Stress + Symptoms = Euthanasia?

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The effects of stress on both animals and humans has been well documented, showing how stress can weaken the immune system, trigger the onset of cancer, increase inflammation, upset the gastrointestinal tract, and leave the body in a general poor state of health. It can look like the end of days for many pets, especially for those whose owners have already been contemplating euthanasia for other reasons. Avoiding stressful situations becomes important to prevent the need for euthanasia sooner than later, or at all.

Stress in pets is often caused by changes in routine. Moving homes, boarding at kennels, travel, new housemates, stressful life changes of people in the home, and even changes to diet can invite the symptoms listed below. If we know a stressful event is coming, and the pet is already nearing the natural end of life, does it become acceptable to opt for euthanasia rather than put the pet through such physical discomfort?

Symptoms triggered by stress in pets
~ Infections
~ Vomiting
~ Diarrhea
~ Inappetance
~ Depression
~ Anxiety

Many years ago, my husband and I made the choice to euthanize our almost 15 year old yellow lab before a move across the country. McKenzie was already frail due to age, and had a known lung tumor that had yet to cause significant trouble for him. While he likely would have survived the 1200-mile journey, we felt his mental health would struggle in the new environment. And if his cancer was likely to worsen under these stressful conditions, we could choose to avoid that.

While we do not want to assume a pet’s condition will worsen with stress, veterinary professionals must weigh the likelihood of serious decline against the chance for continued life with stress-mitigating support. What can be done to avoid the stress altogether in sick and aged pets, and in what ways can we support their health if it’s unavoidable? Pet owners need education on what symptoms to look for, and which therapies to try. They can feel guilty for bringing stress to their pet’s life and feel even worse if it leads to euthanasia.

Is it ok to euthanize an animal because of presumed stress and subsequent decline? I say yes. Veterinarians make judgment calls like this all the time. It’s always a leap of faith. Advocating for diagnostics rather than just assuming the worst is important though. If the owner does not want to run tests, a short trial run of treatments and reduced stress is beneficial. We like to be certain things are as bad as we think before defaulting to euthanasia.

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy