Dog Euthanasia: Knowing When to Let Go of Your Labrador

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Dog euthanasia is something that inevitably impacts many pet parents. When our dogs become old, we face some heartbreaking decisions. And it is important that we have help and support in making them. Although we all hope that our pets will pass peacefully in their sleep, the reality is that often your dog’s quality of life is reduced so much that you need to consider euthanasia.

Chronic pain, long term illness, incontinence and extreme lethargy can all inevitably lead you to the decision you never wanted to make. 

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 humane euthanasia is not available to most humans,  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 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 in my youth, 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 medicine 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 heart breaking 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.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson(paid link)

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 once, and it stuck with me:

“Better a week too early than a day too late.”

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?

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website

458 COMMENTS

  1. So this afternoon I took the tough decision to euthanize my 7 year old Labrador. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 renal failure only this past Monday after I had taken him to the vet on Sunday because he had become over night very lethargic and not his usual exuberant self. I hate myself for not have seen any of the warning signs before. I had noticed that he had lost some wait but had put it down to not liking his pellets and always being very active. We brought him home yesterday to say good bye. Our live have been in Limbo the last 2 days as I think emotionally we had said our good byes but physically we were delaying taking him to the vet. Twice I tried, once yesterday afternoon and once this morning and both times my son broke down. It really destroyed me as I had had a hard time getting myself to the point to take him to the vet and my son’s emotional distress just destroyed me. I eventually managed to take him this afternoon. I am shattered now as I will never know how long he would have lived. The vets prognosis was not long yet they still sent me home with renal wet food and medication which might have given me false hope. Bringing him home yesterday it was hard watching him. He was not his usual self and just lay on his bed. I had to carry him outside to pee. He kept climbing into the pool to drink water and then urinate later. I was told he was not in pain but I am not convinced. My decision to take him today was based on his sudden reduced quality of life. I felt us keeping him alive was more four our benefit. I suppose my only regret is I will never know had I kept feeding him renal wet food and helping him drink water would he have recovered to a point where he could have improved and lived a couple more months perhaps. My wife though was beyond shattered. She had said her goodbyes 3 times in the past day and it didn’t happen. So now it is done. I feel awful that I have killed my dog and no reassurances even if it was the right thing to do will ever heal me completely. I feel an animal should pass naturally and he was not showing daily signs of vomitting although I had come into the kitchen one or twice in the moving to find his bed drenched in urine. What is done now is done and I need to live with it. Hembey will always be in my heart and I pray dogs do go to heaven and one day we might meet again

    • I am so sorry for your loss. It is a terrible position to be in, but I am sure that you did do the right thing. Passing naturally is not always a good thing, and a natural death can be very distressing. Your decision to help your dog may have saved him from a lot of pain. It was a brave decision and I hope you find peace with it in time. Pippa

  2. Our black lab Percy is 13yrs and 7 months..he is on gabapentin 400g x 2 per day he is on lexicon and had a monthly jab of librella since June 2023..his back legs go wobbly and he sometimes doesn’t realise he has had a poo..he was always a private boy when going for a poo..he pants really heavily and cannot walk very far..we made the decision for the vet to free him at home next Monday 8th Jan..we are heartbroken…sometimes I look at him and think…I’ll delay it a couple of weeks as he eats reall6 well..still gets my slippers etc…but then I see him struggle and go NO..this is why we made the dreadful decision….reading these articles of other dog parents has helped..think we all need that reassurance that we ARE doing what is right for our babies

  3. My Lab Molly will be 13 tomorrow and we have had her since she was 8 weeks old. She has been treated for arthritis for a few years now. This last year she has been unable to walk far, walks a very short distance and then has to lay down. A year ago her back end went and she was dragging her legs behind her. But she recovered quicky (within hours)and the vet prescribed gabapentin, she was also on Metacam. This last 2 weeks she has started eating soil, up and down up and down and panting and clearly stressed. This last few days she has been stumbling and has urinated in the house, but only once and has done a poo once. She still loves people and wags her tail and will lay down for tummy rubs and cuddles. But in my heart know she is very near the end and her quality of life is deteriorating. But when I think it maybe time to put her to sleep I feel heartbroken. I don’t want to feel I have killed my beautiful girl. But is she becomes incontinent that makes me feel very stressed but also guilt ridden because I feel I should be able to deal with that. She has come on every holiday with us and travelled the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland with us. She has been on boats, trains, buses and we have never left her once. Reading this page has helped because sadly it would seem that our darling Labs suffer a similar end to their life. I do not believe in euthanasia for humans which is why I feel as if I am killing my darllng girl.

