When Alex Nocifera's 12-year-old Weimaraner, Bodi, started panting hard during a hiking trip, he became concerned. When the dog later showed no interest in her food or water, he knew something was really wrong.
Still, he didn't see the end coming. "Now that I look back, there were slight indications," Nocifera says of Bodi's last days. "I remember a few months prior to the trip she was just a bit less active," he says. He chalked her slower pace up to aging.
Bob, a Maine Coon mix, was never fond of the ride to the veterinarian. While the cat would purr placidly through the vet's exam, he pitched a fit and cried during the trip there.
"Riding in a car stressed him out terribly," says owner Sandy Volkman of Lakeville, Minn.
When Bob went into kidney failure at age 18, Volkman couldn't fathom driving him to be put down through her tears and his cries. Her veterinarian recommended Minnesota Pets, a Twin Cities-based mobile euthanasia service.
Often, it is only in retrospect that pet owners recognize early signs of declining health. They can be subtle, says Jules Benson, MRCVS, a veterinarian in Doylestown, Pa. And cats and dogs take a very different approach when it comes to letting us know they're sick, he says.
"Dogs are pack animals. When one member is sick, they don't hide it. Dogs tend to tell us when things are going wrong," says Benson. A dog in pain may become quiet and subdued, or bark or whine more than usual. Sudden loss of appetite is a big signal that something is wrong. So is rapid weight loss.
And it's a mistake, Benson says, to assume a dog that doesn't want to exercise or play any longer is simply slowing with age. Low-grade, ongoing pain frequently goes undiagnosed and can sap Fido of his energy.
The Warning Signs for Cats
The messages cats send when they're sick, however, can be quite nuanced. "Cats go away to die on their own," Benson says. "They won't seek the comfort and attention of others in the house."
A cat that lies down and can't get up as easily as before or hides in the closet or under the bed more often could be telling you something's wrong. Other signs a cat is ill include eating and drinking less than usual (check the litter box for clues), weight loss, or hair that is less shiny or has changed texture.
Perhaps the best way to identify serious illness in your cat or dog is by focusing on wellness and prevention. Regular checkups as your pet matures help establish baseline health measurements, which make it easier to catch and treat illness early if a problem shows up in subsequent tests.
In the end, Nocifera couldn't deny that Bodi's best days were behind her. "She looked sad and horrible," he says. He made the painful, but he believes merciful, decision to euthanize Bodi. "She had gotten so sick," he says. "It was time for her to go."
Deciding to Euthanize
Has your pet been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Veterinarian Jules Benson, MRCVS, offers these tips:
Monitor progress. Treatment for serious illnesses, such as cancer, can be physically difficult for a cat or dog and very costly for you. Ask your veterinarian how to assess the progress of your pet's treatment, whether or not it's working, and if it makes sense to continue.
Keep track. If the diagnosis is terminal and your pet's declining health will be gradual, keep a calendar and mark good and bad days to track your pet's quality of life. Ask your vet for the signs typical of your pet's illness and what end-of-life options are available.
Find support. The loss of a beloved dog or cat can bring about feelings of sadness, grief, anger, or confusion. All are perfectly normal. Ask your vet about pet support hotlines that can help you make end-of-life decisions and provide comfort.