It's a philosophical question, and for humans who love animals, it's also practical.
We have the ability to decide what death will be like for our animal family. We can choose the date and time. We can choose the place. That is a weighty decision.
So what makes a good death? Is euthanasia "better" than a natural death? How do I know? What does it look like? Better yet, what does it feel like?
I can't answer a single one of these questions for you. I can tell you about my experience. I can share stories based on what I have observed and conversations I've had with veterinarians and hospice caregivers.
This is what I know to be true.
Every death is different. Every animal is different. Every relationship is different. Every human's set of values is different. Every decline is different. Every financial situation is different. Every human's skills in making decisions are different.
There is no right answer.
The deaths in my own animal family have been drastically different. Two were euthanasia choices after medical emergencies. One was a peaceful euthanasia at home (and may have been deemed "too early" by many). One was a natural death overnight without anyone present. One was a natural, intense death under our bed (she didn't want help dying and didn't want anyone touching or looking at her). One was a natural, intense death after a three-day vigil.
Each one of these deaths impacted me (and my family) in different ways. Each one was just as it should have been, and I am grateful that we've developed the trust in each other to appreciate that there is no single "good death."
I recently learned of a canine hospice nonprofit that has a rule that no animal suffers. The caregivers know the medical possibilities for each animal and observe them closely. When one begins to exhibit signs of irreversible decline, the compassionate humans there have a going away party and assist that animal with death.
I've also talked with families about their choices for a natural death. Sometimes they love someone who is terrified of people outside the family or turns into a nervous wreck at the vet clinic. Euthanasia feels anything but peaceful because the process of getting there would be so traumatic. Sometimes they strongly believe in the natural order of things or feel they would be uncomfortable making the decision for an assisted death. Sometimes they absolutely know the companion does not want any kind of help with death because she'll do it all by herself just fine, thank you very much (that was my Moira, by the way).
There are the people in between, and that's most of us, who measure the good days against the really hard days and make the best decision they can make with regard to quality of life.
There isn't a sign that drops out of the sky that tells you what to do, and the people who say "you'll just know" may have a different experience when it's time for them to make a decision. Maybe you will know. Maybe you won't.
You do the best you can with the information and resources you have. You make the decision that reflects your values and honors your relationship. Your companion is with you 100% and is grateful for the life and love you have shared.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.