Knowing when to put a pet to sleep is never easy. It’s particularly difficult when that pet is not a dog or cat but is a non-traditional species such as a ferret, bird, rabbit, rodent, reptile, or even something more unusual, like a sugar glider or hedgehog. While most cats and dogs live to snuggle with and please their owners, many exotic species, while affectionate, live more independently and don’t spend all of their time with their human family members, as cats and dogs often do. Thus, it’s often harder to tell when these animals are really ill.
As a bird and exotic animal veterinarian who is often confronted with advising exotic pet owners about when to put their animals to sleep, I usually tell them this: It’s not enough just to consider obvious factors, such as whether your pet is eating, moving around normally, or defecating in the usual spot, when you’re thinking about putting your pet to sleep. It’s when animals stop doing the usual things that make them unique pets – the “essence” of what makes them so special – then it is time to stop. When your ferret stops mischievously stealing your shoes, when your bunny stops thumping his foot in displeasure about not being fed, when your guinea pig stops fastidiously grooming, when your parrot can no longer scream loudly because you’ve left the room, or when your chameleon lizard can no longer climb branches to a favorite basking spot, it’s time to stop. It’s when your exotic pet stops doing all these little things, that’s when you know putting them to sleep is the right decision.
Perhaps the best illustration I can give of what I mean by “the essence” of the animal involves a barn owl named Willow. Willow lived at a wildlife rescue facility for many years after being hit by a car as a very young bird. Although her initial injuries healed well, and she was treated royally in the sanctuary for many years, she never gave up that wild bird part of her personality that she showed when her caretakers had to clean her large flight cage or move her from enclosure to enclosure. She resisted, and always tried to fly away and hide. Eventually, when years later, Willow developed a serious respiratory infection that although treatable would require her to be housed in a small cage to be medicated 2 times a day, her caretakers opted to put her to sleep, because they felt that she could no longer act as the independent, feisty wild bird that she really was. Not an easy decision to make, but one based on unselfishness and respect for what made Willow truly Willow.