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When to make that dreaded decision

Our pets are essentially family members so it is difficult to fathom a time that they will not always be in our lives. There may come a time when we are faced with making the dreaded decision to have them euthanized.

In situations during which a pet displays extreme aggression or has a history of physically attacking humans, euthanasia should be considered because re-homing such a pet presents risks for the next owners because the animal could be dangerous to live with.

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When pets have progressively degenerating diseases, age-related conditions, sudden onset of a serious illness or life-threatening injuries resulting from accidents, owners may choose euthanasia to ease their pets' pain and suffering.

There are some owners who will desperately go to extremes to extend the life of a pet by pursuing expensive or experimental surgical procedures, medications or alternative treatments only to have the animal live for a few months.

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The bottom line is to consider the pet's quality of life. When an animal is force-fed to obtain nourishment (hand fed by opening the pet's mouth or tube fed), requires constant bathing after soiling himself from loss of bladder and bowel control (animals do lose their sense of dignity under such conditions), exhibits extreme pain, has frequent seizures or episodes of collapsing, struggles to breathe or slips into unconsciousness, an appointment to perform euthanasia may be advised by a veterinarian.

It will be difficult for owners to make that drive to the vet's office alone. If a family member is not available, an empathetic friend could be called upon to be a supportive presence. Most veterinary hospitals provide owners with the choice of leaving the examination room or remaining with their pets during the euthanasia procedure.

More than 90 percent of owners prefer to stay and have physical contact with their pets, according to the staff of my veterinary hospital. This has been my choice during more than 50 years of cherishing my pets because they provided me with comfort during serious illnesses or events that occurred in my life. That final loving touch we provide comforts them as they leave us.

The procedure involves administration of a sedative to relax the animal which is followed by an injection that stops heart and brain activity. The compassionate hospital staff usually allows owners to remain with their pets as long they need and also helps owners with the decision as to how to deal with their pet's remains. Pet cemeteries are available and some cemeteries for humans have areas for pet burial. However, most owners choose cremation with the return of their pet's ashes in an urn or handsome wooden box.

After arriving home from the vet's office there is usually a sense of emptiness. There are constant physical reminders of the pet's presence: photographs, bedding, favorite toys, claw or tooth marks on furniture, and old carpet stains. Routines now change as we were so accustomed to following schedules so deeply ingrained from living daily with our pets.

Owners will experience a myriad of emotions following the death of a beloved pet and this event may be a child's first experience in dealing with death. Owners should not feel ashamed to seek grief counseling. There may also be feelings of guilt because some owners may question their decision to euthanize their pets — was it too soon? Did I wait too long?

Feelings of anger may erupt when owners encounter co-workers, neighbors, friends or relatives who might callously comment, "Oh! It was only a (dog, cat, bird, etc.)." An appropriate response from the grieving owner could be, "You have never shared your life with an animal, have you?" That usually elicits an apology and a moment for them to reflect.

There may even be moments of laughter when family members reminisce about the pet's endearing and amusing antics.

From this life-changing experience, we can honor the memory of our pets by taking positive actions that may ease our sense of loss. This may include:

• Making a donation to a shelter, animal or breed-specific rescue or service animal organization like Guide Dogs for the Blind or Canine Companions for Independence.

• Plant a memory garden on your property.

• Create or commission a piece of artwork such as a portrait of your beloved friend to serve as a keepsake.

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• Strive to spend more quality time with your other pets and possibly share them as therapy animals.

• Volunteer at a shelter or learn to foster animals for re-homing on behalf of rescue organizations.

Many grieving owners will say that they will no longer have a pet because they cannot endure dealing with loss again. With time, however, another pet may enter their lives, grab their hearts, and bring the unconditional love, joy and comfort that only animals uniquely provide.

Letting go may be the kindest decision we can make for our pets. Always hold onto the cherished memories they gave us and enriched our lives.

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