When Should My Pet Dog Be Put-Down/Killed?

Over fifteen years ago, my kids found an abandoned litter of eight delightful puppies near some dustbins.

We took them in, and gradually found homes for seven of them, leaving us with a white, friendly and feisty puppy, we called Sheleg ("snow" in Hebrew). The vet reckoned he's a mix of Labrador and an Israeli breed, Canaani (Canaanite Shepherd).

Sheleg has been the family dog ever since, and has been our companion at home, on hikes and even on an occasional vacation. Sheleg is part of our family. In addition, Sheleg is very much MY dog - I'm responsible for him, take him out for walks every day, spend time with him, etc...

Sheleg is now about 15.5 years old, which by popular accounting (x7) equals 108.5 human-years!

His health has been dicey for the past two or three years, and on a few occasions we've taken him to the vet, all teared up, not expecting him to make a return journey. And we have been happily surprised each time, as Sheleg has fully recovered.

At this particular moment, Sheleg's on quite good form, aside from conditions which are consistent with old age, for both dogs and humans (aching bones, mild incontinence, poor hearing...).

On a recent visit with Sheleg to Claudia the vet, she gave me a serious look, and asked that we consider "at what point do we decide enough is enough?".

She explained that as a family pet gets older, in the midst of the animal's health crisis, in real-time, the owners often have difficulty taking a go/no-go decision about putting their pet down.

The time to decide criteria is around now, while the pet is still doing reasonably, but statistically, decisions will have to be taken in the coming months.

Claudia has confronted me with by an End-Of-Life-Decision.

I was always brought up with dogs in our family home in England. Such weighty decisions were always taken by my father, without consultation (to the best of my memory) with the rest of the family. Post-facto we were mournfully informed that our family pet had been 'put to sleep' - and reassured with age-appropriate comforts, that this had been "the best thing for him". My father has had dogs for almost all of his 82 years; my dad's last dog, Con, a Red Setter, was put down a couple of years ago, at which point, my dad has declared himself retied from owning dogs. He's hung up his lead.

So my first address to consult with was my father.

"Dad, when do you decide enough-is-enough, and the time has come to put a dog down?"

My father said that when an animal is suffering, and will not recuperate, that's the time. An additional factor is the discomfort caused to his owner or other human beings.

On the other hand, he pointed out, he can be a little too quick on the trigger (as it were). He recalled that my sister's dog was knocked down by a car, resulting in a horrifically wounded leg, and the prospect of expensive operations, and poor outcome. Dad had recommended that my sister's family put down the dog.

They duly ignored him.

That dog went on to enjoy years of spanking good health, and was a source of continuing pleasure to the whole family.

I next asked my father-in-law's assistant, Aravinda, who is from Sri Lanka. Aravinda is an experienced dog owner, and a Buddhist.

Aravinda won't (even) tread on an ant.

His response to my question was that one comforts the dying dog, reduces his suffering through medication where possible, and sees him off to the next world (actually, next incarnation, I guess) respectfully.

In no circumstances, he said, should one kill the dog to reduce his suffering or the discomfort of the owners.

My next stop was my rabbi, Rav Chaim Soloveichik.

Rav Soloveichik told me this question, "when is enough enough for my dog?" is a new one for him. (There aren't many dog owners in Ramat Beit Shemesh).

He explained that there is a mitzva of "tzar baalei chaim", avoiding causing suffering to animals. This includes not killing an animal unnecessarily; hunting for sport, for example, is forbidden. However, unlike with humans, there is no mitzva to extend the life of an animal. The issue of discomfort, cost, etc to people would also be a factor in taking a decision.

I then went back to Claudia, the vet, and asked her for her own input.

Claudia said that her sole consideration is clinical. The level of suffering of the animal, the chances of a full recovery, etc. The feelings, cost etc of the owners is not her consideration.

The law in Israel prevents needless cruelty to animals - "tzar baalei chaim" (the same expression my Rabbi had used). She gave as examples, that shortening dogs' tails, or cutting their ears, for aesthetics is now banned in Israel. The laws protecting animals from cruelty are extensive (mainly for farms, meat industry etc)

Needlessly killing animals is also forbidden. (However, she pointed out that most non-profit organizations which take in stray dogs, routinely kill them, usually after a certain amount of time has elapsed without finding a home - a practice Claudia was clearly unhappy with).

So, I'm left with making a decision about when to say "enough is enough" for our loyal 15.5 year old family dog, Sheleg?


  1. David,
    Thank you for sharing your story about your wonderful dog Sheleg; he certainly sounds like he is loved very much.
    I am a veterinary medical and radiation oncologist that works in the LA area and unfortunately this is a very common dilemma that arises all too often in the lives of animal lovers, and of course with many or perhaps most of my clients. I too have gone through this challenging thought process with my own pets.

    The advice I give myself and my clients is that once we enter a time in our pet's life, for what ever reason, when the quality of life starts to deteriorate, we enter into a time that is more about quality of death; meaning how bad do things need to be before we can let go; that is about us, and not about our pets.

    In my experience there is no such time, under these circumstances, that would be deemed too early to let go, but there is such a time where it would be deemed to be too late. By that I mean, if we experience any extended suffering in our pets, we will remember that; it will make that time more difficult for our pets and for us, and add guilt to our grief when eventually our pet passes on.

    We are never ready to let go of our pets, but to remember them the way they were, rather than the way they become, by letting them go before they get into serious trouble, allows them to leave with dignity and allows us to feel no regret. It is a decision that benefits both of us.

    I too have had this discussion many times with my Rabbi and the mitzvah to not allow animals to suffer, has always been what I keep on the top of my mind. We are their advocates and we are obligated to make decisions to help them during their lives and, at the end of their lives. The decision to let them go comes from the same loving place as the decision to treat, where treatment has a good chance of returning a patient to a normal quality of life.

    We know our pets best and they are creatures of habit; when those habits change and there is a trend towards deterioration overall, we are the ones that know the time is coming and usually do not need a veterinarian to help us with that. At that point it is in our ability, ethically, morally and spiritually, to do the last most loving, unselfish and kind thing for them, and let them go. I have always looked at euthanasia as a way to help them.

    I wish you and your family including your pet's all of the very best for the future with the least possible suffering for all.

    Shavuah Tov!

    1. Dr Ayl - thank you for your well considered, compassionate and helpful advice.


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