How to Decide to Put a Sick Dog to Sleep

Written by corey m. mackenzie
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How to Decide to Put a Sick Dog to Sleep
Even when putting a dog to sleep is the most humane option, it isn't always an easy decision. (Dog image by Jan Zajc from

It is never easy saying goodbye to a beloved dog. Deciding when to put an ill dog to sleep can be one of the most difficult things a dog owner faces. There are many factors to consider when making this decision. Every situation will be different because every dog is different. There are some loose guidelines, however, for making the decision to put a sick dog to sleep.

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    Look for obvious signs of physical pain, such as yelping and fast, laboured breathing. Your veterinarian may have prescribed pain medications, but eventually these medications may not be effective, even at a higher dose. When this becomes the norm, rather than the exception, it may be time to consider humane euthanasia.

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    Make a mental checklist of activities that usually give the dog pleasure, such as playing with a toy, taking a walk or being groomed. As long as a dog is still able to enjoy some of its usual pleasurable activities, some dog owners may choose to wait before putting it to sleep--other factors may outweigh this, however. For example, if the dog has a fast-progressing disease and is deteriorating rapidly, some owners may decide to put a dog to sleep before it starts suffering more. This is a very personal decision and neither is right or wrong.

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    Watch the dog's eating and drinking habits and general ability to receive nutrition. Dogs that are unable to receive sufficient calories and fluids may deteriorate very quickly. Supplements, intravenous fluids and special high-calorie, easy to digest diets will help slow this process, but if the type of illness (stomach cancer, for example) is such that the dog will never be able to recover and eat or drink normally, this is something to consider.

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    Look for apathy and depression signs. Medications and even low blood sugar may cause these signs in dogs too--signs which include lethargy, unwillingness to play or move around and loss of appetite. However, some dogs may simply lose the strength and desire to keep going, with or without medications.

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    Ask yourself if the dog is having progressively more bad days than good days, as suggested by the American Veterinary Medical Association. When the good days become rare, and it is unlikely that the dog will ever recover, then it may be time to put it to sleep.

Tips and warnings

  • Planning some details in advance is heartbreaking, but will help the process be easier on your family. You should think about if you want to be in the room during the procedure or not (veterinarians will give you the option) and what you intend to do after. If you plan to have the dog cremated or buried, for example, it is helpful to make prior arrangements.
  • What you decide is a very personal decision between you and your dog. Quality of life is a relative term. What may be fine for one person or dog, may be insufficient for another. You know your dog better than anyone else and will know when the dog is no longer having sufficient quality of life.
  • Some veterinarians will make a house call to perform euthanasia. If your pet gets very anxious about car rides or the vet, you may wish to consider this option and discuss it with your veterinarian in advance.
  • No matter how much a person thinks this decision through ahead of time, it is common to have second-guesses and worry that the time that was chosen wasn't right. This is an unfortunate, but common, part of the grieving process.

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