  4. Our lab was 7.5 when she was diagnosed with cancer of the spleen. Her first symptom came suddenly one afternoon when she developed a limp. We took her into the vet and he felt her stomach and said she was bleeding to death, her spleen had ruptured. We chose to have emergency surgery. She needed a blood transfusion and the vet’s dog provided the required blood. She had a huge tumor on her spleen which had caused the rupture. We took her home the next day and waited for the biopsy results. Cancer. The vet called with the news and told us we had two choices. We could take her home and love on her for possibly 2-3 months, or, have her put down now. We chose the first option. We were blessed with a year of spoiling her and making some great memories. We chose to sit with her until she’d taken her final breath. It was difficult .

  5. The first time I did that with putting my dog to sleep was only two years ago. 15 of April. Black lab female named Salem. She was a guide dog then when she retired I kept her as a house pad. She ended up having two grand mal seizures in one day first time we went to the vet, and checked her out and then also gave us the medication for me to put in her rectum. Should it happen again but her second seizure was worse because I was keeping track of the time. It was almost to the point of status epilepticus. I myself have epilepsy, but what she ended up having What caused it so she was almost 12 was some kind of brain bleeding. So this was on 13 April and my husband drove her over there to the vet and then the vet called me over the phone since it could only be one person with coronavirus and all that business a couple of years ago. She needed strong narcotics to stop the convulsing and just of the big list of other things. Since it lasted so long when I went to visit on Wednesday, the back legs and mid area were paralyzed. And then Thursday it was getting better but then a few hours after that it went back to square one that’s what I was told when my husband and I went on the 15th , so we spent time with Salem and to make sure that her head didn’t just flop to the ground so yes I guess and believe when people tell you that you will know one day time comes. Salems upper half did want to plop back down on the ground but my husband and I made sure she would lie down and get her upper half on the ground slowly Where the bed was. She was just sleeping then a few minutes later the vet came in and he asked if I wanted to do it and I said you know it’s best to do that while she’s sleeping and now she is because if she wakes up and starts crying, I’m not going to be able to do well And then we put her to sleep and that was terrible. Not even that but when you are so upset and emotionally messed up what really ticked me off about that day is my mother-in-law calling me just to bicker about why I didn’t decide to bury my dog in the backyard. She wanted me to engage in an argument and of course I’m so upset and sad and messed up that I did act very crazy and I was incredibly belligerent, but not for anything. I have the right to be that day. Especially when you’re triggering things intentionally. Do you really have to be that nasty? It got to the point of telling her to shut the F up my dog my decision go F yourself and then I hung the phone up on her. Who in their mind or why would somebody call you to start an argument that is so trivial right after you put your dog to sleep? Man, oh man with people .

  6. Just found this site and so moved by some of the comments. Our black lab Olly is almost 13 and is lying peacefully next to me as I type this. We also have a collie Shep (same age) and they were brought up together and either will be lost without the other. However, our lab has been going off his legs for some months now, at first just stiffness and the occasional stagger. Now he can only stand for a short time, and on our rare walks (the collie is still physically fit) we don’t get any distance at all, just a short distance from the car. One of us stays with him sitting on a bench etc and the other takes our collie for a longer walk. Both are ok with this but are very pleased to be reunited. Just recently our lab is falling over and is having more indoor accidents – so far only poos. The problem for me is that he’s so happy. He eats, still brings a shoe when he sees you and sleeps ok. A couple of times when he’s fallen, his back legs splay out at a clumsy angle and I worry he will displace a bone or make things worse. He’s on strong medication for the back legs but there’s nothing more the vet can do. I’ve always had dogs (labs and collies) and we did have a lab who lived to be almost 15 but then he developed a cancerous tumour on his mouth so in a sense, the decision to say goodbye was easier, as he was obviously distressed.Our collie will be devastated without him. I just wanted to add my situation to the discussion as it sucks doesn’t it?

    • Dear Chris, I never EVER write in online forums etc, but having had to ‘let go’ of one of my sweet labs today (peacefully at home by euthenasia) I wanted reassurance that I’d done the right thing and found Pippa’s helpful, compassionate advice. I went on to read your post and feel moved to respond, even though you’ve probably had to make your own painful decision by now for Olly. It really REALLY sucks, huh.

