Dog Health, General, Responsible Ownership

When do you know it’s time to put a dog down?

Leanna asked me to address this on the blog and, wow, that's about the hardest question I can even try to answer. All I can do is suggest the kind of things I think about, but by so doing I'm not saying that it's easy or clear or in any way black and white for me. This is a question that's immensely hard for everyone. 

Here's what I generally think about, when I'm trying to make this decision:

Dogs don't fear death. They don't anticipate death, they don't know how long their lives have been, they don't feel robbed of years or impact. All of those emotions are ours alone. Dogs only know where they are right then; how they feel right then. As far as we know they have no idea of "I will get better" or "I am getting worse"; they only truly know how they are right now. 

So, for me, when the dog has hit the point where the majority of his or her time is either painful or confusing, even if they are still eating or still able to walk and so on, I don't believe that keeping them going is very kind to them, recognizing who they are and how they depend on the moment they live in. I need to be sure that a dog can be made comfortable and that its world makes sense to it; as long as that's still the case I keep going. 

One very useful rule, one that you put into place BEFORE the end – when you're thinking this may be getting close – is to list three things that show you that your dog is joyful. Maybe for your dog it's eagerly eating, chasing the cat, picking up the ball. The response time may be slow, but if the dog is still feeling enough engagement to do those things, she's probably still happy and comfortable. When two of those things have disappeared – she may still be eating but she shows no interest in the cat or her ball, or she'll still chase a ball but has stopped eating – it's time to let her go to heaven. The reason I say that you decide this early on is that it becomes incredibly hard to decide it later. You'll see any sign of the way she used to be and think that she is still "fighting" or words to that effect. You need to decide before it gets to that point.

Last – of all the times I have dealt with this, of all the people I've talked to, all the dogs I've wept over, nobody has ever said "We did it too soon." NEVER. But many, many say "We waited too long." Once the dog inside the dog is gone, it's time. 

I don't have any quotes about the Rainbow Bridge or the Happy Hunting Grounds or anything like that. This is one of the few times I'll bring my theology training into play, and it's to say that the Bible tells us two things about animals: One, that their story is not our story; they have a different relationship with God than we do. So it should not surprise us that whether they end up in paradise isn't addressed; God figures we have enough to work on letting him get US there.

Second, he loves them very, very much. God is a fan, and I really do mean that. He pays very close attention to how we treat them, and he keeps track of every single one.

So while I cannot tell you whether THIS dog will end up in OUR paradise, though I rather suspect that he will, I can tell you without a shred of doubt that he is not going without a Very Important Person keeping a loving eye on him.

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  • Reply Leanna July 29, 2010 at 5:56 am

    Thank you so much for this. I knew that if I was asking the question, it was time. I ended up putting her down Tuesday afternoon. She had started to just become “not herself.” And then on her last night she was up at 2:30 am crying, which she’d never done. And at 5:30 I found on her on the landing of the stairs, unable to go up or down. And she’d started to lose control of her bladder when she was sleeping, and then when she wasn’t sleeping, over the course of a week or so. And her happy husky tail, which had spent it’s life high and wagging, was down. And the running that was her life’s purpose, was almost impossible.

    She was done. I knew I could probably order pain medication from the vet, and cover the house with towels and clean up after her, but I’d seen too many people wait until the dog had stopped eating and drinking and I didn’t want to do that. She deserved so much better than that. She loved her treats and we spent our last morning hanging out in the yard, with her lying in the raspberry patch.

    My lovely vet came to the house, and she just went to sleep in my arms in the yard (my ever nervous girl, finally calm.) She had a good life and a good death. And I miss her.

  • Reply kelly July 29, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Leanna: I’m so sorry about your dog. That sounds like a very hard but very wise decision.

    Joanna: This was a hard post to read but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you’ve set the bar a bit lower for putting a dog down than most people would. I’ve seen people go to extraordinary lengths, medically and otherwise, to extend the life of a dog that is well past the point you’ve described. But it often seems like we are making assumptions about our dogs that treat them as if they are humans.

    I’m with you on the theology as well: Their story is different from ours and unknowable to us, but God is a big fan of each and every one of them (not unlike the sparrows).

    • Reply Leanna July 29, 2010 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks. I thought I was setting the bar low, but as I was talking to my vet making the appointment and then instantly questioning myself, she asked “do you really just want to let her get worse?” That was how I knew it was time. I couldn’t imagine allowing her pain or confusion or discomfort to get one iota worse simply because I was sad.

