Monday, September 11, 2017

Pet Euthanasia: When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?

[Reviewed and updated November 15, 2021]

Deep down we somehow always knew this journey would end. We knew that if we gave our hearts they would be broken. But give them we must for it is all they ask in return. When the time comes, and the road curves ahead to a place we cannot see, we give one final gift and let them run on ahead — young and whole once more. ~ Crystal Ward Kent

A reader writes: Can I ask for your advice? I’m sure the answer lies within me, not you, but maybe you can help.
Duke is a 15 ½-year-old lab-husky mix. Very cute and lovable—been a great family member! I have two children, ages 17 and 13. Getting divorced; husband moved out four weeks ago; amiable situation. He’s not the decision maker (for anything, let alone this). Duke has had arthritis for a long time. No other illness. Vet has said for years he’s in the best shape of a dog this type he’s ever seen. Must’ve been all the broccoli we’ve given him—he loves it. But now he can hardly stand up. I have to take him outside with a towel wrapped under his belly to support his weight, or clean it up when he makes on himself laying down. We think it’s time to put him to sleep, but yet he’s still eating and drinking and begging for people food, and kissing. Just a few minutes ago, he got himself up, walked around a minute, and laid back down without falling. It’s so hard to know if it’s time. I put a shepherd to sleep many years ago, and that vet said that dogs are very stoic. So it is hard to know. Can you help at all? My daughter (17) returns from a trip tonight and we think we’re doing it tomorrow. My son (13) can’t understand why we have to, because Duke is still so much alive. Any words of wisdom?

My response: My dear, you’re right to say that the answer to this dilemma rests within you, but let me offer you some thoughts.

Deciding when and whether to euthanize a cherished pet is one of the most difficult choices you’ll ever have to make. We have so many mixed emotions, including guilt and doubt (Am I waiting too long? Am I doing it too soon?), avoidance and denial (If I don’t do anything it’ll all go away), anxiety and ambivalence.

As you struggle with this decision, I encourage you to think about Duke’s general health and attitude. Does he still have a zest for living, or does he seem generally sad, miserable and tired? What is his quality of life? When you have to hold him up so he can relieve himself, does it bother him? Is he ashamed or embarrassed when he soils in the house? What are the costs involved in keeping him alive ~ not just money, but in terms of time and emotional strain on you and your kids? How do you feel about euthanasia? Does it seem like a final act of love to you, or do you have some negative feelings about it? Do you get any signs from Duke that he is “ready to go”? (Most animals have a way of letting us know these things.) Are you keeping him alive for his sake, or just because you cannot bear to let him go (that is, whose need are you meeting)?

Beyond all of that, keep in mind what you and your kids are dealing with. You’re in the midst of a divorce, which on some level represents the death of your family as your kids have known it. Your boy may be resisting letting go of Duke because for him it’s yet another loss, and by resisting he’s exercising some power at a time when he probably feels pretty powerless over everything that’s happening to him. 

Discuss Duke’s condition with your veterinarian and with others whom you trust. Some veterinarians are willing to teach you how to provide intensive in-home hospice care to keep Duke's last days as comfortable as possible ~ but even if such a service is available (or affordable), you still should also have a back-up plan which may include euthanasia, in case your dog's suffering gets out of control.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you involve the kids in your decision—even if it’s to let them know what you have already decided to do. If you decide to euthanize Duke, schedule it in such a way that the kids and you have some special time with your dog beforehand. Think of what he really likes (some special food or treat or toy). Spend lots of quality time with him. Hold him and hug him and tell him you love him. Allow enough time so everyone can say goodbye to him. Talk with your vet about how and where the euthanasia will be done. (Some vets will come to your home if you want—or you can ask your vet to refer you to one who offers that service.) Talk with the kids, prepare them for what to expect (or ask your vet to do so), and let them decide whether they want to be present. This is an individual decision—do whatever you’re comfortable doing. Just plan it ahead of time. And think about what you want to do with Duke’s remains afterward. There are lots of options (cremation, burial, etc.). Talk this over with your kids. If you can’t afford anything elaborate, plan a simple memorial service. Take lots of pictures. Plant a flower or shrub in Duke’s honor. Light a candle. Take a lock of his fur and bury that. Just think and discuss and plan. The most important thing is to be open and honest with your kids about what you and they are feeling, and let the feelings be expressed.

I hope this helps, my dear. Please let me know how you’re doing, and know that I am thinking of you.

Afterword: Dear Marty, Thanks for writing me back. We did it today, as we planned. Last night I made my 13-year-old son help me take Duke out, so he could experience just how hard it was. Even with the both of us, and the towel around his middle, he fell twice, and my son saw that Duke laid in the grass a few minutes to gain strength to get back up and continue. I explained that my fear is he would get up during the day when we are not home, and fall and hurt himself bad—maybe even smack his head, or break a bone, and be in agony until we got home with no way of our knowing. Then it would be a horrible situation for us all. And, if we didn’t do it now, it would only be a week, two weeks, a month at best, until he completely lost the use of his legs, and it would be much more traumatic for him and us. My son got it.

What made this so particularly difficult is that Duke was still eating, drinking, and even early this morning, when I had him out and walking around, he saw a cat and attempted to dart, but I held him back. He ate popcorn, one of his favorites, this morning. He did not lose his zest for life. He was not lethargic. The last couple of days were actually a little better, because the vet said with the impending doom, we could double his dose of Prednisone. And I can’t say his dignity was gone. Yes he looked embarrassed when he soiled on himself and in the house, but because it was spring break, I was home, and tended to him, and walked him often with the towel under him, so it was ok.

This was a tough decision, but I made it, and the kids understood. And my ex was there. He was much more certain than I was. So now we are in mourning. Said a memorial prayer for him tonight that my Rabbi wrote, when we lit the Sabbath candles, and lit a 24-hour memorial candle for him. The kids felt comfortable by the religious ritual, and the words were very meaningful and expressive of things we hadn’t yet said.

So, thanks for your articles, website and your response. You helped a lot. Bless you for what you are doing, because I know plenty of others who are in this predicament, or have been.

One last thing, I think you’ll be glad to know. My kids and I are giving some money—in Hebrew, it’s Tzedakah—money to help those in need—to Pet Partners in memory of Duke, to help train companion dogs for people with disabilities. Thanks again, Marty.

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