When Should You Stop Treatment For Sick Pets?
Pets rely on us for food, shelter, and for us to make all their health decisions; in return they give us unconditional love. Seems like a fair trade.
Unlike humans who can make their medical wishes known, pets aren’t that straightforward. You might not even know a pet is ill until it’s too late. This makes treatment options for pets some of the most difficult decisions you’ll ever have to make because you’re pretty much on your own.
If you search for something like ‘when should I put my sick pet down’ you’ll most likely find a variation of this quote:
“It’s better to euthanize your pet a month too soon than a day too late”
The follow-up question you might ask yourself: ‘How do I know if it’s too soon or too late?’ leads to this unclear advice:
“You’ll know when the time is right.”
Umm, not necessarily. Perhaps the time is never right to let my beloved, amazing, adorable pet go. Maybe they have a few more months or weeks left, which leads to this final bit of insight:
“Whatever decision you make is the right one.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to treating pets, money matters. It can be prohibitively expensive for many families, especially when the outcome is uncertain. We wrote an article on what to consider when discontinuing life support treatments for humans and it has some overlap with pets as well. It’s often a grueling decision so keep these factors in mind if you’re faced with this situation.
What Are The Recovery Prospects?
Or phrased another way, will your pet be able to enjoy their life the way they always have? If a pet breaks a bone or gets ill, they can often heal and recover faster than humans. They can be magical that way. Seriously, when a human throws up it’s complete misery. When a dog or cat throws up they’ve already moved on before you accidentally step in it on the floor.
But what happens when your pet can’t function at all like they used to? Maybe they don’t want to eat or drink, only want to sleep, or let out heartbreaking whines like they’re in pain. If you go to the vet they may give you a diagnosis you don’t want to hear, maybe give you a timeline that’s way too short. They may offer treatment options that can be painful and expensive and still not provide a path towards an acceptable recovery.
Since you can’t ask your pet what they want you have to take in the information and decide: Should I let my pet go in the most humane way possible if they can no longer feel joy?
It Can (And Will) Get Very Expensive
Human care is outrageously expensive, running into the hundreds of thousands, but at least there’s Medicare, Medicaid, and other types of health insurance to lessen the impact. Pet care can be in the tens of thousands and you’re paying it all out of pocket.
You may have pet insurance, which is helpful for some of the cost, but the majority can fall on you, especially if you opt for treatments that aren’t covered. Even if your insurance covers 80-90% of treatment costs it can still be in the thousands, and you might need to pay the full amount and wait to get reimbursed.
It’s hard to reconcile love vs. money, but most people have a threshold when it comes to their pets. Only you can decide what’s within your budget and how far you’re willing to go.
You should also try and differentiate between what you want and what your pet might want. The same way your pet can’t tell you they hate the TV shows you watch (all the yelling on Real Housewives really stresses them out), they can’t tell you to stop poking and prodding and let them slip away in peace. It’s up to you to make the decision, and if it’s between missing a mortgage payment or raiding your kid’s college fund, then you have to decide what’s best for you and your family.
Your Decision Will Be The Right One
If you have to make a decision to humanely put your pet down it’s normal to feel regret or remorse. You might think you acted in haste and should’ve waited. That’s why veterinarians often say “it’s better to do it a month too soon than a day too late” because the suffering can be real.
While you may only have a few pets in your lifetime, vets deal with this every day and see the heartbreak of an owner unwilling to let go, putting their pet through countless treatments in hope of a miracle.
Most vets will do whatever treatments you request, and some may even suggest new ones. Not to sound cynical, but those treatments pay the bills. We’ve read horror stories of pets being put through a gauntlet of tests and medications that did nothing but run up a huge tab while the pet’s health declined. But we’ve also seen stories of vets showing compassion and offering medication to help the pet maintain until the owner makes the ultimate decision. The vet’s job is to offer options and follow the owner’s instructions, and it’s ultimately up to you to weigh all those options and make the final decisions.
The pain of letting go might seem too great to bear. The same way you made all the decisions for your pet their entire lives, many of which brought so much happiness (like treats, toys, and couch cuddles), you also have to be there for the not-so-pleasant ones too. Be there with them, let them know how much you love them, and honor them by carrying their memory with you for the rest of your life.
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