Ethics of “saving” sick or aging petsSir Walter Scott was not only a prolific poet and novelist, he was also “perhaps the most devoted dog lover that ever was,” according to a New York Times article published in 1898. In paintings, he is almost always portrayed with a dog. And his deerhound, Maida, is immortalized in the monument of Scott in Edinburgh, forever curled at his side.

Scott lamented about the brief lives of his canine companions: “I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?”

It’s a loss that all dog and cat lovers have to face at some point. But how do you know when it’s time to let go of your companion? And when can euthanasia, in fact, be the most kind and loving choice?

The Dilemma of Sick and Old Pets

Pets are living longer than ever before, thanks to advances in nutrition and veterinary medicine — and perhaps because more now sleep in our beds, rather than outside. And many of the same life-extending procedures available for humans can also be offered for pets. From brain surgery and chemotherapy to hip replacements and kidney transplants, there’s almost nothing you can’t do for your pet (at a price, of course).

But like human medicine, most of these advanced measures rarely come with guarantees of how much life — or quality of life, considering potential drug side effects or hospitalizations — they’ll buy for our pets.

Even if the pet is simply grey around the muzzle and slowing down from a degenerative disease, a common phenomenon in older pets, at what point is medical poking and prodding helping the pet or hindering comfort and happiness?

Subtract Your Emotions from the Equation

While these questions never have black-and-white answers, what makes them even harder is the fact that your pet is a loved family member, bound inexplicably to your heart. But perhaps the kindest thing you can do is to put aside how you feel and focus instead on how your pet feels. How can you minimize your pet’s suffering and make sure their remaining time is physically and mentally rewarding? To help accomplish this, there are numerous quality-of-life surveys, like this one, that help you objectively evaluate whether your pet is enjoying life or having a hard time of it.

You can also keep a daily diary to determine if your pet is having more bad days than good. Or select three of your pet’s favorite activities, whether it’s slurping up peanut butter, chasing a laser or retrieving the squeaky toy, and note when your pet loses the interest or ability to do the things he or she loves.

The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement also offers resources and online chats to help you grapple with the difficult decision.

It’s Always a Personal Decision

Your veterinarian can be an invaluable resource in terms of evaluating your pet’s comfort level or simply serving as a sounding board to discuss how you feel. But inevitably, only you and your family can decide what’s right for your pet.

Knowing when to let go is, without a doubt, the toughest part of being a pet parent. But it’s also one of the most loving and compassionate ways we can repay our pets for a life of devoted companionship.