I went to see Belle, an aging black Labrador a few weeks ago and during the appointment Belle’s owner, Melinda, looked deep into my eyes with a look of concern and asked “How do I know when it’s time?”  I can’t count how often I am asked this question.  It is difficult but it is necessary.


February is Responsible Pet Ownership Month

The most important part of pet responsibility is preventing suffering.  None of us want our pets to suffer.  We do things every day to prevent that.  As responsible pet owners, we offer them nutritious food and fresh water.  We exercise them and socialize them but what happens when preventing suffering becomes less straight forward.  How do we know if our ill pet, or our aging pets are suffering?  How do we know when it is time to do the responsible thing and let go?


Belle’s Story

Melinda and I discussed Belle’s condition.  Belle was old and she did have osteoarthritis which was resulting in pain and slowing her down.  She was also experiencing intermittent vomiting.  Melinda was afraid that Belle was suffering and she was beginning to think of the end.  She wondered if she was being selfish to allow Belle to keep living in the state that she was in.


“I was told, that I would ‘just know’ when it was time” said Melinda.


“Well, sometimes that’s true” I replied, “but not always.  Sometimes our pets are so good at hiding symptoms of pain, discomfort or suffering that we just don’t know.  That’s where I can come in to help.”


Melinda and I spoke about Belle’s condition.  We also spoke of Melinda’s concerns and her family’s ability and limitations to care for Belle.  I performed a physical exam on Belle and was able to determine where she was experiencing pain.  After reviewing a Quality of Life Scale together we determined that Belle’s quality wasn’t optimal.  However, there were some things that we could do to improve it.

Belle sat curled at Melinda’s feet as we discussed options for a plan.  Melinda provided a budget and we worked within that to perform diagnostic tests and to set up a plan including medications, rehabilitation therapy and a specific nutrition plan.


A few weeks later Belle was more mobile, more social and her vomiting had stopped.  Her tail was wagging when I greeted her and when Melinda and I repeated the Quality of Life Scale for her we found a good improvement.


Melinda was happy that she was able to decrease Belle’s discomfort and get her dog back to her more normal self.  I did remind her that it is important to continue to assess Belle as over time the medications and treatments may not have the same effect and it is always important to keep Belle’s overall quality of life in mind.


How Do I Know When it is Time to Say Goodbye?


As the owner of your own pet, how do you know when it is time to say goodbye?  I wish that I had a short and easy answer but it really is different for every pet.  My best recommendation is to talk with your veterinarian or a palliative care veterinarian to assist you assess your pet and make the best decisions for you, your pet and your family. I try to remember three important words when assisting pet families in making decisions.  If your decisions are coming from a place of love and respect for your pet and if you are providing the best care you will be on the best track to making the right decisions.

Some things to consider: 

  • Has my pet changed recently?
  • Are they still social?
  • What are the things that they used to love in life? Do they still love them?
  • Is you pet able to do things that still make them happy? Are they mobile and independent?
  • Are they getting enough nutrients and staying hydrated?
  • Can you keep them clean?
  • What is acceptable for me and my pet?
  • What is unacceptable? Where do you draw the line?
  • Are you prepared if things get worse quickly?
  • Would you prefer to plan the end or are you ok with an emergent ending?
  • Are you able to support your pet to improve their quality of life? Physically, emotionally, Spiritually and financially?
  • Is there something you need to do now to memorialize your pet?


Questions to ask your Veterinarian: 

  1. Is my pet in pain/uncomfortable?
  2. Is my pet in distress or suffering?
  3. What are my options, if any, for improving quality of life?
  4. How much will testing and treatment cost?
  5. What are my options for end-of-life? Where, when, who, how?
  6. What do I do in an emergency?


A note on pain:

It is important to note that we are not always good at assessing pain in our own pets and so it is recommended that you consult a veterinary professional to assist you in determining your pet’s level of pain and discomfort. You can learn more about pain in pets by reading our blog How Do I Know if My Pet is in Pain?



It would be wonderful if our pets could talk to tell us exactly how they are feeling and what they want.  That’s where we can help.  A palliative care veterinarian can “listen” to the signs that we see in your pet.  We can order tests that can help us to better understand their overall health.  We listen to everything that you, as a responsible pet owner tell us.   When we put all of this together we can help to decipher what your pet is saying.

We are here to help you make the right decisions for your pet and your family.  Don’t be afraid to reach out.

Dr. Janet Henderson
Certified Palliative Care Veterinarian