One of the hardest parts of being a dog owner is dealing with the inevitable end of life of your beloved family member. Seeing your dog slow down and potentially suffer is impossibly painful. They have given us so many years of unconditional love, making it incredibly difficult to say goodbye. Although we will miss them terribly, some pet parents have to decide to euthanize. Those who aren’t ready to euthanize may choose alternatives to help their dog die at home naturally.
Allowing a Dog to Die Naturally at Home: A Personal Choice
When we have a pet that is terminally ill, we struggle with deciding on when “it’s time” to make the euthanasia decision. We want to give our pets quality time, but we don’t want them suffering. Our own emotions, family dynamics and even religion can come into play as well:
Fear: Emotional fears of loss of the dog’s companionship
Concern: Concerns that your dog could get better and making the decision too fast
Stress: Desire to keep your dog from experiencing stress and anxiety, especially at the veterinarian’s office
Family: Lack of consensus between family members about euthanasia, especially if some feel it should be sooner or that your dog has more good time left
Religion: Some religions have different opinions about humane euthanasia
Is This the Best for Your Dog?
Once you’ve sifted through your own emotions and family’s thoughts about helping your dog to die well, consider what may be best for your dog. Some pet owners argue that allowing a dog to die naturally at home allows them to die with dignity instead of being stressed out on a cold metal table at the family veterinarian’s office. At-home euthanasia is an option, and can take away the fear and stress of an unfamiliar location for your pet. But sometimes the idea of anyone but you handling your dog can bring on anxiety. And, of course, intervening just isn’t everyone’s first choice. While euthanasia can ensure you’re with your dog in those last moments, a natural death at home may feel more peaceful to you.
Allowing Mother Nature to take her course ensures you give your dog every chance to fight her illness and pass away in her own time. Veterinarians would argue, however, that it’s hard for pet owners to catch signs of pain or distress in the days, weeks or months prior to death, so it’s important that your veterinarian is part of your dog’s end-of-life process, even when you’d rather your dog die naturally and at home.
You're Not in This Alone
Allowing your dog to die at home is a process that you don’t have to be alone for. And, in many municipalities, you have a legal obligation to seek help to end any suffering.
Your Veterinary Partner
Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Werber states that in his experience, "It is very rare for a pet to be sick, but not be suffering, and then peacefully pass away overnight. When a pet is sick and is starting to fail, death is usually preceded and accompanied by discomfort, anxiety, and/or pain." A dog will begin showing signs they are dying before they die on their own and, “the need for euthanasia is clear.” Ethically, allowing a dog to die on their own without at least palliative veterinary care can lead to undue pain and suffering for your dog, and may have legal implications.
Sometimes, natural deaths aren't smooth. Your dog might experience seizures, difficulty breathing, or other complications that can be heart-wrenching to witness.
Lap of Love is a company that has a nationwide network of veterinarians that will provide hospice and house call services, including at-home euthanasia. This service allows dogs to die at home with the assistance of a veterinarian to relieve any pain they may be in. This allows you to cherish every moment with your dog, knowing they're comfortable.
Your Legal Requirements
Your veterinarian is there to help support you and can also guide you about local laws. Animal cruelty laws are in place in many locations that require pet owners to bring their pets to the veterinarian if they are suffering, and others prohibit at-home euthanasia without a licensed veterinarian present. These laws exist to make sure animals don’t suffer needlessly. It’s hard to think of this happening with our beloved companions, which is why your veterinarian is your best partner. They’re there to support you and make sure we combine love and compassion with a keen understanding of the death process to help our dogs die as peacefully and painlessly as possible.
Interpreting the Signs of Dying
Dogs hide their pain well as an instinctive behavior, so it’s very possible for a deeply compassionate owner to believe their dog is peacefully living through their last days when they’re actually suffering. According to Dr. Werber, some pet parents who want their pets to die naturally at home may not understand the signs of anxiety, distress, or pain.
When we see our dog every day, we’re less likely to notice these changes unless we are examining them closely. Providing the dog with pain management may seem to help, but dogs can mask pain without their pet parent really knowing. They can’t exactly tell us how they feel in words.
If you and your veterinarian are hoping to help your dog die naturally at home, consider asking your veterinarian these questions regularly:
- What signs of pain or discomfort should I be looking for?
- Where can I go if my dog's in pain after hours?
- How can I help my dog stay calm through the coming days/weeks?
- What is my dog's current quality of life?
Consider What to Expect During Death
According to Dr. Richter, another reason that well-intentioned dog owners may think allowing their dog to die naturally at home is due to lack of experience. He explains, "Very commonly I see people pushing things farther than I'd like them to go and it's usually coming from a place of someone who's never seen this happen." Watching an animal die is, in his words, "not pretty. The very end stages of life are drawn out and miserable for all concerned." Dr. Werber agrees and believes, "the beauty of euthanasia is a gift we can give back to our best pal who gave so much to us over the years."
If you'd like to have your dog die at home, ask your veterinarian what to expect, given your dog's condition or disease. While euthanasia puts the dog gently to sleep, death may not look like this at home. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions and consider if you, and your dog, are ready for that.
Knowing the Right Time to Opt for Euthanasia Instead
Dr. Gary Richter, DVM, agrees with Dr. Jeff Werber. In Dr. Richter's own words, there is "so much emotion wrapped up in the decision to euthanize." He has found that owners often delay the euthanasia decision because "they cannot bear to make it."
He relates that, “In the over 20 years I have been a veterinarian, in most cases if you explain to the owners what will happen to the dog if he or she is allowed to continue suffering, they are able to make the difficult decision to euthanize.” He counsels owners who are struggling with the decision to “take a step back and see that you can end an animal’s suffering.”
Consider an At-Home Alternative Plan
Dr. Werber suggests that owners contemplating allowing their dog to die at home to avoid the stress of going to the vet consider humane alternatives. "Many vets provide an in-home euthanasia visit, where your pet can be euthanized in comfort and the loving environment of their home." At-home euthanasia can let you give your ailing pet his final peace surrounded by family and free of anxiety and fear. You can even surround them with their favorite blankets and toys for added comfort.
Seeing the natural progression can sometimes make it easier for pet owners to come to terms with their loss, feeling that they gave their pet every possible moment.
The Final Decision
Allowing a dog to die naturally at home is a deeply emotional topic. While some believe it's important for dogs to pass away naturally in their home, or through the use of a hospice program, others feel their dog needs assistance via euthanasia to go over the rainbow bridge peacefully. The way you decide to say goodbye is your choice to make with your family, but making sure you weigh the pros and cons of continuing is important in making that decision. Every situation is unique, and what's right for one dog and their family might not be right for another.