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Dignity at the End of Life

Posted August 08, 2012 in Advice Column, West Des Moines

I am often asked when is the right time to euthanize a pet. Because family values and disease process are unique in each pet, there’s no easy answer. Please remember that age is not a disease. Pets of all ages get diseases that impair quality of life.

First, an owner must recognize there is a problem as our pets often hide disease. I know many times I’ve seen patients that have hidden their problems for months and years before they presented to a veterinarian. Watching for signs early could allow for a longer quality of life at less cost. Recently I’ve had two different patients come in for specific symptoms and the owners feared the pets were terminal. In both cases, we were able to treat  and improve them to be practically symptom free for at least two months.

This isn’t always the case, but  careful observations by these owners allowed treatment before further progression of problems. Some signs owners should watch for include stiff posture or decreased jumping, lack of grooming (cats), changes in attitude, pacing, increased vocalization or sometimes changes in breathing.

Some owners are fearful a problem will arise that they do not want to treat. Treatment does not have to be done, but pain should always be managed. This is one of the reasons that our office offers home hospice care. Pet hospice is appropriate care and comfort, surrounded by family and friends, such that a pet may live as fully as possible as families prepare themselves emotionally for the end of life. As a member of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, our office works to provide care and support to patients and their families through multiple modalities, such as prevention of pain, drug and non-drug treatment of pain, and rehabilitation. We use a quality of life scale and evaluate each individual patient on their needs and family choices.

Hospice care does not rule out euthanasia. If a patient has unacceptable discomfort or family decisions warrant, euthanasia is a compassionate way to relieve suffering. We recognize that decision making regarding end of life is the right and responsibility of the pet parent. The hospice team helps the decision makers assess quality of life so together we do what is best for each patient.

Have a hospice or home euthanasia question? Contact us at

Information provided by Dr. Jen Emerson-Mathis, Family Pet Veterinary Center, 224-9750, or

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