content… and aware that you are there (at first)… until their breathing slows… their tongue hangs out because there isn’t the urge to swallow… and they basically fall asleep and are no longer aware of what’s going on around them.

Dog euthanasia tongue

Then, you can pretty much spend as much time as you wish saying your final goodbye.

At which point the veterinarian will give your dog the shot that stops your dog’s heart.

Veterinarian administering the shot that stops the dog's heart.

Your dog cannot feel this happening — because the sedation drug has done its job and your dog is in la-la-land.

Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either the front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet … Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbitol is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less. ~American Humane

TIP: Be sure to take your dog’s most favorite toy — or blanket — with you to the vet. I took my dog’s favorite dolphin toy to give him something to lay with that he was already familiar with, and I think it helped him feel more at ease in a cold room on the floor at the vet.

Dog's favorite toy that he had with him when euthanized.


How Much Does It Cost To Euthanize A Dog?

The total dog euthanasia cost depends on 2 things:

  1. Your dog’s size
  2. Where you live

Generally speaking this is the cost to euthanize a dog:

  • Small dog – $35 to $80
  • Large dog – $90 to $150

If you happen to live in a large city, then the dog euthanasia cost could be double or triple that price.

On top of that, there is the cost of dog cremation (if you don’t take the dog with you to bury them yourself):

  • Communal cremation (your dog will be cremated with other dogs): $25
  • Private cremation (your dog’s ashes will be returned to you): $85


Dig Deeper…

To help you decide if the time is near for you to euthanize your dog, use these veterinarian approved Quality of Life scales to gauge your dog’s quality of life:

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How to know when to euthanize a dog