Don’t Say This To Someone Whose Dog Is Dying

Your friend is suffering. She tells you about how her pet is declining and may not be around much longer.

I know you feel sympathy. You want to help. To reassure.

But don’t say this to someone whose dog is dying…

Don't Say this to someone whose dog is dying.

When The Time Comes, You’ll Know

Recently, a blogger who lives aboard a sailboat with her two large dogs (two, count them!) shared that she’s worried about one of her senior dogs.

We get attached to these bloggers who share their stories even though we’ve never met. And everyone who loves animals understands how it feels to watch our pets lives pass all too quickly.

As you’d expect, the blog post got loving comments from readers who wanted to reassure its writer. And several said something like, “Don’t worry about how you’ll know when it’s the end for your dog. You’ll just know.”

I know these reassurances are well-meaning and come from a compassionate heart.

But reading them makes me want to knock the heads together of everyone who thinks this is helpful.

Why “You’ll Just Know” is Wrong

Here’s why I think it’s a bad idea to tell someone with a declining dog that they’ll just know when it’s time for that pet to go.

Some people who “just know” stuff are simply overconfident.

I’ve met people who have never doubted a single decision they’ve ever made.

I think they’re idiots.

Remember, some people “just know” it’s fine to drive 80 mph on the Baltimore Beltway. Some people “just know” that a belt is the best way to teach your child not to hit other kids.

And some people have no doubts about every decision they make for their pets.

It doesn’t mean they’re right.

Worrying about your doubts can impair your decision-making.

Everyone has told you “you’ll just know.” But you don’t.

Should you ride it out and see how your dog does? Should you ask your vet to help your dog pass so she doesn’t suffer more?

Obviously, since you’re questioning yourself and everyone else has said “you’ll just know” it isn’t time to let go.

Or maybe “you’ll just know” isn’t true for everyone and in every situation.

Agatha and Christie, litter mates, pose for the camera.

Christie (on the left) lived to 14. Agatha made it to 16. Long lives. But still no easier to let them go.

Not every dog declines steadily.

Some dogs seem to be suffering one day and rally for a good day the next.

It would be easier to make end of life decisions for our dogs if we saw them steadily decline over time. But life is complicated. And it doesn’t always show clear signs of when the end is near.

You and your partner may not “know” at the same time.

Maybe you’re not the only decision-maker for your pet’s care. If you share that responsibility with family, you all need to feel comfortable with your choice.

It doesn’t matter if you “just know” your dog’s time has time if your partner doesn’t.

It’s only true for some people sometimes.

I’m waiting for that day when “I’ll just know” my dog is ready to die.

It hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve been responsible for helping three dogs pass. I haven’t felt absolutely certain with any of them. And years later, I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing.

Honey the golden retriever up close.

When I don’t know what to say, I just snuggle up close.

What Should You Say

When someone shares that they’re worried about their dog who is aging or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, what should you say?

How about

  • I’m really sorry. I understand how hard this must be for you.
  • That sucks.
  • I’m thinking of (or praying for) both of you.

Or just about anything else except for “When it’s time to help your dog pass, you’ll just know.”

Your Turn: Have you always felt certain about making end of life decisions for your pets? Or have you found the process messy and confusing too?

I attended an excellent presentation on pet hospice that reframed end of life decisions in terms of what would strengthen your bond with your pet. You can read about it here.

 

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Comments

  1. We’ve let three dogs go too and I question every one of them still. You don’t ‘know’, you guess, you follow your heart, you do what you think is best just as you did throughout their lives. That’s all we can do.

    • I’m not willing to say no one “knows.” But I sure worry about someone beating themselves up because they expect to and don’t.

      As you know, it’s just too hard a decision to ever make.

  2. I’ve had to put down (not fond of that term) two dogs in my adult life. It was tough both times. I’d like to think I made the right decision.

    As an animal control officer, I’ve seen many pets that should have been put down but weren’t because the owners we’re waiting for some reason or another. Their indecision caused the animal to suffer much longer than I thought was necessary. I’ve had the “Your feelings vs your animal’s quality of life” talk way too many times. The most difficult one for me is when the owners tell me they can’t afford euthanasia, so they’re just going to wait till the dog dies on its own — even if its a slow, painful death. Honestly, I think there are things worse than death.

