Anthony A. Pilny, DVM, DABVP
When it comes to euthanasia, the hardest part is deciding when....
Most pet rat owners will eventually face an emotionally painful and difficult
decision to euthanize their beloved pet.
Understanding the idea that euthanasia is right, necessary, and the most compassionate and
loving decision you may ever make for your rat may be much easier than
deciding when. All pet owners want to have the most time possible with their
pet. However, we also want to make the decision for euthanasia before the rat is in distress, giving
our rat the best chance for quality of life until the end. My cardinal rule is to never permit prolonged
suffering – either by being too emotional or too selfish to accept that the time
for euthanasia has arrived. This article describes the approach and decision making process from my
point of view as the veterinarian. I can honestly say I know exactly how it feels, having personally been
through the euthanasia decision process many, many times.
My approach is a blend of emotions, understanding, and medical training. When I know
that a pet has a terminal condition, understand the course of disease, and know that
medical options for successful treatment are not available, I can accept that euthanasia
is the best option at that point. One of the most important parts of helping owners make
these decisions comes from obtaining a definitive diagnosis of the rat's medical condition.
This major point eliminates doubt, lessens guilt, and provides the owner with a higher
level of comfort when making future treatment or non-treatment decisions. Not understanding
why your rat is ill, why he or she isn't getting better, or simply being told euthanasia is the
best option without good medical reason makes the entire experience so much harder
than it has to be. Of course, we can't always have a definitive diagnosis, but a capable rat
veterinarian can do a better job trying to reach one. Determining diagnosis can involve
proper testing, medical therapies, and/or surgical procedures. Having a diagnosis can
make a big difference during this difficult time.
Secondly, knowing that your rat has a terminal condition (e.g., cancer, kidney failure)
means they are not going to get better. The time for euthanasia may be right then, or
may be imminent. Or, from this point on, we can develop a plan
for hospice care for a period of time. Determining the "right time"
for euthanasia may ultimately be a personal decision. Some people
just need a diagnosis to feel comfortable and others don’t wish to watch a pet decline
further. Some may
feel it is unfair to provide high levels of invalid care such as forced feedings or forced
medications, long term fluid therapy, or new (likely unhelpful) medications. Others want
to have as much time as they possibly can with their rat. However the owner proceeds,
my rule here will be to offer a plan to insure NO PAINFUL ENDINGS. The rat should be put on a daily painkiller
as needed and which is medically appropriate to ensure the highest level of comfort until
the time comes. Your veterinarian can offer several options in light of your pet’s illness
Another consideration is making the decision before a crisis develops. Wanting to wait as
long as possible needs to be balanced against making the decision before a significant
turn-for-the-worst scenario occurs. No one wants an abrupt, crisis-type euthanasia. Crises
may include: the pet becomes so distressed that euthanasia needs to happen ASAP, but it
is now midnight, the emergency clinic is the only option, everyone is stressed and panicky,
and the entire situation will be remembered with pain and guilt. Of course no one can predict
when the time for euthanasia may arrive, but everyone can be educated and reminded of the
issues to consider, to help decrease the likelihood that a crisis will happen. We
also should not wait for a sign like stopping eating or crying in distress. Rats can be different
than other pets in this manner; not all rats will signal that the time has come. This
means we have to rely on our connection and understanding of them.
We are privileged in that we can decide if our rat's quality of life is fading, or is almost gone.
Many owners know when quality of life is gone; while others may need more
guidance and understanding.
Lastly, I explain to owners that they should look inside themselves to decide what the rat
would want based on his or her personality, and medical or physical condition.
Some less social rats wouldn’t want
to be handled, medicated often, force-fed, etc. Others who are very outgoing and
social may increasingly want to be left alone. When most of the things that made the rat
happy and joyful are gone,
like not wanting favorite treats or to be scratched behind the ears, then one can know it is time.
Your relationship with your veterinarian and trusting his or her opinions must always be
considered. As your veterinarian, to help you decide, I will ALWAYS answer the question
“What would you do if it was your pet?”
Being educated about the medical condition, knowing your rat, understanding
the limits, and avoiding a crisis-type euthanasia are important considerations.
They can help make
the final decision to euthanize feel right. Having all of these in place
gives us the best possibility to peacefully, compassionately, and lovingly
After we have humanely let our pet rat go, dealing with emotions can be difficult. Some
people just need time, space, and support. Others may choose to seek bereavement
counseling with a trained pet loss support counselor or meet with a pet loss support
group. Still others may need to talk to the veterinarian or other hospital staff after some
time has passed. Online rat groups can also offer support and empathy to help with
common feelings of guilt. Understanding the stages of grief and healthy emotional reactions
can lead to acceptance and ultimately peace. Choosing euthanasia is a most unselfish
act of compassion and love. Making this choice may often be enough to ease your emotional
Anthony A Pilny, DVM, DABVP
Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine,
Veterinary Internal Medicine and Allergy Specialists
New York City
(Permission to host on JoinRats.com granted by Anthony Pilny)