Visiting Veterinarian

The right time of year

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - November 22, 2006

The family is gathering for the holidays. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Kwanza, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Dewali. Okay, Dewali is over but I threw it in for multi-cultural educational value. The point is everyone is getting together for a big celebration. Perhaps you're meeting at Grandma's house, where you and your siblings grew up. That's if you can find someone to take care of Old Spirit, your dog, while you're gone. You can't take him with you. At 15 years old, he's deaf as a post, can't climb stairs, and poops in the house. You're used to it but Grandma would not be pleased. Maybe you're the hostess this year. The matriarch is coming along with a raft of relatives, young and old. You start cleaning, and find that Old Nick, your ancient cat, has been urinating around the house. You've been smelling eau de cat pee for months, but have been in denial. Your company, however, will be sleeping in that guest room where the stench is hard to ignore. Maybe you're spending the holiday season alone and you're depressed. Really depressed. It's just you and your old dog Solo.

This time of year, there is a significant increase in the number of requests veterinarians receive for euthanasia of family pets. It generally starts right before Thanksgiving and continues until just past New Year's. Some veterinarians have anecdotally reported the same occurrence around Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July, but the winter holiday season is, without a doubt, the time when the trend is most noticeable. A study published in 1997 in a Canadian veterinary journal, entitled "Epidemiology of dog and cat euthanasia across Canadian Prairie Provinces" confirmed a statistically significant rise in euthanasia at Christmas and Easter in that region. What are the reasons that this purportedly happiest time of the year leads to such loss and sadness?

Let's start with pre-holiday euthanasia. Say you have an elderly or difficult pet that has been declining or exhibiting challenging behavior for some time. As the holidays approach, you come face to face with reality. It's hard to hop in the car for the 10-hour drive to Grandma's with a dog who has to urinate every hour, or who is extremely ill with heart problems, or has terminal cancer, or who simply smells terrible. If Spirit is blind, deaf, arthritic, or senile, taking him to an unfamiliar environment can be unnerving for him, and for you. If he is incontinent, he may not be welcome as a houseguest, but you don't want to leave him in a kennel where, despite the best of care, he is just too old and frail to cope well. In the past you may have had an in-home pet sitter, but this year you can't find one, or you can't afford one, or they won't stay at the house and Spirit needs more constant attention than can be reasonably afforded by two or three brief daily visits.

Perhaps Spirit isn't seriously ill but has become increasingly irritable and snappy in his old age. You're expecting your young grandchildren. With all the holiday hubbub, it's unlikely you will be able to keep the kids and the dog consistently apart. You are afraid someone may get bitten. Old Nick, your cat, can be counted on to steer clear of marauding toddlers, but he's liable to express his upset by urinating on their luggage and bedding. At a certain point, the stress of preparing for the holidays overwhelms people and they choose that moment to let go of a loved but challenging pet, so they can devote their time and attention to their human families. Yes, it's sad. Yes, sometimes there are good alternatives, but sometimes it really is the right time to let go.

On the other hand, are the situations where an owner can't imagine having a happy holiday without Old Spirit. He has clearly deteriorated badly, but everyone wants him to make it through one final season. Parents may not want young children to face loss and grief right at this time of year. Adult children coming home want a last visit with their childhood pet. These families do everything they can to prolong Spirit's comfortable life. Sometimes they succeed. Then, when the holiday is over, and everyone has gone home, or back to school, we say good-bye to Spirit. Sometimes the attempts to keep him going fail. In spite of all the supportive care we've planned, Spirit is suffering too much, resulting in an emergency holiday euthanasia.

Then there are the cases where the person living with the elderly pet is so busy with holiday preparations, she doesn't notice that Spirit is failing. Or maybe he has declined so gradually over such a long period that the owner hasn't noticed the extent of the change. When the family arrives, they're appalled. "Mom, how could you let Spirit get like this?" they cry. "We have to do something immediately!" Sometimes they are overreacting to a situation that they are just not prepared for. Spirit may no longer look or act like the hale and hearty companion of their youth, but he may still have a good quality of life. Or they may truly have a better perspective than the person who is too close to make the call.

There are other practical motivations for the holiday euthanasia phenomenon. Money. If Spirit has major medical expenses, that may push owners toward euthanasia, especially when faced with holiday expenditures. Choosing Christmas presents or a vacation over a pet's life might sound callous, but sometimes that celebration or vacation is critical for the emotional and physical health of the human beings. Other people cannot face the sadness of caring for a sick pet during the holidays. They need to be unencumbered by impending death, preferring to get the loss over with before the festivities begin. Other factors? The onset of bitter cold, snow, and ice, make the logistics of pet care harder, and may worsen Spirit's arthritis symptoms. Older animals may not be able to handle holiday excitement and stress, precipitating other medical crises.

Then there is the depressed owner. Getting together with family is not always easy or happy. Being alone at this time of year can be hard. Human suicide rates soar. People may project their feelings of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness onto their pets, believing that the pet is unhappy and suffering and should be put down. A depressed person may be temporarily unable to cope with a pet's needs and be unable to figure out what else to do. In rare cases, people contemplating suicide euthanize a pet in a misguided attempt to tie up loose ends.

As we enter this season, spend a few minutes thinking about your menagerie. Make sure you have adequate supplies of all prescription medications. Don't wait until the last minute. Your vet may have different hours during the holidays. Find out now. (My office will be closed from Christmas through New Year's.) Think ahead about any additional care Spirit may need. The doctor on emergency call would enjoy an uninterrupted holiday if possible. If you are depressed, reach out for help. People care, even though you might not be able to notice that right now. If you think it may be time to say good-bye to Spirit, have a family meeting. Take Spirit out for a special walk and commune with him. It will do you both good. Ask him what he thinks. Listen with your heart. Consult your veterinarian. Listen to your heart. You'll know the right thing to do.