Nobody who loves animals enjoys saying the final goodbye. In fact, it is this final heartwrenching moment that can push the most steadfast animal lover to say “I just can’t do this again.”
Sometimes our beloved companions pass away on their own. And sometimes we have to choose humane euthanasia because our pet’s quality of life has deteriorated so much that it really is the “right thing” to do. There are various resources for people who are trying to make the best decision they can. Things like a weighted list of questions that provide insight into quality of life issues. Or making a list of your pet’s favorite things to do and when most can no longer be enjoyed, deciding that it is time to say goodbye.
But what about the situations when things are not clear-cut? When the health of your pet is good, but for one reason or another, life for your pet and his/her family is HARD.
Our family is living in this nightmarish scenario right now, and we have been for quite some time. Our oldest German shepherd, Chesney, was inexplicably paralyzed four years ago. Her paralysis was sudden and completely unexpected. Though her veterinarian gently suggested euthanasia, we were not ready, so we worked with her and after several months, she regained some of her mobility. Suffice to say, the entire family was thrilled. She was never back to normal, and we jokingly described her walk as that of a drunken sailor, but she could get around on her own.
Fast forward to this year. Age is taking its toll on her, as it does for every senior animal. The mobility she regained four years ago has deteriorated greatly. At 12 years of age, she is tired. She can no longer feel when she has to poo…which means we are cleaning up messes almost daily. When she goes outside in the morning, she doesn’t make it to the yard before she starts to pee on the aggregate patio. Daily, I am cleaning off the patio with detergent and/or enzyme cleaner. Despite my best efforts, the stench of urine prevails. We have not had anyone come to visit at our house because we never know when she will have an accident – nothing says “great dinner party” like a fresh pile of dog poop in the house.
She cannot have ANY treats. For whatever reason, anything that is out of her normal diet creates explosive diarrhea. We have had moments this summer that would destroy most people. It is hard to even describe the messes that we have cleaned up. Because of Chesney’s limited mobility, we used to rely on treats to give her enrichment. Filled Kongs, different chew bones, things of that nature – but now we can’t. We can’t even give her pain medication because they also cause stomach problems. Though Chesney has no obvious signs of pain, she surely has aches and pains because of her age (I am 52 and I have aches and pains!). But we are unable to give her anything to address discomfort.
Chesney basically moves only when we help her move. She drinks when we hold the water dish for her. She goes out to the bathroom when we assist her. She mostly sleeps in one spot throughout the day. Her world is very small.
Now we are faced with the change of season. It is cold in the morning and the rain will soon be here. Eventually, it will be at or below freezing, and at that time, cleaning off the urine will be impossible. And at that time, it will no longer be possible to wash urine off of her body when she falls into it. We have laundry going constantly – washing her blankets and towels when they are soiled.
Our house is horrible for an old, disabled dog. The only access to the outside area in the back is through our kitchen. She lays on a huge blue tarp, with her therapeutic bed and blankets on top – in our kitchen. The only access to the front yard is down steep stairs through the front door, or steep stairs through the garage.
After reading through the aforementioned issues, one might think “this is a no-brainer, it is time to put your dog down, she is clearly suffering and has no quality of life.” On paper, you would be correct.
But in person, it is not clear-cut. Three months ago I made the appointment to have the in-home veterinary service come to put Chesney down – but my gut screamed no and the appointment was canceled. Days later, Chesney went to the veterinarian for a urinary tract infection and the doctor commended us about how healthy she was. She said that she looked amazing for a dog who was 12 years of age and disabled. She commented on the lack of sores on her feet or body (from laying down all the time) and noted that her bloodwork was great. DAYS after she was going to be put down.
Chesney is healthy, but she is disabled.
And she is hopelessly devoted to our adult daughter. When our daughter is at work, Chesney basically does nothing but sleep – sometimes so deeply that you might think she is just going to peacefully pass away. But when our daughter comes home, life comes back into Chesney. She bounces (as much as she can) on her front feet, barks, grabs her toy, and her eyes light up. She is happy.
We are in a no-win situation. This is not an old dog suffering from cancer. This is not an old dog suffering from kidney or liver failure. This is not an old dog with a spleen that has ruptured. This is an old dog who is the equivalent of an old person who cannot get around well anymore, but who still enjoys being alive.
We don’t have the answer, and we don’t know what we will do in the next few weeks when the weather deteriorates. Daily we pray for the sign that will tell us what to do, but I am not hopeful that the answer will present itself. Many people who have been through this before (ourselves included) will tell you that “you’ll know, you will get the look and your pet will tell you,” but this is not the case (so far) with Chesney. We are patiently waiting for “the look.”
To everyone out there in the same situation, I feel your pain. This.Is.Hard.