How can we relieve our dog’s pain who is suffering from cancer and how do you know when it’s the right time to say goodbye?

Original Question: Our 12 year old Bulldog/Pitbull mix was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. How can we help ease his suffering? He still has good days when he acts fine and days when all the symptoms return. How do we know when he has had enough? - Kim

How can we relieve our dog’s pain who is suffering from cancer and how do you know when it’s the right time to say goodbye? Mar 5, 2018

Hi Kim,

I’m so sorry to hear this.

In some ways this question is very complicated, but in other ways, very simple. There’s a medical answer here and what I’ll call the quality of life/human emotion answer.

I’m assuming that you have had a good discussion with your veterinarian about various treatments. Based on the way you worded your question, you are not interested in knowing about specific treatment for the cancer but rather the symptoms associated with it so that you can use palliation as a treatment.

Cancer can cause symptoms that will reduce the quality of life of your pet. It can reduce their appetite, which can cause them to lose weight. It can also cause inflammation and pain, nausea, induced vomiting and depending on its location and organs it affects, it can create other symptoms like diarrhea, lameness, or difficulty breathing. So in order to improve quality of life, we use medication that addresses each symptom that they experience. If they are in pain, we give them a painkiller. If they vomit, we give them an anti-nauseant or stronger medication that tightens the sphincter at the top of the stomach to prevent vomiting. If they don’t have an appetite, we give them an appetite stimulant, or force feed, or more aggressively, insert a stomach tube to deliver nutrition. By monitoring the symptoms and explaining them to your veterinarian, they will be able to give you a treatment to reduce or alleviate them.

Then there’s the question of “when is the right time”. I do address this in the video “How Do You Know When It’s Time to Euthanize a Pet” and I also wrote an article called Saying Goodbye to Your Pet. The first thing is that you know your pet better than anyone, even your vet. So you will have to be the judge of your dogs quality of life even though you may not feel that you are qualified to do so. You have to try to look at things objectively and ask, “Does my dog have a good quality of life?” I think a dog has a good quality of life if it eats its food, walks outside, enjoys the environment, and enjoys interacting with us. If your dog does this, then it’s a good day and if he doesn’t, then it’s a bad day. Even if it takes using a calendar and marking off whether it is a good day or a bad day, then you should do it. Once the bad days are more often than the good, then maybe it’s time. If you listen to yourself and be honest with yourself, you will probably know when the right time is. If you feel the need to call your veterinarian and ask, “Is now the time based on what I’m seeing?” Then it probably means you think it is time and you just need confirmation. Try to remember that we should value quality of life over quantity of life. It is completely unnecessary to seek out every last day. If you do this, then you are at great risk of your pet experiencing too much pain before euthanasia. It’s best to select a time when they are still somewhat comfortable because if they are really in pain and the decision is easy, then it likely means you waited too long.

We would all like our pets to peacefully pass in their sleep, but this occurs infrequently. When it does, it usually means they are so debilitated that they are unnecessarily experiencing too much pain by this time. It seems unnatural to book a euthanasia when dying is such a natural event. It tends to make you the designer of the death and may cause you to feel guilty but you have to understand the propensity for this in yourself so that you can control it and prevent yourself from feeling it. Booking a euthanasia is about as kind a thing you can do for them. It takes a great deal of love to take up the responsibility of doing that for them. Just like reaching out to have this question answered, it’s easy to tell that you love your dog very much and therefore, I know it had a lot of love in its life. There is nothing sad about that.

Take care.

Dr. Clayton Greenway

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