Deciding when the time is right to euthanise a pet is not something that most owners want to think about.

According to veterinarian Lloyd Kenda, of Valley Veterinary Centre (www.valleyvetcentre.com.hk), time and emotions influence opinions on the matter.

"In my younger days - and I still see it in young, inexperienced vets - I was quick to deem an owner cruel to let their pet suffer rather than allow a quick, painless death by injection. I was also adamant not to euthanise a seemingly healthy pet, but there are times when this is necessary and the decision to do so, although never easy, is made when you take the time to get the full history," Kenda says.

It is only through his many years of veterinary experience that Kenda has learned never to judge someone making the irreversible decision to end their pet's life. "I don't know all the family background of the pet owner. I may not know the owner's religious beliefs. I don't know the full relationship of the pet with the owner or the rest of the family."

The emotional struggle is often not understood. For example, Kenda says, sometimes the pet is the "last living connection" with a family member, such as a deceased spouse's companion, and the animal was a source of comfort to the couple during their last days together.

"Or the pet may have been the first child of a couple's relationship, the last reminder of a lost partner. There are many reasons why people try to hold on, and sometimes it just takes some time and understanding to learn the background and realise the emotional connection this pet has with the family," he says.

Euthanising a pet may seem to be an easy and obvious choice to an unemotional third party, but it can become so clouded with emotions by a pet owner that it renders them unable to decide either way.

"There is often an enormous amount of guilt when an owner decides to euthanise. 'Am I doing this too early?', 'Will it get better?', 'What if we try X?' are often questions I hear, right through to terrible anguish afterwards and the owner feeling guilty that maybe they did indeed make the decision too late and let their beloved pet suffer for too long," Kenda says. It is an emotional roller-coaster that can often drag the vet along for the ride.

At times the vet may be abused for even suggesting such a procedure, then accused of being heartless for letting the pet suffer too long by not euthanising earlier. "Yes, sometimes we get it from both sides. It is a delicate tightrope, and taking time with owners can help everyone come to the best solution in the pet's best interest," Kenda says.

Kenda says that as a vet he knows objectively and scientifically if the pet is suffering and what the chances are of it making a recovery, and as such can weigh in on the question of quality of life. "Quality of life is a very subjective assessment for a pet - of course there are the obvious situations, but there are often some borderline cases."

He cites the case of a dog with paralysis of the hind legs - it can't walk, but there is no pain. If there is an owner who is willing to take meticulous care of the dog - keeping it clean, assisting with toileting, feeding it correctly - and the dog is indeed eating, drinking, urinating and defecating normally, and showing signs of excitement and affection for the owner, then in Kenda's opinion this dog does have a great quality of life, albeit a nonconventional one, and as such does not require euthanasia.

Alternatively, Kenda says: "In the case of a pet with severe renal failure, that is no longer able to eat unassisted, is vomiting persistently, and is non-ambulatory, then we know the pet is suffering and is not going to get better, and the best option is euthanasia."

But what is the right decision when the pet's owner is overseas and won't be able to return for a few days? "In these situations, intensive supportive treatment may be instigated, ensuring the pet is not overtly suffering and kept alive for the owner to say goodbye. Some might say this is cruel, but if handled correctly it may not be, and it enables the owner to see the pet and say goodbye. My view is, never judge unless you are in that person's shoes," Kenda says.

Of course, he adds, the pet's welfare is his No 1 priority, but he feels it is imperative to listen and work with the pet owner.

"When handled correctly and compassionately, a right time can be found." 

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