How do you know when it is time to put down a pet?
How do you decide? Do you put her away when she starts having too many accidents? When she can hardly get up and down the two steps going from your garage to your house? When she seems to have labored breathing? When she can hardly get up from the wood floor as her legs slide from under her? When she groans about 30 percent of the time you are around her? When she does this weird hacking thing like she was going to throw up but doesn’t even dry heave, just makes an awful noise? When you think about planning a vacation (or even just overnight) but feel you can’t leave her, not even with good pet care available? (The last time we went away she had a hard time and thanked us with some terrible messes when we came back.)
Fable, (named by our oldest daughter for one of Queen Elizabeth’s famed Corgis) still seems to enjoy life, most of the time, but there are times when she looks at you with that look of help me, I know I’m not the dog I used to be … can’t you do anything?
Our German Shepherd/collie mix, in her day a beautiful dog that any dog lover praised and commented on, is now 12 and a half years old, which is about 63 in human years, (not using the old formula of seven dog years for every human year, but using newer charts/calculators which factor in dogs reaching adulthood within their first couple years). About two years ago Fable got her first tumor, which the vet felt was cancerous, and eventually we had him remove it after struggling with indecision for months because our approach to paying for medical care for pets is we provide the minimal amount, feeling like for us it is unethical to overspend (ten thousands of dollars, like some do) on medical care and also unfair to the animal because they simply do not understand why they are being put through excessive interventions. We finally found a vet who quoted a price several hundred dollars lower than the vet we had been seeing. So we decided to go through one cancer removal operation, but not do any radiation or whatever they do for post cancer follow up on animals. While I worried about her healing (would she ever stop trying to lick the wound?) we lucked out and she recovered well. She had about nine good months.
Then a lump returned, but it looked different, and we decided to just see what would happen with it. It may have been just a cyst. Eventually it oozed and bled, but after a few days of wondering whether it was time to put her down, and cleaning up a few messes, she seemed to get it under control and after about two months of almost constantly licking it, it went away. Not kidding. It is totally healed. We didn’t consult the vet, knowing her months were numbered anyway. I said if I believed in praying for pet health, I would have said it was a miracle.
Now Fable is just doing all of the things I mentioned in the first paragraph. She has a good day one day, and the next day seems worse.
The dilemma and emotional toil can be difficult but nothing like you would face if you felt euthanasia or assisted suicide were an option for a loved but suffering human being.
We have walked closely alongside of several families or couples where a family member was dying of cancer. We listened as Durwood, in anguish the last week of his wife’s life, asked us to pray that Betty could go. He was up and down all night with her. Toileting, choking, swallowing—all these became daily and ongoing difficult issues. Hospice care helps, but only so much. Morphine helps, but only so much. Dry mouths, tissue-thin skin, rail thin/skeletal bodies, all of it so sad. Agitation and not being able to ever get comfortable. Those who walk alongside anyone dying of cancer go through a nightmare of care. I don’t know how/what I would do in that situation.
But yet, I cannot imagine making a decision to put someone out of their misery, even if you felt it was the humane thing to do. That’s why I mostly think it is better to not even have it as an option. It is taken off the table of choices. Someone much more experienced in this field than my poor knowledge is Dr. Ira Byock, author of Dying Well. I pre-interviewed him by phone and our producers at Mennonite Media have filmed two video interviews about his experiences and research in this area for two documentaries we did, including one on “Embracing Aging.” (See a clip here.)
But back to the dog. We have had to put down two cats and one dog. (Our other pets all succumbed of natural causes or from accidents on the road.) Eventually we did do the hard thing for those who needed to be helped in their misery and took them to the vet and lovingly, while by their sides, had the shots administered that finally helped them stop breathing (it took more than one for our first dog, Wendy). But even then, the days before and while driving to the vet, we pondered, are we wimping out? Is this for our convenience, or the comfort of the beloved pet? Is it the right thing? Eventually you just power through, never really knowing.
I have to think it would be the same excruciating question with a human, only much much much more so. (I hope you get that I’m not equating a person’s suffering with a pet’s.) I assume assisted suicide would only be at the loved one’s request, but so many people hate being a bother, hate putting their loved ones through all that difficult end stage care, (in addition to wanting to avoid suffering themselves), that I’m sure some people would request euthanasia more out of love and care for their caretakers than for themselves alone.
I wrote most of this post yesterday and pondered/rewrote some of it. Then my dear beloved Fable, for whom my Twitter handle is named (FableMom), died this morning, at home. She made the decision for us, or rather her body did. R.I.P., dear dog.
What do you think? Have you put a pet down? How did you know?
If you are a woman or girl (or anyone) who has ever loved a dog, you might love this.
Video of Fable playing her favorite game in better times.