  • Reply Liz July 29, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Joanna thanks for this timely post. My grandparents have both passed recently and their lovely, ancient Chessie is still hanging around the house as my family gets things in order. She is about 90% of the way there—she is still eating, and enthusiastic to go outside, and visit with everyone, but her back end is toast and she is almost totally incontinent.

    My family is struggling with what to do with her. No one has the heart to put her down due to her current circumstance, but I personally think that will be far kinder to her than to uproot her from her home of 15 years and thrust her into a new environment at the very end of her life.

    Some people may think I am cruel, but I think its the right thing to do. Its so hard. Thanks for making me feel a little better about my feelings. 🙁

  • Reply Liz Powell July 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    I waited too long when putting down my 15 year old Lab. And I will never do that again. When I finally decided it was time my family still disagreed. Later on I realized what a mistake I had made in waiting so long. I don’t think she was in a lot of pain but she was confused, would howl at night, couldn’t get up without help, was deaf and probably a host of other things. I realized we were keeping her alive for our benefit….not hers. It was a selfish thing for us to do.

    • Reply Ron July 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm

      Leanna, I am very sad to read your news. I was there recently. When we talk about the cost of dog ownership, I think this pain is the most expensive part.

      Joanna, I’ll pick a nit that should not at all change your conclusion. You wrote, “As far as we know they have no idea of ‘I will get better’ or ‘I am getting worse’; they only truly know how they are right now.”

      One day, Hughie was trying to hide the fact that he was limping, and he struggled when I investigated. Turned out that he had a thorn in his paw, which I removed. Months later, he got another thorn. He came straight to me and lifted the paw. To some extent, he saw me as a healer. Perhaps only for that particular pain. But he knew I could make it better. And that added a layer of guilt when I could not make him better.

      Very, very sorry, Leanna. Very sorry.


  • Reply Savannh July 29, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I am actually crying as I write this. My own dog is very young and healthy, but I hope when the time comes I can do the very best thing for him, not myself.
    I do not think you set the bar low; a dog to me is pure, unadulterated joy. When that joy fades, it is time to release them from the chains of a body that can no longer serve them.
    I will be bookmarking this post to share with future friends facing this hard decision.
    As always, I pray the world will gain more people like you. Heaven knows we need them.

  • Reply Mary July 29, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Oh Leanna, I am so, so sorry about your dog. It’s such a hard decision to make – half of your brain is telling you it would be a kindness while the other half is screaming bloody murder.

    One of the absolute worst days of my life was when I had to put my cardi Yankee, down. It broke my heart. She was 16 1/2, going deaf, had cataracts and her rear was totally gone due to a spinal cord tumor. She had back surgery at age 11 that gave us 5 additional good years, but that last few months she just got worse and worse. Yes, Joanna, I waited about 3 weeks too long and even now I still kick myself for being so selfish. The Yankee we knew and loved was gone. But she was my heart dog and … well, she’s been gone over 8 years now & I’m crying as I write this.

    But you know, in spite of that high price that we pay for owning and loving our dogs, I would never not have a dog. It took us about 18 mos to decide it was time to get another cardi, but I wouldn’t trade my Gracie for anything. It’s amazing to me how much room we have in our hearts to love and learn from all of the dogs that touch our lives. They truly are a special gift to us from God.

  • Reply nikkipolani July 29, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    How right you are. I appreciate your clear guidance even though I have cats. I’m not sure if I could apply the same criteria, but I want them not to suffer at all. Thank you for this terrific post.

  • Reply Claudia June 25, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Hi There,
    Just found this site, and spent 2 hours just reading and taking sides in the arguments about coat vs balance and trying to apply it to my breed. German Wirehaired Pointers. Then I found this post and read all the postings and of course started to cry. I have a 5 yr old pointer. He was diagnosed as severely dysplastic 2 years ago after he finished his championship and we were talking breeding after his hunt test. The diagnosis put all these dreams to end and now I have made an appointment to have him put down day after tomorrow. All his days are filled with pain. He can not make it up and off the couch without little yelps. The younger pointer is picking on him and the days when he does not want to eat are becoming more frequent. My husband is very angry with me, saying that he still has years to go and I am rushing things.
    I appreciate your post, because it validated my feelings, that i owe my boy this. To not be in pain any more. The pain meds are making him vomit and I can not see him suffer any longer.
    Thank you

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