Signs That It’s Time to Put Your Pet to Sleep

It’s the worst thing about pet ownership: recognizing when it’s time to say goodbye.

It could be the hardest decision you’ll ever make for your loyal friend, and you’ll likely seek advice while going through the heartbreaking process. We consulted with Dr. Frank McMillan DVM, the director of well being studies for Best Friends Animal Society, and he gave us solid tips for determining when the time is right.

If your pet has a condition that’s causing distress in spite of treatment and that will not improve or may even worsen with time, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to move forward with the most humane option.

“Euthanasia is the last and most powerful expression of love a person can provide for her suffering pet,” he says, “guaranteeing the kindest and most humane end for a beloved animal’s life.”

It will no doubt be a tough time but it’s important to observe your pet’s behavior with a long range view. “This is one of the really hard things about gradual decline,” he says. “Our minds are not evolved to detect gradual changes and therefore conditions that can effect your pet can progress quite far without you even noticing it.”

Here are seven important signs to look out for.

1. The pet is experiencing pain or breathing problems that treatments cannot adequately alleviate. Physical pain and difficulty breathing are among the most distressing feelings that we can experience, McMillan explains. “It’s the way nature designed us,” he says. “These are both things that are so important to our survival that nature instilled the most horrible feelings so that you would be motivated to correct your situation and that’s the kind of thing that will rob you of quality of life.”

2. Your pet has lost all or most interest in interacting socially with people and animals he/she used to enjoy being with. Is your nighttime snuggle buddy now seeking solace in a closet alone? Does your dog no longer seek out his regular playmates at home? This could be a sign that your pet isn’t feeling well. “[Is] social contact less pursued but you don’t really know why?” McMillan says. “Withdrawal socially tends to indicate that the condition has progressed to the point where it’s truly troubling or distressing to the animal.”

3. The pet has lost all or most interest in activities he/she used to enjoy.

It can seem like the buddy you’ve known and loved all these years is changing right before your eyes — and it could be because of exhaustion or depression. “It might just be too physically strenuous to do the things that he or she used to enjoy,” explains McMillan. “Or, just as in people, when your depression progresses you develop a loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, so it could be truly mental depression or it could be you just feel so sick.”

4. The pet has impaired mobility that prevents him/her from doing things he used to like to do.

Illnesses can make it more difficult for your pet to get around. “If a pet loses mobility, given enough time, the pet may actually adapt to that and be able to enjoy life in other ways,” McMillan says. But, he adds, considering lack of mobility along with the other signs listed here, “it obviously adds up to the animal’s quality of life being worse.”

5. The pet’s appetite has decreased to where he/she is losing weight.

If your pet is a shadow of his or her former self, or has experienced dramatic weight loss, it could be time to let them go. “When they’ve reached a point where they can’t even take in enough food to maintain weight, that to me is one of the clearest signs you can get,” he says.

6. There are changes is sleeping patterns.

Trouble sleeping, getting less sleep, getting more sleep — they’re signs you shouldn’t ignore. “Sleeping in some cases — we think for animals, we know for people — is a coping mechanism for a miserable life,” he says. “You’re not sleeping necessarily because you’re tired, you’re sleeping because you feel so crappy that you just want to have it all go away. So yes, the changes in sleeping in patterns, and more often than not increased sleep, can be one more indication that things are declining.”

7. Considering both physical and emotional feelings, the pet spends more waking hours experiencing unpleasant feelings than pleasant feelings.

Since our pets can’t communicate with us, this could be a tough thing to judge. But you know your pet better than anyone, so trust yourself. When the unpleasant side is clearly outweighing the other, “then of course [their] life as a whole you judge as unpleasant,” he says.

There’s no doubt about it that the process of determining the time for euthanasia will be difficult. The best thing to do is to talk to your vet, be informed about your pet’s condition, their prognosis and do your best to recognize cues about how they are feeling.

“A lot of people will ask your vet, ‘When will I know that it’s time? And the vet will say, ‘The pet will give you a clear sign’ or ‘The pet will tell you’ or ‘You’ll just know.’ All of those things are the worst advice I can imagine giving the pet owner because, yeah, in rare cases there are clear signs. But that’s rare,” McMillan says. “It’s the exception rather than the rule that the pet will give you clear signs. You’ll struggle. And it’s just not always clear cut.”

Once you do make the decision, know that you’ve done the right thing. “While the decision for euthanasia is truly agonizing for the loving pet owner, it is unquestionably the most humane action the person can take to protect their beloved pet from the hurts and miseries that terminal illness can cause,” he adds.

Become an Insider

Amy Jamieson

A former senior editor for, Amy launched People Pets for People magazine in 2008. Now she writes about pets, lifestyle and more from her bucolic saltbox in Collinsville, Connecticut, usually with a cat in her lap and a dog at her feet.

Your inbox could be cuter.