Acknowledging that your pet is in distress due to symptoms caused by a terminal illness is the most heartbreaking aspect of caring for a beloved companion.  At this moment, you have reached the point at which you feel you must weigh the decision of ending your pet’s life to salvage them from prolonged distress.   We want to try to get you to understand euthanasia: when compassion and distress collide, and what it means.

To acknowledge a pet may be in distress means you must understand and be able to recognize suffering.  My preferred definition of suffering is “anything that denies us our true selves.”  I use this often to explain what suffering looks like in my patients to the caregiving family when asked during a consultation.  It is the state or experience of one who suffers.  Physical pain, loss of mobility, nausea, dehydration, hypertension, cognitive decline, seizures, difficulty breathing, and difficulty swallowing are all examples of states that cause suffering.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, distress, suffering, misery, and agony mean the state of being in great trouble.  Distress implies an external and usually temporary cause of great physical or mental strain and stress.  Suffering implies conscious endurance of pain or distress.  Misery stresses the unhappiness attending sickness or loss.  Agony suggests pain too intense to be borne.

As compassionate human beings, it is understood why and when we choose euthanasia to relieve distress for the pets we love and care for.  Veterinary professionals empathize with families faced with this decision because they’ve often made these decisions for their own pets at home.  

We know that some of our clients struggle with choosing euthanasia because they feel it is not their decision to make; they feel as though they are “playing God” by choosing to end their pet’s life.  At the same time, clients want us to ensure them that in choosing this treatment, they are, above all, choosing to eliminate their pet’s physical and emotional pain even if it means the client must be willing to start their suffering in order to end their pet’s distress.  

Most of you will seek advice and assistance with this decision from your veterinarian, veterinary support team, friends, family, support group, therapist or social media.  Some will need more support than others, and for those folks, there is individualized assistance available.  Palliative medicine, pet hospice, and end-of-life care is becoming more advanced and available around the world as time progresses.  Even if you don’t have this type of service available in your area, many veterinarians who specialize in it offer Telehealth consultations to help you in determining your pet’s quality of life no matter where you reside. 

While assisting families in decision-making, I gently remind families that euthanasia is a treatment choice.  It is permanent, but it may be the only choice that will fulfill their desire to eliminate the physical and emotional pain experienced in their pet’s state of suffering due to the disease you’re both struggling with.  This decision is never easy, however, there are many professionals willing and able to help families navigate their impending loss. We hope this article has helped you understand what euthanasia: when compassion and distress collide.

By: Christie Cornelius, DVM CHPV