Knowing When It’s Time To Say Goodbye

No doubt about it: For those of us who love dogs, the joy of living with a special pet is unparalleled. And at the same time, the grief of losing that same dog is unbearable. Recently I had to say goodbye to my “heart dog” of nearly 13 years. I wrote about Denver’s last days in my blog, “Gratitude in My Grief.” My experience generated several emails from readers who wanted to know how I knew when it was time to say goodbye. The stories and emails I received were all variations of the question “How will I know?” It’s a question I have asked myself every time a dog I loved has neared the end of his life. It’s a question I asked my veterinarian several times in the past few months. It’s a question I recently had to answer for myself, and for Denver. I thought I would provide my thoughts on how I managed to answer this dreaded question about how to know when it’s time to say goodbye.

My decision for Denver stemmed primarily from considering his quality of life. Due to his age (nearly 13), and the fact that surgery would be extensive and complicated, my husband and I had already ruled out surgery as an option for care. I told myself if I could see Denver was enjoying life, I would continue to keep him happy and comfortable. But quality of life is a tricky thing to define, isn’t it? How do you know if a dog has a good quality of life? For me, I choose to use these three measures to guide my thoughts.

Pain. I knew pain was a factor. If I felt that Denver was in any pain or was suffering, I would know it was time to say goodbye. He was on medication at the end of his life and I could tell it helped him feel better. At the same time I also told myself if giving him medication became an awful part of our daily routine, I would consider that a negative impact on his quality of life. Thankfully, even when Denver really wasn’t eating much, he would normally take his pills in peanut butter. So our morning and evening routine consisted of me encouraging him to eat a spoonful of peanut butter rather than me wresting him to shove pills down his throat.

The Joys of Life. I got this idea from the book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. I wasn’t actually sure if Denver had cancer. For a variety of reasons we were never able to determine the cause of his stomach tumor (that’s a story for another day). However, I decided to read this book to get ideas about full spectrum care for dogs. I would highly recommend it. The chapter I bookmarked and reviewed the most was Chapter 18: Joys of Life. In that chapter, the author describes these joys of a dogs life:

  • The joy of eating and drinking
  • The joy of motion
  • The joy of social interactions
  • The joy of having a fully-functioning body
  • The joy of a healthy mental state
  • The joy of play
  • The joy of expression

I started paying close attention to what increased or decreased Denver’s joys of life. I also took a brutally honest look at whether or not any joys seemed gone for good. The book explains that if one joy is gone a dog can often still live a wonderful life. When two joys of life are gone, be sure you are assessing quality of life and if three or more joys are gone, then quality of life may be dropping significantly. I found the list both heartbreaking and helpful and used it as a gauge of Denver’s quality of life.

Denver’s Favorites. The final list I kept for myself was a list of the top 5 things Denver loved. I figured that if he could no longer do 3 or more of them, his quality of life had declined. For Denver the list looked like this:

  • Eating …everything and anything offered to him
  • Going on walks
  • Chasing his ball
  • Playing chase in the house (a game where we chased him)
  • Hanging out with his human family

Again, I found this list heartbreaking and helpful, but I used it as a gauge of Denver’s quality of life.

Ultimately, I think you have to be prepared to make these decisions for your own dog based on whatever you think is the right thing for your own pet. What you use to make your decision might look different from what I’ve listed here…and that’s ok. I don’t think there is a perfect answer to the “How will I know?” question. The fact that you are even asking the question means you love and care for your dog. Whatever decision you make will be the right decision for you and your pet.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “Knowing When It’s Time To Say Goodbye

  1. Thank you for this Robin! This is very top of mind when assessing Jake’s quality of life. Even though the oncologist doesn’t share much hope, Jake still checks all the boxes…so more now, he has a great quality of life!

    • Thanks, Beke. I know you think about Jake and know he loves spending time and traveling with you. He’s a great boy and I hope he continues to have many years ahead of him! 🙂

  2. A very good article with points I will keep for next time (there will be another 4 times). With my late bitch I waited too long. I should have let her go at least 2 weeks before I did. She had spondolysis and walked with difficulty. The vet said she could be “walking” in the morning and within hours be completely unable to and it did happen like that. She was fine in the morning, but by the evening couldn’t stand and I knew what I had to do. I regret so much that I didn’t do things differently. Since then I have always told people don’t wait too long. These points will help. Thank you. I love Denver’s paw mark and am sorry for your loss.

    • Hi Margaret, Thanks for the comment. It’s so hard to make the decision because it is so emotional. But it’s also easy to double guess things we do too. It sounds like you had a great bond with your dog and know she loved you too! The pawprint was actually from the veterinarian’s office. I wasn’t expecting it, but they gave it to me when I went to pick up his ashes. So sad…but I love it too. Thanks again.

  3. Robin,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I had to put my first dog down on June 21st. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I pretty much equated it to “playing God”. Who was I to make this choice and why should the dog not die like people do…when their time comes? I still have trouble with the decision I made and question how far or how long I should have let her go before I made “the decision”.

    Fortunately with people we have more options when it comes to end of care. In many cases we have had discussions with our loved ones during some point in their lives. In other cases the patient can still let us know what their wishes are up until the end. Of course there are also people who have laid out their wishes in a legal document.

    If McGee was a person she would have been that old broad that is tuff as nails. No matter how bad her health got or how much pain she was in, she would not show us how much her health interfered with her overall well being.

    Robin, after reading your experience with Denver I feel less guilty for the time I chose to say good-bye to my beautiful strong girl. I now tell myself that if I feel I failed her in cutting her life short that I more than made up for it by giving her a full and complete life. I did not let her suffer and she was surrounded by those she loved even after she was gone. Today McGee would have been 16. She almost made it to 16! Cheers to you McGee and look up Denver Bennett, he has a thing for tuff females I hear… Buy him a beer and celebrate his wings.

    May your article bring comfort to those who have had to make such a difficult decision or will have to in the future. Thanks again for sharing.

    Dina Likokapis

    • Hi Dina, Your comments brought tears to my eyes. McGee was so lucky to have you in her life. It sounds like the two of you had an incredible bond. It sounds like you gave her the best life possible. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and smile knowing McGee an Denver are playing together.

  4. Robin, as with all your articles, this is excellent. For me, I have a lot of outloud convos with our Capt. Jack. Sounds weird I know, but I like to verbalize to him how I see him changing and how I need to know if he’s enjoying life. I watch for signs you mentioned and I look for the joy expressed by his wagging tail in doing the small and fun things. He moves slower and has difficulty getting up but I know his meds help for now.
    Thank you for sharing your heart on this very emotional thought process for our beloved pets. You gave Denver such a fully loved life and I’m sorry you had to say goodbye. I will greatly miss him. 🐾 Thank you for helping us make a better quality of life for our “heart dog”. Love and miss you!

    • Thanks so much, Lana. Our dogs are so special! Capt Jack has a wonderful life with you and your family. I’m glad he is surrounded by so much love.

  5. Thank you, Robin, for the insightful and loving approach to deciding when it is time to say goodbye. My beautiful and wonderful dog, Gracie, has just been diagnosed with cancer. It is extensive and there is no recommendations for treatment. She is still hanging in there but everyday I see a little bit of her former self slip away. I pray I have the courage to make the decision at the right time for my sweet Gracie

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