Dog Euthanasia: Knowing When to Let Go of Your Labrador

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When our dogs become old, we face some heartbreaking decisions.

And it is important that we have help and support in doing so.

Since I first shared my personal views on end of life care and dog euthanasia, many have added their own moving stories to this page.

I hope that they will bring you support and comfort at this difficult time.

Putting A Dog To Sleep

The option for euthanasia is not available to humans in the UK or USA,  but we do have the option of putting a dog to sleep.

When is the right time to use that choice, if at all, is an intensely personal and tough decision.

This is my personal slant on a difficult subject.  One that comes up quite regularly in many doggy forums.

I know this won’t be popular with some,  but I do feel that there is sometimes a tendency now to drag a dog’s life out to the bitter end.

Even when quality of life is really all but gone.

It is probably showing my age,  but there seems to be a modern reluctance to ‘let go’ that you didn’t see so much thirty years ago,  and I am not sure that it does dogs any favours.

In some cases,  I think owners feel they will be judged and disapproved of,  if they put their dog to sleep ‘too early’.

Palliative Care For Dogs

When people are dying, we accept that all we can do is make them comfortable.  Palliative care is an important branch of medecine that many of us will depend on in our twilight months.

Palliative care for dogs is a somewhat newer concept.

When I was young, if a dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer, as my golden retriever was, the dog was normally put to sleep on the spot, or very shortly afterwards.

Our vet made the diagnosis in his surgery and we took our dog home to have a last couple of days together.

The vet then came out to put him to sleep in his own home.

At this point, pain meds controlled his pain absolutely without making him drowsy,  in a week or two that would not have been the case.

He was also in full control of his bodily functions.  Still continent,  and able bodied.  Still enjoying life.  Later on he would have become incontinent,  and may have had problems with his balance.

A Dog’s Quality Of Life

There was no chemotherapy for dogs then,  and my parents refused surgery as the side effects would have curtailed his pleasure and joy in life.  No one suggested that we extend his last few weeks with drugs.  Though he might have  lived for several more months this way,  it was not considered to be an option by my family or our vet.

He never suffered,  apart from the mild symptoms that had led us to the vet in the first place.  And he spent his last couple of days pottering about the house and garden quite happily.

I have no regrets about the decision we made.  It was the first time,  at just 18 years old,  that I had been involved in such a decision,  and I have made many such decisions in the intervening years.

Yes,  he could probably have had a few more days of joyful living.  Possibly a few more weeks.  And we may have deprived him of that time.   But the risk that he would then begin to suffer was not acceptable to us.   And knowing that he never suffered at all,  was and still is, a comfort to me.

But he isn’t suffering yet

The heartbreak of losing a dog is so very cruel on the owner,  but I believe that putting off what is inevitable may cause much suffering on both sides.

I believe that the course many people take nowadays,  the course that they may be encouraged to take by their vet and by friends and family, of waiting for the suffering to start before making that final decision,  does not benefit our dogs.

Younger Dog Euthanasia

Of course with younger dogs,  especially if the illness is not terminal,  then there are a whole range of other factors to consider.   The dog’s quality of life during convalescence has to be balanced against the potential for quality of life in the future.

With elderly dogs,  once illness has set in,  there is very often only one way to go.  And that is downhill.

When A Labrador Loses Control Of His Back Legs

A common end of life problem for very old dogs is a loss of control over their back legs. This is heartbreaking for owners and poses a dilemma, because the dog is often otherwise well in himself, and not necessarily in pain.

Loss of back end awareness is sometimes accompanied by loss of control over bowels, with the inevitable distress that this causes to both of you.

Does Dignity Matter To Dogs?

I was saddened to read recently about a person who had nursed their own elderly dog through weeks of incontinence before death.   She talked about ‘peri-care’  and ‘diapers’ and the difficulties of caring for aging and incontinent dogs.

I was sad for her,  and doubly sad for her dog.

For me,  that would not be an option.

I feel that ‘dignity’ in some sense of the word, does matter to dogs.

And that an elderly dog would be very distressed by being unable to keep itself clean.

