When we bring home the cuddly ball of fur that is a new puppy or kitten, we rarely think about the day—probably years later—when we might be making difficult decisions about its care. Yet the fact is that most of the time, we will outlive our pets. As part of responsible pet ownership, it’s important to understand the options for care if a pet becomes injured, seriously ill or just experiences the gradual decline that comes with aging.
When he was 6-years-old, Casey, a golden retriever belonging to Don and Linda Schroeder of Wayzata, ran into the side of a passing car. “He was near death and unresponsive,” says Don Schroeder. Casey survived, but “the journey we embarked on that day was long and arduous,” Schroeder explains, including dealing with Casey’s permanent brain damage, mood swings and unpredictable behavior. The Schroeders cared for their beloved companion for four more years until, Don says,Casey “could no longer accept life’s challenges.” At age 10, Casey was euthanized.
Dawn Dacut of Minnetonka has experienced the challenges of chronic health issues with her shepherd-husky mix, Layla. At 11 months old, Layla began limping and was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. Major invasive surgery was necessary, at considerable expense and with a five-month recovery period.
Just over a year later, Layla pulled her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a common injury in human athletes. That surgery required another significant financial investment and six months of recovery. Then at age 4, Layla tore her left ACL and is now recovering from that surgery. “Every surgery was a big decision,” says Dacut, “but not necessarily hard. We love our dog and she’s part of the family.”
Dacut mentions a number of factors they considered in their decision-making process. First was their level of trust in their veterinarian. “We wondered about second opinions and alternatives that might be less invasive and costly,” she explains. “But with each new opinion comes another set of appointments and costs. It comes down to getting the best vet and then trusting him or her.”
The family also thought about their dog’s age. “If Layla were 10 years older,” says Dacut, “it would become a very hard decision. We would ask if there was a different, less expensive procedure that would be easier on the dog.”
Finances, a factor for many owners, also played into the decision. “There is so much love for the furry family member,” explains Dacut, “but the kids are not the ones paying for it, so the pressure becomes awful.”
And all that family love for the pet makes any choice fraught with emotion. “Your heart gets all tied up in the decision your head has to make,” she says. “It’s hard to put a price on the love you have for your pet.”
As a younger dog with extensive medical challenges, Layla may be the exception, but many pets experience increasing health issues as they age. Jean Beuning, owner of Top Dog Country Club in New Germany, is also a founding board member of the nonprofit Top Dog Foundation, which rescues senior dogs—often deemed “unadoptable” because of age and health—and provides them with loving and permanent homes. She has fostered 125 dogs and owns several.
Beuning offers some recommendations for the care of aging dogs: Feed them the best diet you can (she suggests grain-free), keep their weight down, and provide the best care you can afford. In addition, she says that plenty of exercise and socialization can help dogs live longer, healthier and happier lives.
But even with the best of care, pets will reach the end of their lifespan long before we’re ready to say goodbye. What do owners need to know to make informed end-of-life decisions for an injured, ill or aging pet?
Dr. Rebecca McComas is a veterinarian and owner of MN Pets, which has provided in-home end-of-life care for thousands of pets since opening in 2010, including hundreds in the Lake Minnetonka area. “We believe the most important consideration for owners is their pet’s overall quality of life,” she says. “In old age, and especially with terminal diseases, pets often experience pain, nausea, loss of appetite, incontinence, limited mobility and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.”
Beuning, who has said goodbye to 15 dogs in the last 13 years, agrees that quality of life is paramount. “I have spent many thousands of dollars on diagnostic tests and procedures and treatments to extend life,” she says. “It was worth every penny, but when it no longer benefits my dogs and they no longer have quality of life, that’s when I stop.”
As quality of life deteriorates, the time comes to consider a final step. “When the pet’s problems can no longer be alleviated with medication or environmental adjustments,” says McComas, “it’s time to think about helping the pet to have a peaceful and painless passing from this life. I strongly advise having a conversation with the veterinarian who has cared for your pet over the years. It’s never too soon to bring up the topic of euthanasia and ask for their advice.”
Beuning offers some observations from her own considerable experience. “When the bad days outnumber the good days, when they refuse to eat, when they start to retreat and not participate in the family, they are telling me it is time,” she says. “I don’t want to wait too long, until they are in crisis.”
McComas acknowledges the complexity of the decision. “Unfortunately, there usually isn’t one unmistakable sign to know when it’s time to say goodbye,” she says. “Trust yourself that you are the one who can best determine the right time. No one knows your pet as well as you do.”
While a pet’s death can be one of life’s most difficult losses, owners can find solace in the depth of relationship they shared with their pet and in the memories they created together. Beuning takes comfort in the commitment she’s made to her dogs, one that extends throughout their lifetimes. “Nothing is more difficult than saying goodbye,” she says, “but no matter how painful the process is, I will be there with them until the end.”
In-home hospice and euthanasia
Solace Veterinary Hospice
Private pet cremation
Pet Cremation Services of MN
End-of-life care FAQ
ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline
End-of-life pet photography
Sarah Beth Photography