How do you know when it's time to say goodbye to a well-loved pet? Much as we would all love our animals to die quietly in their sleep, in reality, it is seldom that easy.

The American Humane Association (AHA) lists ways to help you make the decision and suggests you talk with your veterinarian to help guide you. A vet may be able to tell you definitively when the time has arrived to euthanize your pet.

Realistically, you will ultimately have to make the decision because you are really the only one who knows your pet.

The AHA suggests the following signs that may help you decide whether your pet is suffering and no longer able to enjoy a good quality of life.

• The pet is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication.

• Frequent vomiting or diarrhea is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.

• The pet has stopped eating or will eat only if you force-feed it.

• The pet is incontinent to the degree that it frequently soils itself.

• It has lost interest in all or most of its favorite activities.

• It has chronic labored breathing or coughing.

Once you have made the decision, the most difficult part is seeing it through. You will need to decide how and where you will say your final goodbyes. Everyone in the family should be given some time to say a private farewell.

It's best to explain to young children what you are doing and prepare them for the loss. The AMA recommends children's books that will help them understand the concept of death such as "When a Pet Dies" by Fred Rogers or "Remembering My Pet" by Machama Liss-Levinson and Molly Phinney Baskette.

Decide whether you want to be present during the process. Some people find this emotionally overwhelming. Others may feel they must be there, comforting their pet.

Discuss with your veterinarian how the procedure will work. He or she may choose to give the pet an anesthetic or sedative before administering an injection of sodium pentobarbital.

You may decide to have the remains cremated, or you might want to take the body home for burial in your back yard. Check local ordinances to make sure it is legal. There might be pet cemeteries in your area.

Don't be afraid to hold a memorial service for your pet if it will help ease your pain. □