Knowing that there is no hope of recovery,  and believing that a dog has no concept of or fear of death, is enough to keep me from going down that route.

The Wrong Decision For The Right Reasons

Sometimes I think people make the wrong decision for the right reasons.   They hate the mess and stress of caring for a sick old dog,  the broken nights,  the smell, and the worry.   They quite naturally want it to end.   But they are afraid that making the decision to end their dog’s life might be based on their own convenience.

So they make the wrong decision.  For all the right reasons.  They are trying to put the dog first, and to ignore their own needs.   So they keep the dog alive for a few more weeks.

Only in this case,  it isn’t really a life.   It is miserable for the owner,  and miserable for the dog too.  Ending the dog’s life at an earlier stage would quite probably have been the right decision.

Better Too Soon Than Too Late

Many would like to see euthanasia made available for people too.   That is a whole other topic,  but perhaps we are too reluctant to make use of this option which is readily available for our dogs and can prevent a great deal of suffering.

I read this sentence recently

“better a week too early than a day too late”

and it kind of sums up how I feel.

I’m all for quality of life, over quantity.

What do you think?  Is there ever a right time to let go?  Or should we let just let nature take its course?

More information on Labradors

labrador-jacket-800You can find out more about dealing with age related issues in Labradors in our Health and Care sections.

I also address these issues in detail in my guide, The Labrador Handbook.

The Labrador Handbook looks at all aspects of your Labradors life, through daily care and training at each stage of their life.

The Labrador Handbook is available worldwide.

This article has been revised and republished for 2016.

 
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Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.

387 COMMENTS

  1. I had to put my Boudreaux down on September 23, 2018. I never thought when we entered the vet’s office that I would be leaving without my guy. It was so hard to do. He was only four years old. His immune system just turned against him and the vet told me that if he lived through the next 24 hours that his life would one of vet visits, IVs, medicine, etc.. He was a dog that loved to go into the bayou and run and play and his life would not be like that anymore. He had lost the use of his back legs. When I saw the statement related to that I started to cry because I have been sitting here wondering for the past few months if I did the right thing. I miss him so much, but I know that he would not have been happy stuck inside on meds by himself during the day with no one to care for him. I was raised around large and small animals and I am from the same school of thought. When we take on the responsibility of an animal that is part of it. We must go in with our eyes open knowing that we will probably have to make that decision one day and they expect us to. It is part of the care and love we give them. As my sister told me: He got the death he deserved. It was quick, surrounded by his family with me whispering in his ear that “He’s da best dawg eva.” My loving eyes were the last thing he saw, and for that I am thankful.

  2. Our 12 1/2 y/o yellow lab was diagnosed with Cushings early this year, however I believe she has had this for 3 years prior. I insisted something was wrong and continually told its age. She has the pot belly, eats constantly and drinks all the time. She only messes in the house when we are out, a huge amount but she has never been kenneled so reluctant to do so at this late time. Her hind quarters are loosing hair, growing increasingly weak. She has trouble getting up the stairs from outside. She long ago stopped getting on the bed, but even out couch is a major struggle. Herback legs have given way just walking and her energy level is low. I keep battling inside if she is ready to cross that rainbow bridge or should we wait a little while longer. I definitely don’t want her quality of life to be barely moving at all. Are we being selfish or is the better a day early that too late apply here… it’s so hard. And our little rescue from the middle of the road now has pneumonia or primary lung cancer, will find out Thursday. We’ve only had him since April of this year but he worked his way in our hearts immediately. Thank you for a place and article to add some validation to our gut feelings.

    • An update, today I’m noticing her breathing, coughing and a gagging type thing going on. Laid my hand on her and it feels like she may be wheezing. Maybe sooner rather than later we need to make our decision.

