Pete the Vet: How do you know when it’s time to let go?

Saying goodbye to a beloved pet can be one of the hardest things you do, but your vet is there to support you each step of the way
Pete the Vet: How do you know when it’s time to let go?

Death is inevitable. As has been said in the past — grief is the price we pay for love.

The companionship of animals brings much pleasure into many people’s lives. Pets help us to be physically and mentally healthy, and they support us emotionally, offering us a type of unconditional love that can be hard to find elsewhere.

But there is one big downside: it’s likely that your pet will reach the end of their life before you, so one day you’ll be faced with deep sadness at their loss.

As a vet, this is something I need to deal with nearly every day. It’s the most challenging part of my job. The day you take on a pup or a kitten, you are signing up for a deal which means that you are going to be upset one day in the future, when it’s their time to go.

Death is inevitable. As has been said in the past — grief is the price we pay for love.

We are fortunate that we are able to choose to end the lives of animals before they start to suffer. We can ensure that pets end their lives peacefully, in a controlled way, surrounded by the people that they love.

Vets are allowed to carry out euthanasia, a word which is derived from the Greek for “good death”. In contrast, human doctors have to allow their patients to carry on until the end.

I feel blessed to be able to release my patients before they suffer discomfort, pain, confusion, or agitation.

One of the big challenges for pet owners is choosing the right moment. It can be difficult to see a situation objectively when you are emotionally involved, and vets try to offer advice and tools to make this easier.

Some people find it helpful to write two columns on a page: on the left, you write down all of your pet’s favourite activities when they were in their prime. On the right, you tick the ones they can still do. When it’s obvious that there are no enjoyable activities left in your elderly, ailing, pet’s life, it can make it easier to make that difficult decision to say goodbye.

There are also online guides (eg at that help analyse quality of life, looking at a wide variety of factors such as mobility, appetite, pain and hygiene. These guides allow you to calculate a numerical score which helps you to understand your pet’s degree of suffering.

Everybody is different, but the important message is that there are ways that you can be helped to make the difficult decision that it’s time for euthanasia.

It’s important to understand beforehand what happens during euthanasia: a detailed conversation with your vet is helpful, so that you are completely clear about what to expect.

The procedure is usually done at the vet clinic, although a house call may sometimes be preferable.

The euthanasia drug is a potent version of a general anaesthetic: it’s injected into your pet’s vein painlessly, and within seconds, they fall deeply unconscious. A few moments later, their heart stops, and their life draws to a peaceful close.

They are entirely unaware that this is happening: in this regard, it’s similar to being given an overdose of an anaesthetic. There’s no fear, no pain, just the smooth, calm, and permanent removal of consciousness.

Traditionally, vets give the drug by intravenous injection using a syringe and needle, after removing a little fur from a front leg. Sometimes an intravenous cannula may be placed beforehand, removing the risk of being unable to find a vein in an elderly, weakened animal.

Occasionally a sedative may be given earlier, if an animal is nervous about being handled. In some cases, the injection may be given in a different location. There should be no surprises: ask your vet beforehand about what is planned.

Most owners choose to stay with their pets during the euthanasia process, but not everybody feels that they wish to do this, and that’s fine. A false myth was shared on social media last year suggesting that pets get upset if their owners leave them at this time. This is not true. I have euthanased many pets in the absence of their owners, and I have never witnessed them being upset at being on their own. Animals don’t know what is happening at the time of euthanasia: as far as they are concerned, they are at the vet, being helped as in the past, and that’s as much as they understand.

It’s all over very quickly: sometimes, animals give a few gasps in the minutes after they’ve passed away, and these involuntary movements can be upsetting if you don’t expect them. Animals’ eyes don’t close when they die, and some people find this disconcerting too. Often your vet will use their stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped beating, and that their life has definitely ended.

You then have the difficult decision about what to do with your pet’s remains. Burial at home may be possible in some cases, but the practicalities can be challenging, and local authority rules vary around the country.

Most people choose to have their pets cremated, with nearly all vets offering this option. Pets’ remains are usually left at the vet clinic, from where they are taken to the pet crematorium. Some owners don’t want to have their pet’s ashes returned to them afterwards while others do: it’s a personal choice. There’s often a range of caskets to choose from for the ashes. Again, clear communication with your vet about your wishes is important.

Death can be so very sad, but remember: a life of love is a wonderful gift, and that’s what good owners give to their pets. There’s much to celebrate amongst the grief.

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