      I rehomed twin 8 year old black labs when their owner died and their adult children couldn’t take them in because of life circumstances. Chilli and Pepper (yes, really!) joined my pet family – a gorgeous 4 year old rescue retriever/collie cross, three adopted stray cats and a 90ish year old tortoise I’ve had for 50 years (who’s still going strong!). They fitted right in after the boss-cat batted them each on the nose. Until a few months ago when the twins turned 14, they’d been active and happy but started to get much slower and uncomfortable, particularly Pep. They both were on librela, umove and pain killers as well as having regular lazer therapy on their hips, but in the last 2 weeks Pep started struggling to get up and sometimes had accidental poos indoors. I’ve been tormented about knowing when the ‘right’ time would be and in the end had to take my vet’s advice – not to prolong her life when she was clearly becoming anxious (barking if I wasn’t physically close, needing help to get up from her bed, not making it into the garden in time etc). It broke my heart to have to make the unbearable decision and was so worried that Chilli will grieve and won’t be far behind (they’ve never been apart) that I put it off for a couple of weeks but in the past few days have realised I’ve been keeping her alive for me, and for Chilli. Our vet came to the house this morning and with the other two dogs beside us Pep was released from her pain and struggle to keep going (for my/Chilli’s sakes?). I held her and talked to her as she died. It was heartbreaking to let her go and I haven’t stopped crying yet but I know it was the right thing to do.

      Thank you Pippa for the reassurance your article above has given me, I’m deeply thankful I found it and will remember your advice when the time comes to make tough decisions for my other beautiful animals.

    • We are in the exact same position with our black Lab Holly, aged 12.9 years. You could be describing her to a T. We have made the considered decision to let her go today, to end her pain and suffering before she loses dignity. She is the best dog in the world and we have been blessed to have her for so long.

  7. My 10yr old black lab/retriever Oscar has been diagnosed with Nasal Cancer. My Vet has told me to have him put to sleep as the Cancer will grow into his brain but he is still so lively and loves his walks. He sometimes has a bit of difficulty breathing as the Tumour is at the top end of his nose but apart from that he is as normal as always. He is on Prednisolone which has stopped the bleeding from his nose but am I right in trying to keep him for a bit longer? Worrying about doing the right thing keeps me awake at night!

  8. Well my 12 yr old beautiful girl was diagnosed with bladder cancer. After her sonagram showed. A tumor blocking her urethra they told me they could put her to sleep. I balled like a baby and took her home. We spent the night together but it was a horrible night for her and me. My husband and i had to make a horrible decision on what to do. She would have had maybe 3 months at best well that was not the case. The next day we took my sweet girl back to let her go to heaven. Her heart was strong but trying to pee every 10 minutes was no fun for her. I believe we did the right thing as hard as it was. I miss my sweet Bella.

  9. Well written, I do agree with you also. I have had to put down three dogs in my adult life. First my sweet, welsh terrier at twelve years old. This was due to many medical issues (topped off with an eye infection that wouldn’t clear). Next a beautiful rescue pup, yellow lab mix, at eleven years old due to advanced kidney disease. I am now living with another sweet lab mix, black with white paws; we adopted her at 3 years old from a rescue. Last week, celebrated her 13th birthday, although no one knows her exact age! She is the sweetest dog I have ever owned. She is having trouble with her rear legs and more recently stumbling on front legs as well. Her appetite is down, her activity is way down, walks are very short now. I must be strong in putting her first. It is hard, but we are very close to the end, I won’t let her suffer for me. Thanks for this article!

  10. I’m saying goodbye to my 14-year-old Fox Red labrador tomorrow. He has been incontinent for a few months now and I have him wearing diapers. He ate a whole sponge about 3 weeks ago and I think he is now obstructed. I have a 2-year toddler and most days, he’s outside or in the basement in his crate. He can’t be happy living like this. I brought him swimming today and let him run in the sunshine. This article helped me realize I’m making the right choice.

  11. I am saddened myself, my Black lab Duke is 14 years old and has a hard time getting up but when he gets up he is full of piss and vinegar and fetches a ball. He has just recently started losing his bowel movement. When is the right time? I do not want him to suffer.

    • Going through the same thing with my almost 14 yr old girl. So sad. This morning I discovered this article because she couldn’t even stand with my help in getting her in that position. She’s been experiencing incontinence for months now.. we’ve just been dealing with it – but I know it’s confusing for her. 😔 maybe it’s time. She’s lived a wonderful life with me! Ugh…

  12. ZIPPO, 13y 9m
    Lovely, happy and loyal chocolate lab, our partner, our shadow…

    Today, after pondering for a few days (I think I was on denial) and after reading your article and posts, I took the heartbreaking decision to take Zippo to his last vet visit.

    Zippo had developed arthritis and progressively slowed down over the last 12 months.
    He took a dramatic change for the worst almost overnight a week ago. His hind legs became weak, making it hard for him to get up, walk, pee or squat. He wobbled and would fell- if not assisted.
    He was alert, still hungry and wagging his tail but he would stay laying on the floor most of the day…it was not fair.

    THANK YOU PIPPA !
    This paper really help me made what I am sure was the best decision for my best friend.

    I found some solace by reading all the posts from fellow mourning Lab lovers, which describe more eloquently the pain I am going through.

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