  3. I’m glad I found this site. These posts are very comforting since I will be making that tough decision tomorrow morning. Rocky is my 8 year old chocolate lab. A couple weeks ago, he randomly started vomiting and having very loose stools around the house. We weren’t too alarmed until a week passed and he wasn’t getting any better. We took him to to the vet + an emergency vet in the same day and they discovered a tumor in his abdomen. We have been giving him pain medication to improve his quality of life but now he isn’t eating anything. It’s been a few days since he has eaten and he’s not the same dog. He just lays awkwardly and seems depressed. I know it’s time. On top of this unfortunate situation my wife calls the vet to ask about euthanasia and it seems like they just want to get more money from us. They recommend we force pills down his throat and take him to a “specialist” who is going to charge us $2500 to give us their opinion of whether the tumor is operable or not. That’s not counting the cost of surgery. If I was a millionaire, I’d be all for it, but average people can’t spend thousands of dollars on specialists and surgeries on a pet. I guess I’m just venting and feeling guilty. I don’t want him to suffer anymore so I believe this is the best choice.

  4. I am putting my sweet girl of 16 years to sleep tomorrow. I don’t want to see her suffer anymore. Her back legs are starting to go. Sometimes she eats. She just exists for a long time now. My heart aches for her. Am I making the right decision? I don’t know I never will but I have to make it for her. I just want her to be free. Please keep us in your prayers especially my Princess. She will be free but it will hurt like hell!

  5. It is heartbreaking to read these posts. I googled “when do I know it is time for putting down my Lab” and ran across this site. I am struggling with my 12 year old yellow Lab Kelly. He is just starting to lose his mobility, I know he has some pain as he groans when laying down. His desire to chase squirrels, bring me sticks has diminished. He has always been my shadow following me from room to room, floor to floor in my home and he is obviously upset when I move and it’s hard for him to follow. I can tell that he is not as happy, I would have to assume all of you know too when your labs are sad.

    I am still struggling with “when” I am going to try to time it on when he can’t make it outside any longer on his own. Today I sat on the steps next to him and pondered this. As my tears flowed, he in true fashion to his love for me licked the tears from my face.. Geez this is tough

    Kirk

    • I am dealing with the same. My Chocolate lab Charlie Brown has been falling for the past yr.He has recently started getting pressure sores from laying 24/7. I feel as though I’ve been morning him for a yr. However vet keeps telling me if he’s eating and drinking and is happy to see you to let him be. But this past week he keeps putting his head on my lap with his eyes filled with cataracts as if to say I’m tired. I became disabled 6 yrs ago from a defective hip replacement and we have been inseparable since I’m really struggling because as you said he still has total control of his bladder and bowels and eats so I’m so afraid I’m jumping the gun.

  6. My black lab is 11 October she’s been drooling for past month & test show mass in her neck is fatty tissue , bloods were clear but she’s not herself . She’s uncomfortable . She’s aged dramatically over past weeks & she’s not roxy . She’s just laying around wagging her tail sometimes but very sad in her eyes . Have made decision not to have her pulled around anymore for tests sedation etc & think time to let her go peacefully . She’s far from how my dog was a couple of months ago .
    Going make decision in next couple days to have her euthanased 😢

    • Hello everyone,

      I love labs and I am trying to deal with some major guilt. Out chocolate lab Sally had been a member of our family for thirteen years. She would skateboard, climb the ladder to the eagles nest on the playset, find the kids when they played hide and seek (knew all of the hiding places), ride in the sled with the kids or chase them and snatch their hats off of their heads, etc. She was a great friend to my kids and helped all of us through some tough times at one time or another. She got them all through the tough teen years and consoled me when I lost my father five years ago. I bought her for my daughter when she was just 6 years old and hoped that she would live until my daughter left for college. Well Sally kept her part of the deal. My daughter has been in college for one week. I got a mixed lab breed puppy last year in case that Sally didn’t make it that long. Just this Monday I was leaving to take the puppy to the creek at the park. For whatever reason Sally decided to cross the driveway just as I put the car in forward. I didn’t see her and when I felt a bump and my car sort of jumped I was so very much hoping that my car had issues. However, I had a sick feeling in my stomach and it was all I could do to get out of the car. Sally was laying behind the car and didn’t have a mark on her. She never made any noise other than gasping several times before taking her last breath. She was gone from this world in less than a minute. I just have horrible guilt because I feel that I treated the young dog better and gave her more attention than Sally.

