The holidays are always a mixed-bag of emotions, so much revelry and celebration, time off from work and school to be with family, the magic of giving and receiving, the neighborhood twinkling with decorations.

But there is also the other side of the coin (and I am not referring to a month of having to listen to Mariah Carey on repeat).

In fact, the holidays can also be an outright sad time for many — missing those who are no longer with us, or feeling alone in this time of togetherness.  

For veterinarians, the holidays are often a tough time. Like many end-of-year sales, this is a make-or-break time for many geriatric or deteriorating pets.

It is generally accepted among veterinarians that Thanksgiving through New Year’s we see a measurable upswing in our humane euthanasias.

I’ve often wondered why this might be, and I dread seeing the schedule booked with multiple in a day.  

Veterinarians are often asked, “How do you know when it’s time to let go?” 

We don’t have an answer for you, because there is no right answer.

But we can speak to hundreds, thousands, decades of letting animals peacefully cross the Rainbow Bridge, and we can help guide you in making the best decision for you, your family, and most importantly your pet.

Here are some guidelines I use when making the decision to let go:

Is my pet happy?

Is she able to do the things that made her happy when she was well — whether that’s go for a walk around the block, chase a toy, or greet people at the front door?

Or is she merely existing in my household; just meeting her vital needs and nothing more?

For every dog or cat, this will look different. Older dogs and cats are obviously less active, but they can still find joy in life.

Make a list of what brings, or has brought, them joy, and determine whether they can still participate in these activities. Our agenda here is to ensure that our pets are thriving, not merely surviving.  

How much pain or distress is my pet in?

Pain assessment is difficult in pets, because they tend to be stoic, and usually don’t cry or moan.

Chronic pain will look more like inactivity, or stiffness when standing, walking, or laying down.

With acute pain, like severe pancreatitis, physiologic fractures from bone cancer, or trauma, we will need to determine if this is a pain we can overcome, or whether it is insurmountable.

Your veterinarian will help give you a prognosis, and whether the pain and suffering can be alleviated.

Can my pet comfortably meet his or her own vital needs, such as breathing, eliminating their bowels, and eating?

You would think this is a no-brainer, but honestly many people need help determining if their pet is doing these activities normally.

Elevated respiratory rates are often overlooked, and can indicate cardiac or severe respiratory disease that may or may not respond to medications.

If respiratory distress cannot be alleviated, euthanasia should be considered.

Additional example of loss of a vital function would be straining to urinate because of a large bladder tumor, or struggling to eat because of a large oral tumor.

Owners often ask me if their pets will pass peacefully at home. Sometimes pets do pass at home, but it’s not necessarily peaceful, and it isn’t usually in their sleep.

If I could wave a magic wand and have all pets die in their sleep at home, I certainly would.  But most of the time owners will have to make a decision to euthanize.  

 I would like to dispel the notion that “you will know when it’s time.”

You won’t know, you might need guidance from your veterinarian (we are here to support you, to hold your hand, to cry with you), and the decision sometimes feels a bit arbitrary (Tuesday at 4pm, for example.)

But try to keep in mind that being able to choose the right time to say good-bye is actually a gift to our little furry companions.

We can choose to end their suffering, and we can choose to hold them in our arms and say good-bye while they gently fall asleep.  

Dr. Mary Gardner, one of the founders of Lap of Love, says that “a life is a story, and the way a story ends is one of the most important parts.”  

And what a wonderful story it’s been.  

Dr. Hilary Quinn

Dr. Hilary Quinn is a small animal veterinarian in Santa Barbara. She owns and operates Wilder Animal Hospital, and shares her own home with three humans (her husband and two kids) as well as two rowdy dogs, a very calm kitty, two fish, and six chickens. Contact her at