*Author’s note: This article consists of a real event that took place two weeks ago, plus 10 observations to help with one’s pet euthanasia decision.
Friday was a brilliant day at the water’s edge on Puget Sound. Sparkling water, blue skies with cotton candy clouds.
A contagious atmosphere of summer celebration was in the air as toddlers splashed at the edge of the icy water and a handful of sailboats marked the horizon.
A busload of school kids was picnicking with parent chaperones while their teachers took a break from counting down to the last day of school. Lovers nuzzled on park benches, new mothers in yoga pants and hoodies pushed strollers while a slight breeze off the ocean lifted and swirled their hair.
My dog Lily and I walked along the shore enjoying the sun at our backs.
A 30ish couple with their baby girl and a black Border Collie was stretched out on a patch of lush green grass just ahead of us, watching our approach.
The young woman called out to me. Let’s call her “Emmalene.” It was something like that. The events that followed made me forget her name.
Emmalene explained that today was the last day of her dog’s life. He was going to be euthanized tomorrow, and would I allow Lily to play with him? She said that she was trying to give Blackie a Very Best Last Day.
We all looked at Blackie and Lily. The border collie and the golden retriever were straining at their leashes, tails wagging wildly and trying to get near enough for sniffing. How could I refuse? Why would I even want to refuse? This was a serendipitous meeting. I had just helped a friend navigate through the euthanasia of her cat three weeks earlier.
The dogs greeted each other happily and stood very much at ease in each other’s presence. Honestly I’d never before seen anything quite like this extremely pacific exchange between my dog and another. I knelt in the grass and began to massage Blackie as we spoke, starting behind his ears, then neck, shoulders, and back, reverse and repeat. I could feel lumps all over his body, but he relaxed at my touch.
Emmalene told me that Blackie had been having bad days, vomiting all his food and being unable to get around. He also had good days like today where he was energetic, but the bad days were increasing.
“What did the vet say?” I asked.
“He’s old. 15 years. Most border collies live to be 12 or 13. He’s covered with lumps and some days he can barely function. Today he’s happy and alert, but the vet said it’s all about quality of life at this point so we had to decide…but we keep second-guessing ourselves. It’s so hard to say good-bye, yet we don’t want him to suffer.”
As I massaged Blackie and spoke gently to him about his beautiful day, I shared that my friend’s cat was actually her second cat to develop pancreatic cancer. Her first cat developed it two years ago, and she approved all possible treatments. Chemo. Painkillers. The Max. The poor cat suffered through it all until nothing more could be done. Sadly, her second cat was diagnosed with the very same type of extremely aggressive cancer.
This time, my friend decided—and the veterinary oncologist agreed—that quality of life needed to be foremost. Sometimes humans do everything to keep their pets alive when it’s not to the benefit of the pet’s life. My friend made the difficult decision to euthanize since there was no chance that treatment would do anything other than delay the end for a few weeks. Just because science has the ability to prolong life doesn’t necessarily make it right.
I’m certainly not an expert, but I am a dog owner, so I did my best to engage Emmalene and her husband in a conversation of assurance. I understand how difficult it is to say goodbye to a beloved pet that is such a dear member of the family.
I said, “You can always remember that you’ve given Blackie his very best life. 15 wonderful years. From what I understand, dogs don’t know yesterday or tomorrow. They only know today. And now, today, you’re giving him a Best Possible Beautiful Last Day. Look at how happy he is! The two dogs are snuggling and he’s lying in the grass and enjoying the warmth of the sun.”
Emmalene said that some people with dogs had actually rejected her request that day, and it made her feel badly about the situation. One woman even went so far as to tell her that her dog looked healthy!
Lily and I continued on with our walk and when we returned on our way to depart, I stopped and knelt at Blackie’s side one more time, ruffling his coat and massaging him again. It was hard to leave.
Finally, as they looked on, I held his face and spoke softly. “Good-bye, Sweetie. You’ve had a wonderful life. Today, I want you to enjoy this wonderful day. And tomorrow, I want you to have a smooth passage…”
Emmalene thanked me for what I had shared and told me that our visit had been meaningful to them.
Lily and I proceeded to the parking lot. Lily jumped into the back seat and settled down with her head between her paws, tired, eyes closed. I shut the door and resolutely took my position behind the wheel. I cried quietly for dear Blackie for a few minutes, then drove away through an old growth forest that spoke to me of the worth of a life well lived that pulses within us all.
10 Observations to Help You Decide
Deciding to euthanize a pet is perhaps a pet owner’s most difficult decision, and while we should seek guidance from our veterinarian and like-minded friends, the final decision is ultimately our own responsibility.
I’m not a veterinarian, nor an expert, but I am a pet owner, and my experience is drawn from that viewpoint. This list is designed to help you to evaluate your pet’s physical condition in preparation for consulting with your veterinarian.
Usually, unless the pet has suffered a catastrophic injury that means a decision must be made immediately, you’ll have some time to watch for signals. Everyone’s case is unique, but here are some signs that may mean it’s time. Above all, you don’t want your pet to suffer.
Also, remember that just because medical science has ways of extending life, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it.
Consider your pet’s quality of life. A dog that is used to having fun running in the yard, playing with your children, going for walks and socializing with other dogs, is not having a good quality of life when he is suddenly unable to do these activities.
A cat whose usual daily routine includes exploring your yard, climbing trees and leaping up on your lap for affection is not going to be content lying in a pet bed for weeks.
Have you observed the following?
1. Your pet can no longer stand. Becoming immobile can be the result of weakness from old age or a terminal illness. This severely affects the quality of life.
2. Your pet is having bowel control problems or can no longer use the litter box. This is an issue that shows that the pet is not able to control basic life functions in a normal manner. After other causes have been ruled out, it may mean that the pet might not recover from this problem.
3. Your pet refuses food. When they have no desire to eat, it’s usually a sign of weakness and/pain. Your vet will know if this is related to another issue.
4. Your pet is no longer drinking, or is losing water due to vomiting and/or diarrhea. Dehydration is a serious issue. Since water composes 80 percent of a dog’s body and is the foundation for the processing of his life functions, adequate water consumption is critical. As above, your vet should be able to determine the cause.
5. Medication is not working to control your pet’s pain. Pets deserve a pain-free existence. If this can’t be provided, it’s time to discuss the alternatives with your vet.
6. Your pet is suffering. Remember that you would much rather end your pet’s suffering than keep him alive because you’ll miss his companionship. This is something that’s important to discuss in an age appropriate manner with your children so that they can understand why euthanasia is taking place, and it will help them deal with the grief that you all will feel.
7. Your pet is getting close to death and you simply cannot afford it. The bills that you’re paying with your charge card are not going to prevent your pet’s death. Those procedures will only extend it. Don’t feel badly if you have to choose euthanasia at this point. You’ll be enabling your pet to die with dignity without causing troubling financial difficulties for your family.
8. You’ve reached the point where you have a feeling that it’s time. Most of us know.
9. If your veterinarian has not yet suggested euthanasia, and you think that it might be time, you should bring it up. Ask your vet what he/she would do if this were his pet. For your piece of mind, seek a second opinion from another vet or specialist if you feel the least bit hesitant.
10. Some people seek spiritual guidance. Meditate or pray about this decision. This may help with making the choice.
Author: Linda Summersea
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of Author