  7. So sad to hear all your stories as I am nearly at that stage to decide what to do with my lovely cream lab Misty. She has been my friend through so many happy and sad times and I have been so lucky as she is nearly 17 years young. Her back legs are giving out now and she leaves the odd parcel around for me but she is still eating well and wags her tail but I know we are nearing the end. It breaks my heart to think of my life without my lovely girl, To come into a house without her is an almost an impossible thought and I am so upset just to think of my life without her. I know I must be strong , I have been so blessed to have had her as my friend.

  8. I have been putting this off long enough and tomorrow will be my yellow labs last day. I kept thinking he will be better and it doesn’t happen. He has been such a great friend thru the years and it is hard to think he won’t be here any longer. Sunday my kids came to visit and my grand daughters took pictures with Woody. These are pictures that I can’t look at right now but will someday. He never ask for anything but love. Tonight will be the longest night and a lot of crying for the empty spot it will leave in my heart. After reading the above articles I have realized that it is time. Thanks to the many people who have posted blogs. I don’t pray a lot but tonight I will pray that God will scratch his ears when he wags his tail for him and ask to go for a walk.
    Good by good friend.

  9. I would like some advice on my senior lab. He has contracted kennel cough and it’s terrible. Im trying my best to treat it at home and I know it will take days before I see an improvement but I don’t feel that we can come back from this. My lab is 14 years old with a good weight but this illness has changed him completely. I am seeing the vet next week to monitor his progress. If the vet suggests all kinds of tests, should I go down that road? I am not sure what to do.

  10. I was forced to let my dear friend Sadie go on 28 Jan 2018. We battled 2 mast cell tumors over a period of 18 months. The first MCT we removed surgically and it did not come back in that location. However, another surfaced on her leg a year later. I spent many hours and days researching ways to slow down or beat the tumor but in the end she was not able to get up and was suffering incontinence because of the prednisone. A 14+ year old Labrador can develop mobility issues and the meds also caused accelerated loss of muscle in her back legs. As I lay on the kitchen floor with her stroking her head that Sunday morning with her not being able to get to her feet I think God whispered in my ear, you know what you have to do Dave, and that’s how I finally got the courage to set her free. I struggled mightily with it for months even though deep down I knew it would probably come to that and I promised myself I would not let her suffer so I could have her with me longer. Sadie was with me every day for 14 and a half years. I am devastated with her loss and I will always miss her. But I am now sure that I did the best I could have done for her and am somewhat at peace.

    • thanks mine is 13 an a half and has bad leg tumor or growth on back knee he quit walking with me last year whitch he loved to do .i told my son im not getting his leg cut off just doesnt seem right to do at this stage in his life .im crying now so words are blurry .sorry about your fellow. he has been my best freind.

      • Mark, I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I’m sure that Woody had a wonderful life with you and your family.
        I have a 14 yo Lab, and i fear that the end is near for him too. His name is Jake, and he is my very best friend – honestly, my only friend. I’m not sure what I’ll do without him!!
        But i am going to take one thing from your post – I’m going to take pictures of Jake with my 3 grandchildren. Thank you for the suggestion.
        I haven’t made the decision to put Jake down yet – i just can’t!!
        I just wish that i had someone to hold me after he’s gone – I’ll be so very alone.
        Best wishes to you, Mark! May there be many, many happy dreams in your future of you, your children & grandchildren with Woody!!

        • So sad to read this. Hopefully you can get out and meet people, maybe through volunteer work, and make some nice friends. How about your children?

    • My lab loopy is still jumping about like a puppy even tho she’s old the vet has said she might need her leg cut off but now is most probably a tumor so I’m going ahead with X-rays and biopsy so we know but she’s still eating and more than happy! Can anyone give some advice? Thanks

  11. I just read all the comments above. We just let our 14 year old golden go to heaven. She started falling, but could still go out side with help of a ramp over the back steps. She pooped and peed her last time. Had her put to sleep at home , took twenty min. to be over. I am heart broken but i know it was the last gift of love we could give her. Rest in peace Wheatley.