    Ending your pet’s life is a difficult decision to make, and my heart goes out to anyone who has to do it. I agree, telling someone that you’ll know when it’s time is misleading. Instead, I tell people it will hurt you more than it hurts the animal. Eventually the sharpness of the loss will dull and you will be able to remember the happy times without crying.

    • It sounds like you’ve given people wise advice. I hope at least some of them took it.

      Hearing someone with authority and knowledge reassure us about the tough decisions can be very helpful. Personally, hearing my vet tell me “it isn’t going to get better” was very helpful.

  3. I’ve only had two dogs that I’ve had to make that decision for…in ’88 and ’03… and there are times when I still find myself second-guessing those decisions. But, it’s like (SlimDoggy) Kate said, you follow your heart and do what you think is best. My second guessing stops (at least temporarily) when I realize once again that both Boo and Kissy are at peace, playing with each other and the other canine family members of my youth. They aren’t suffering any more. As for “knowing” when the time comes? Uh-uh, no way. I agree with you. It just doesn’t happen that way. One might think it does, but if one is honest about it, there usually is at least a sliver of doubt. Unless, of course one has a heart of stone.

    • I’m one of those people who feels that some decisions should never be easy. And yes, there is always the sliver of doubt. And second-guessing. And even a few regrets.

      But it’s obvious from the way you talk about Kissy in particular that you wouldn’t trade the worst moments for the wonderful love you had for each other.

  4. Thank you so much for this; it’s probably the most common thing I’ve heard when in reference to an ailing dog. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable with that statement. First of all who am I to tell someone they’ll know when the time is right? Second many of us don’t know – for me it was a decision I thought about for months and even after I finally made the decision to let him go I didn’t feel like it was the “right time.” It was heartbreaking; and although we can choose to end our pets suffering it doesn’t mean there’s a right time to do it; I still wonder if I waited too long, or if I should have made the decision sooner. It’s something I’d never want to impose my opinion on when it’s time for someone else to make that call; I’d just offer my sympathies and support.

    • You’re right. It is a very common response to bad news about a sick dog. And I know people mean well. But it really sets my teeth on edge.

      I understand what you mean about thinking over a decision for a long time.

      When Shadow was diagnosed with bone cancer in her jaw and given a prognosis of only a few weeks or months to live, I immediately started preparing myself for the difficult decisions to come. And then she lasted 2 years and had a course of illness no one could have ever predicted.

      There are some things we can’t plan out in advance. We just need to be present in the moment with the ones we love and hope we give them what they need.

  5. Margaret T. says:

    I think I knew when the time came. But I second-guess myself for not doing something earlier. “I knew he wasn’t feeling good. Why didn’t I take him in earlier for the blood test that revealed kidney disease?”
    “Why didn’t I point out to the vet…..”
    “Why didn’t I act as soon as I noticed that limp….”
    Five times I’ve had to make that decision. And I know the time had come for each of them, by the defeated look in the eyes. But I still wish I had known more, had done things differently, had given them more quality time. And these dogs were all twelve to almost fifteen years old, considered a good old age with goldens.

    • It sounds like you took very good care of your goldens for them to live such long lives. Good for you.

      I think it’s the price of love that we always wonder if we could have done better. But we have to forgive ourselves for not being fortune tellers. Just like our dogs forgive us. <3

  6. Mom hates having to make decisions about it. It was totally sad when our 8 yr old cat had a sudden heart attack and died, but Mom was happy she didn’t have to decide anything at least. It is the hardest thing and you don’t really know when. Just when you think you might know the pet will give you another signal. Very difficult.

    • It’s also hard because our pets can be excellent communicators and yet we still don’t understand everything they’re telling us. And we beat ourselves up when we don’t.

      I’m glad you dogs are so easy on us. :)

  7. It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever had to decide. I know some are at peace with it and I don’t fault them; I know that many would have easily made the decision sooner with Lamar, who couldn’t walk easily and was not eating much. But for me it was just awful and still haunts me. I think we tell ourselves a lot of stories about what our animals would want to make it easier for us, but how can we really say what an animal would want? We can only do the best we can.

    • Well said.

      It’s one of the reasons I appreciate the hospice movement (for humans and animals) so much. I find it helpful to have someone say up front, “This is going to be really hard. But we’re here to make it as comfortable for everyone as possible.”

      And even with all the help, all the good advice, death and illness are still awful. But that’s the way the world is built.

      Lamar had such a good life with you. He was a very lucky dog.

