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Knowing When to Say Goodbye to Your Dog

It’s hard to think about, but every dog parent knows that there will come a time to say goodbye. We make all the important decisions for our dogs, but deciding when to euthanize is by far the hardest. We don’t want an ailing dog to suffer, yet we dread making this decision too soon. Here is some information to help and your loved friend in this difficult time.

First, if possible, get a diagnosis for what is ailing your dog. Even if your dog can’t be cured, medication may provide a good quality of life. And even if there is no additional treatment, knowing this for certain will be of great comfort when it is time to euthanize. Having a diagnosis also tells you what to expect and which symptoms to watch for. Remember though, while a vet can help you better understand your dog’s condition and prognosis, you are truly the most qualified expert on your dog’s comfort and happiness.

Many dog owners are told, “you’ll know when it’s time,” but this often isn’t true. Unless a dog is truly suffering, there really is no such thing as a precise “right time” to euthanize. This is a myth that can bring much distress to owners who feel that they must somehow find this magical moment. For most dogs, there is a gradual decline from health to debilitation with ups and downs along the way; where we draw a line to stop this progression is not exact. With many illnesses, it’s impossible to know what each day will bring.

No one wants his or her dog to suffer. Pain is the symptom most people associate with suffering, but other symptoms deserve equal attention. When constant or severe, other symptoms can cause suffering, particularly: labored breathing, nausea, immobility, and anxiety from cognitive decline. If there is suffering, then the decision to euthanize is clear, despite the sadness that comes with this decision.

When suffering is not present, knowing when to euthanize is often far from obvious. It is then very helpful to consider the important elements of the dog’s quality of life, or QOL:


Does your dog have pain, anxiety, nausea, difficulty breathing, frequent coughing, or straining to eliminate? Can he settle down and sleep comfortably, or does he pant, whine, pace, or seem restless?


Does your dog have poor appetite? A normal appetite is a positive sign, but is not the only consideration when looking at overall QOL.


Is your dog alert and interested in the family and surroundings, or does she predominantly sleep or seem withdrawn?


Does your dog soil himself or have open wounds? If so, are you able to keep him clean?


Does your dog need help, soft flooring, or medication to walk? This is OK as long as she can comfortably get to where she needs to go, and the needed help is always available.

Overall Happiness

Is there still joy in your dog’s life, and does he have things to look forward to? Is your dog tolerating medication well?

Good and Bad Days

For dogs that are having a mixture of good days and bad, do the good days outnumber the bad? Is your dog truly happy on the good days and how bad are the bad days?

If you have evaluated your dog’s quality of life, and you still don’t know what to do, try asking yourself these questions:

Is there something I am waiting for? If you are waiting until a dog can no longer wag his tail or stand up, that is probably waiting too long. Be realistic and honest about how much of a decline is OK.

If there were a treatment that would keep my dog in the current condition (no improvement or worsening) for an entire year, would I give it? If the answer is yes, then your dog must have a good quality of life that you wish you could maintain. If the answer is no, the current state probably should not continue for long.

As you think about your dog’s QOL, please keep the following in mind:

The overall QOL assessment is not for dogs that are suffering. For example, if a dog has very labored breathing, the rest of the QOL assessment doesn’t matter.

If there’s a large deterioration each day, or a chance for an emergency (e.g., internal bleeding), or a risk of an adverse event (e.g., getting stuck behind furniture while the family is out), it may be best to be proactive, to prevent suffering.

Don’t forget your own quality of life: If a dog is frequently soiling, needs constant care, or is keeping the family up all night, this may not be a tenable situation.

Ideally, there is family agreement about QOL, but kids or partners may have a difficult time with end-of-life planning. Euthanasia is an emotional as well as a medical decision. Feelings of guilt and regret can last for a long time, even years, after a dog has passed. We must support our family, even as we try to do what’s best for our dog.

When possible, planning ahead will make this incredibly difficult process easier. Ideally, all family members are involved in talking about QOL and when it will be time to say goodbye. Remember that euthanasia is not about ending life; your dog’s illness is doing this. Euthanasia is a gift to prevent suffering and to allow your friend to pass in comfort. Euthanasia can be performed in the comfort of home. Your regular vet may offer this service, or you can find a home euthanasia provider at Scheduling euthanasia at home usually requires planning, as this service might not be available on an emergency basis.

No matter how hard it gets, try to remember that a loved dog has a legacy that is much greater than their final days. We owe our dogs the honor of remembering the best parts of their lives, and our joy in sharing our lives with them.

Evelyn Ivey, D.V.M., is the founder and owner of Peace for Pets. She provides compassionate euthanasia in the comfort of home. She is a pet bereavement counselor certified by the Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement. For more information about euthanasia, pet loss and Peace for Pets, go to

Are you a San Francisco Bay Area veterinarian who would like to write an article for the Ask Dr. Dog column, which is authored by guest veterinarians practicing in the Bay Area? Bay Woof is accepting submissions. Send email to 

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