  12. It is time. I know. We’ve spent thousands on healthcare for our 12 yr old lab within the past year due to his few health conditions. We put him on all the right meds, changed his diet and followed vet orders. They said there will be a day when his hind legs will eventually give out. I guess being that he was still pretty active besides needing help getting into vehicles and on beds, we just were in denial. For 2 weeks or so, he wasn’t making the effort going outside to do his business so he had 24/7 care to help him. Last week, one night he just could not get the strength to pull himself up so we rushed him to the vet. He was already on a daily steriod and pain med that now is no longer working. The vet gave him two powerful injections to see if that would improve his health…but he did say it would be a temp fix and discussed the “thing.” Being hopeful and a lot less in denial, it hit us that the end is very near. Surprisingly, he improved a lot and was walking on his own and his mood changed to being the typical happy lab. However, that only lasted four days until one night, he started to stumble around like a drunk. We got him to finally lay down and stay still and go to bed. That is right now. He finally rested. It’s 3am and I don’t want to face the vet tomorrow morning. I know its time. His life has drastically changed for the worst in the last 2 weeks. Those of us with elderly dogs, its in the back of our minds every day. We know there will be a day in the near future that we will have to make that decision to put a family member to sleep. We mentally prepare for it. But when its reality and that day finally comes, all the mental prep work goes away. I miss him already.

    • We woke up this morning and are right where you are with our sweet 14 year old lab. It is breaking my heart to go to the vet this morning. We knew it was coming for a while but I am dying inside. But I really don’t want her to suffer and I know if she can’t walk and I can’t pick her up due to health problems myself, what choice do I really have but to let her go.

      • We’re there too tonight after 3 really bad days with our 16 year old yellow lab. No water or food for the past 48 hours, he just won’t take it, and he can’t stand or even turn over. We got 3 extra years from doing surgery on a cancerous lung tumor, and they were wonderful. Prayers to everyone going through this. It is awefully hard and heartbreaking.

  13. We lost our yellow lab Henry yesterday almost 3 years to the day after we lost his brother Hugo.
    Hugo had a tumour that could not be removed and he was, after a few weeks euthanised, it was difficult to do, but he went peacefully, it was very humane, and although sadenning, we coped well with his passing.
    Henry, however, declined slowly over years, to the point I often joked that he’d been dying half his life.
    In his latter months, he lost control of his back legs, often requiring help getting up and his breathing suffered as his vagus nerve deteriorated.
    I read this article on the 19/12 but thought he’s still eating and wagging his tail. 31/12 he died in distress.
    I will never forgive myself for not letting him pass sooner.
    From my experience, euthanasia was peaceful and I must reiterate that it is much kinder and easier for all to let them pass weeks early than a day too late.
    Dogs are family and I feel should be treat with the dignity and respect they show us, please don’t leave it too late, you will know you’ve made the right decision.

    • We had to call the Vet out to our beloved chocolate labbie today, I feel guilty as I think we should have let
      him go sooner, but whilst still eating, wagging his tail we kept him alive. We did not sleep at all last night
      as he cried for the whole night. My husband and I took turns in stroking and comforting him overnight.
      We didn’t think it was fair to try and carry/lift him into our 4 wheel drive vehicle, so we paid the extra for the Vet to come to our home. He passed very peacefully in his own home in his own bed. Pray he is now re-united with our other chocolate lab Fudge. The house is now so quiet and empty, apart from 3 cats, but althoughwe have had dogs for many years we are now too old to get a new one. Sadly, my two young grandsons were here when the Vet came to send him to heaven with the Angels. Very sad, upsetting day!!

  14. Well we put our yellow Lab down just after her 15th birthday. We had a Vet that specializes in coming to the home to do it. I was able to be with my Lab Cherub while she lay in her bed. She was having a really hard time breathing. It’s been a couple months since she has been gone and at times it is very hard. But i know we did the right thing now. Thank you everyone for their testimonials, it really helped to steer us in a direction. Cherub went away so peaceful. We miss her so much

  15. Jaana describes my 12.5 year old yellow lab. Tymer has no interest in food, didn’t want to walk outside to relieve himself, and seemed confused. I know if he’s still the same tomorrow, this time next week I’ll be without my bud. He is a great dog. Never ran away and would stop on the step I stopped on. I loved this article. I think it’s unfair to prolong a dog’s life when the inevitable will happen.