  8. I’ve sent more dogs to heaven through my rescue than I wish. I like older dogs, so they came to me and many were never adopted. Two I regret not giving more time but I was freaked after losing my long hair Dachshund to spinal injury. I wasn’t in a position with work and all my other dogs to care for him WELL, so I let him go. An old Chow mix was ready last fall but my vet said, let’s try this – and we bought Minnie a few more months. When her time came, both she and I were ready – but no one else could have told me so. Thank you. Am checking the hospice link.

    • With your work in rescue, you’re destined to have to make many hard decisions.

      My personal philosophy is that there isn’t necessarily a “right” decision every time. But once we make a choice, it’s part of our life and we have to deal with it accordingly.

      I know you’ve made the best decisions you could for the many dogs who have been in your care. Each one has been lucky to have you looking out for them.

  9. Picking the day (and living through it!) for my nearly 17 year old corgi was the hardest decision I have ever made without exaggeration. But I did know it was time. I even felt (and still have guilt) I waited a few days too long. John curses me for doing it too soon! We all hold on for our own reasons. There’s no way to know someone else’s mindset. But, I will say, when looking in from the outside, it is often possible for the emotionally-less-vested person to see when someone is waiting too long. Love blinds us to so many things that we can’t always see the quality of life tilting in the wrong direction. What is needed is the opinion of a close friend reminding us that our last and greatest gift we can give our dogs is a peaceful end. We humans aren’t that lucky, but our dogs can be.

    • My husband and I have had similar conflicts making difficult end of life decisions. But we all do the best we can.

      I agree that a helpful word from someone you can trust is invaluable. I’ve been very lucky to have excellent vets who I knew understand how I felt and gave me helpful advice. Although I often think of how hard it must be for vets to usher in the end for their long time patients, I feel it’s such a blessing to have someone who knows you and your pet so well there at the final moments.

  10. Vicki Cook says:

    We’ve put down two dogs over the years. I had reached the point where “I knew” long before Dave did. There was no way that I was going to push a decision on him before he was ready! So when he finally “knew”, we did what we both thought was best. It’s a very tough, personal decision – some people “just know”, some people need time to think it through and talk it out. Each person and dog is different – you can’t generalize.

    • I do understand that some people “know” when it’s time and they may well be right. But it’s too hard a thing to predict for someone else.

      I feel like my pessimism shields me. Because if I heard echoes in my head of “you’ll know when it’s time” when I was making tough choices, I couldn’t stand it. I’ve never been certain about a single decision in my life, much one that someone I love is counting on me for.

  11. Great post! Makes you think – what would I do? Knowing me, I would constantly tell myself that it’s “not time” I would convince myself that it was “too soon” I have a friend who said she promised her dog when her quality of life was so compromised that she couldn’t live comfortably and/or with dignity, she would help her die. I don’t think I’m that strong, but she was. It’s a personal preference I suppose. Never the less I will say, I would never use that phrase either.

    • Although we like to think we’re doing what’s best for our dogs, we’re only human and we act out of our deepest personal feelings.

      Many people understand your “it’s not time yet” urgings, particularly my husband.

      I worry that my extreme fear of illness and hospitals might make me rush things too much because I can’t think of anything worse.

      In the end, we can only do our best and muddle through. It’s part of being human. After all, we can’t all be the perfection that are dogs. :)

  12. When our beagle’s time was upon us, it was very obvious. We knew. She’d aleady been diagnosed with a tumor on her heart and they did a procedure that they said would give us 2 months to 1 year. Two months to the day it was obviously her time. When our Abby had cancer and was nearing the end, many people on the bone cancer support group I was on said we’d know when it was her time, And I did know. Many of them spoke about the dog getting a look in his/her eyes that said he/she was done fighting. I definitely got that look from Abby and I knew it was the day. I think people offer that advice because when you’re in that terrible situation of having a friend who’s pup is near the end, you often speak from your own experience. And that was my experience – I knew. I have no regrets that it was too soon or too late. I try to tell folks in that situation that if they don’t *know*, it’s better to do it one day too soon than one day too late. No one wants to see their pup in pain. Hopefully, when it’s time, you get the “look” (many people do) and you know it’s time. Even if you’re not sure, hopefully you’ll have no regrets. That doesn’t help anything. The death of a pet is hard enoug to get over without having regrets about that last day.

    • I’m so glad you had the comfort of “knowing” you were doing what your dog’s needed you to do for them.

