The overwhelming joy of having pets is, unfortunately. accompanied by the inevitable sadness that comes with the end of their lives.

As humans (some consider themselves parents), we might have to witness the death of our family member, our pet, our “child.” Unlike in the movies, it’s rare that a pet just falls asleep for eternity. Often, we are put in the uncomfortable position of having to decide when it’s time to say goodbye, a process called humane euthanasia.

Veterinary medicine is now capable of helping our pets live longer healthier, but there will likely come a time when no amount of medicine or money will be able to keep your pet alive. Here’s how to prepare yourself for that time.

Look for signs

Take notice when your pet is doing something out of the ordinary, whether that’s an obvious change in appetite or thirst, movement or behavior. Consult your veterinarian. When those signs relate to the ability of your pet to live life comfortably in their normal routine, your pet needs to be assessed.

Some of the most worrisome signs are the inability to breathe normally and eat or drink. Another sign is the inability to get up to perform routine tasks, such as getting to their food or water bowl and the inability to get up to avoid soiling themselves.

In other words, when your pet loses the ability to live life in comfort and with a modicum of grace and nobility, something must be done.

Ask your vet for help

Your veterinarian is the person who has guided you and your pet throughout its life. He or she understands your situation. Ask your veterinarian about the options available. The age, breed and condition of your pet, and the financial reality of your situation all play a part in your decision.

I have found that it’s especially difficult for first-time pet owners to make a call. Try to remember that this difficult decision is being made to ease your pets’ suffering.

When the time comes, it may be useful to have a comforting friend or family member come along for emotional support. I usually recommend that owners stay with their pets during the process, both as comfort to their pets as well as some form of closure for themselves.

The goodbye

People have different ways to honor their pets. Cremation is the most common choice. The ashes can be stored in a vase in your home or dispersed over a favorite area of your pet. Some choose burial at a pet cemetery or on their own property.

Another way of honoring them is to donate in their name to a meaningful organization, such as a pet rescue or health fund, or an organization devoted to research in pet health, such as the AKC Canine Health Foundation.

It is never an easy decision, but as a longtime mentor once told me, “It’s better to do it one day too early than one day too late.”

It took many years to fully understand that, but I have found it to be true. Nonetheless, it’s still so difficult when you experience it firsthand.