  16. My 15 year old yellow lab Chopper layed down and went to sleep today for the last time. I held his big head in my arms, while quietly talking to him as he fell fast asleep. We used to call him the big headed dog, always a tail wagger, always a lick of your hand, and a big smile. He had rapid weight loss and was becoming very unsteady in his back legs, stumbling and falling more and more everyday. He seemed to rally at times taking a walk around the farm marking his territory and visiting the neighbors. Today he tipped over while coming up to the house after being in the yard while his master did a few chores. He literally died right on the sidewalk, stopped breathing, and let go his poop and pee, I gathered him up in my arms and brought him inside and layed him on his favorite blanket. He was convulsing and not breathing, I was losing my presence of mind while he convulsed and seemingly was trying to breath, then all of sudden a huge breath of air and he began breathing again. His eyes opened and he immediately licked my hand, waged his tail and just looked at me like he was asking what happen to me? I nearly cried, I think he was telling me to fix his suffering. It was then I knew that Choppers time to complete his life with our family had come, I had to make him at peace, so we went to the vet and they help me put Chopper to sleep, he went peacefully with his nose and face buried deep in my arms. You were a good friend and buddy Chop, Thanks for the memories.

    • So sad. Peace to you. …My black lab named Daphne is 15 and has a large, hard tumor on her back hip. She stumbles a few steps on three legs, but mostly I carry her. We used to go on the best long walks and hikes. She’s still in good spirits with a great appetite, though lost a lot of weight due to the tumor. I don’t know when her time to say goodbye will be, but we will get through, like you and Chop. <3

  17. I put my 13 1/2 year old chocolate lab down at the beginning of October. I keep telling myself that I did the right thing, but I wonder in the back of my mind what if he may have gotten better. He was falling down a lot and the day before I took him to the vet, he wouldn’t hardly use his back legs. He did get up one last time to go to the bathroom, but then laid back down. My husband and I were wheelbarrow him outside. He would cry to get up off the wood floors and it was breaking my heart. He also had large benign tumors all over him, labored breathing and at night he would get this kind of old man cough. There was a tumor around the front of his throat area. I keep looking for articles to make me feel better about my decision and your article really does help. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. I miss him so much.

  18. I feel like you just described our 15 year old yellow lab. She has been urinating and pooping in the house for awhile now. The vet got her on some good arthritis medicine so she can now walk a little better but her legs give out on her all the time. When we go for walks we almost have to drag her and she won’t go far. Fatty tumors all over but been there for years. Sleeps all day except feeding time. She will do almost anything for food. She can’t really see well though. She is still such a sweet dog but as she was peeing on the carpet tonight I just thought, “I can’t let her live like this anymore “ I’ve been putting off and prolonging this for sometime. Thank you for this article. This will probably be the toughest thing I have ever had to do

  19. We are struggling with making a decision about our 14 year old lab. He has had arthritis for years and it has got much worse. He falls a lot, his back legs give out almost everytime he uses the bathroom. He sadly does nothing but lay around and sleep all day everyday. He cannot make it around our small block and has trouble breathing while trying to go on a short walk. He has no interest in fetching a ball or playing with our other dog. He has recently started urinating in the house. He has huge tumors all over his entire body although they have been there for years they have gotten large over the years but are most likely benign says the vet. they are also starting to affect his mobility. He also has chronic allergies and it always itching. The part we struggle with is he eats, drinks is still happy and wags his tail. I feel like he just doesn’t have any quality of life laying around all day.

    • This was exactly our situation just 3 weeks ago. And we just kept wondering if it was time. Suddenly we know…..In the last 3 days, loss of interest in food or water, no interest in getting up ( and no ability without help). I think we will need to put our 16 year old to sleep tomorrow. 🙁

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