The story about pets and the holidays is supposed to be a happy one. A bulldog tolerating plush antlers on the Christmas card. A toddler running to greet her new kitten. Rescue hounds enjoying treats and a photo session with Santa.
But there’s another story, one that’s discussed rarely, if at all: the holiday-related spike in pet euthanasia.
Veterinarians at Angell Animal Medical Center see it, and so do those at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, and in private practice all around Massachusetts.
“We all say, ‘The end of the year is coming, get ready for an influx of sadness,’ ” said Suzy Pence, a vet with Back Bay Veterinary Clinic.
Euthanasia procedures can rise by as much as 50 percent during the holiday season, according to Dani McVety, a veterinarian who cofounded Lap of Love, a nationwide veterinary network dedicated to end-of-life care.
Some families with very sick pets are waiting for college kids to come home to say goodbye. Others are traveling and afraid their pet will go into a final decline in their absence, robbing them of the opportunity to be present when a beloved family member leaves this world.
There are also reasons that a lot of people “don’t want to look at, like finances,” said Christine Maxfield, a Holden-based veterinarian who runs In-Home Euthanasia.
With holiday bills mounting, sometimes a strapped owner can’t afford one more treatment for a sick animal, she said. In other cases, owners have family coming, and “don’t want the judgments of, ‘Why is your pet soiling all over the house?’ ”
Although many people think there is one right moment to say goodbye to a pet, that often isn’t the case, said Jeremy Gransky, a veterinarian who founded At Home Veterinary in Natick. “Most of the animals we end up euthanizing are pets that have been in decline for a while.”
In Lincoln, Sarah Rapaport and her family euthanized PJ, their 16½-year-old miniature dachshund, ahead of a family trip to Los Angeles.
A bossy, alpha dog who long ruled over the household’s cats and humans, PJ had a heart murmur that had become so debilitating that Rapaport’s 8-year-old son, Fox, would run to her bed every morning fearing she had died overnight.
Concerned about her son’s anxiety, and fearing PJ wouldn’t survive at home while the family was away, Rapaport had PJ euthanized in her fluffy bed in early December.
“PJ lived well past the life expectancy for the breed,” her jaunty obituary read. “This despite having illicitly consumed copious amounts of Chinese food . . . and medically lethal quantities of chocolate.”
No matter how lovingly the decision is made, it can be very hard, said Lynda Warwick, a therapist in Littleton with a speciality in pet loss.
“I’m sure there are people who do it for the sake of convenience, or who just don’t want to risk the dog dying on Christmas,” she said, “but the pet owners I have seen have really struggled with knowing how to balance the best interest of a pet with their other obligations.”
“Euthanasia guilt is often what brings people into counseling,” she said.
But Heidi Medas, the owner of Smokey Chestnut Farm, a nonprofit animal rescue in Norton, was at peace with her decision to euthanize two sick horses, one with increasingly severe seizures, the other with arthritis and escalating heart issues.
She did it on Thanksgiving Eve a few years back, a day she chose because she had a break from work that would allow her time to reflect and be thankful for all the horses had given her.
“I don’t like to be with people after something like that,” she said. “I like to be alone.”
In some cases, owners don’t euthanize their pets before the holidays but try to have them hold on until right after, said Eric Richman, a clinical social worker at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center.
“The holidays can be a hard time, particularly for the elderly,” he said. “Sometimes they have no one left but their companion animal, and the pet brings back lots of memories — of when their kids were little and gathered around, or their husband was alive.”
Deborah Foulkes, a retired medical researcher with the Framingham Heart Study, doesn’t want to prolong her Smudgie’s life if it means her ailing Shih Tzu will be in pain, but she doesn’t want to lose her right now, either.
“I want to have one more Christmas with her,” she said, crying.
Meanwhile, one veterinarian thinks the rise in holiday euthanasia may be related to the fact that frail pets go downhill during the season.
“It’s a stressful time of year for everyone, and animals are very susceptible to our stress,” said Betsy Johnson of Home Euthanasia for Pets in Lincoln. “I think it pushes older animals over the edge a little bit.”