      And it’s very compassionate advice to uncertain people that ending their dog’s suffering is important even if they don’t feel certain about the day or moment. Thank you for saying that.

      In the end, we all do the best we can, don’t we?

  13. Yeah, I would definitely have to agree with you. I know that people who say that think they are helping but they really are not. :( I’m so sorry for your friend.

    • Lots of us want to fill sad silences with comforting words. Unfortunately, there aren’t always good things to say, are there?

  14. I wouldn’t like to hear that either. It’s best to stick with the safe responses you listed. This is such a painful time that we should tread carefully. I couldn’t imagine that I’d just know.

    • I regret so many things I’ve said (or commented) without thinking enough about how it would be taken by the person on the other end. I call it the Extrovert’s disease–talk first, think later.

      When I write this kind of post, I’m writing myself a reminder. :)

      And no, I can’t imagine what would have to happen for me to KNOW I was doing the right thing in any situation.

  15. My sister had to put her “heart dog” Golden Retriever down a few weeks ago and she struggled quite a bit with the decision because her dog would decline and then rally for several days at a time. I think when people say “You’ll know when the time comes” they probably mean that you’ll follow your heart and use your best judgement and intuition. It’s such a tough decision to make.

    • I’m so sorry for your sister. That must have been terrible.

      Today I reviewed Roxanne Hawn’s book on surviving the loss of a heart dog. Has your sister seen it? It’s surprisingly uplifting despite showing such a clear understanding of how grief can knock us flat over and over again.

      And yes, being able to make end-of-life choices for our dogs is both a blessing and a curse. I don’t think there’s any way for it to be easy.

  16. It was the worst decision I ever had to make and I still second guess myself. It was the biggest reason I didn’t go straight out and get another dog because I never wanted to feel that kind of pain or have to make that decision again.

    • One of the saddest things I hear on a regular basis from Honey-greeters is “I had a golden retriever I loved. But when she died, I could never go through that pain again so I’ve never had another dog.”

      I understand that aching sense of loss. And I feel so bad that someone is living without dogs because of it.

      Unfortunately, pain is the price of love. I guess you and I have both decided it’s worth it.

  17. Annie B. says:

    Oh my! Thank you so much for this post. I have had to make this difficult decision twice, and I still feel so conflicted about it years later. I thought I was the only one who still dwells on “did I do the right thing? was it the right time?” Despite reassurances from my family and vet, I was still wondering if I was making the best decision for me, or my dogs. I still have two dogs, and will probably have canine companions all through my life. But now I know I am not alone when I am so conflicted, and hopefully that will make things a little easier.

  18. So true and well written!

  19. I’ve had to make this decision maybe 10 times? Very few of my dogs have died naturally. Perhaps I’m lucky in that I prefer to remember the good times rather than the bad? So I don’t want to have a count up and relive how many times I’ve had to let a wonderful friend go. Most of them have been full of doubts and second guesses but in every case they weren’t going to get well or young again. It totally sucks, but for all the grief that comes at the end of their lives with me, that is nothing compared to the joy they bring during their lives. So I will always have at least one dog until I am no longer able to care for it properly. I can live with the grief but I would hate to be without the joy.

  20. I couldn’t agree more, and I think you are right people who never rethink a decision are idiots, although, right now I can’t help but be envious of them just a little.

  21. For me, it never “feels right”. It’s human nature to want just one more day, to resist dying and loss and letting go. When my last dog had cancer, my vet told me that any day that I decided on would be the right choice. She said that if I waited until she was suffering, or having no more good days, then she thought that would be waiting too long. That helped me, but it’s a horrible decision to have to make. I know that it is a very important responsibility I have to the animals I love, and i don’t ever want them to suffer because I can’t let go. I have never once said goodbye to a dog when every part of my being didn’t wantto hold on longer….

  22. I know people mean well when they say it, but I haven’t experienced that knowing myself. We just recently went through it with our cat Conrad, and before that last year with our beagle Kobi. We knew both were nearing the end of their lives, but I agonized over knowing when that right time might be. Both ended up dying in their sleep at home, so obviously I never figured out the answer but they did. I feel fairly confident they weren’t suffering but I still worry that we should have made that decision.
    The only time I knew for sure was when two of our pets underwent surgery to remove cancer that had gone too far (we didn’t know until the surgeries how bad it was). We made the decision before hand that we wouldn’t bring them back if that happened, and said our goodbyes before the surgery. That was tough because we couldn’t be there for them though.

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