How Do YOUR Ideas About Death Affect Your Dog?

It’s the one power we have that can save our dogs from immense suffering. And it’s the great responsibility that no one wants to have.

If you love animals and have them in your life, one day you will face hard choices about treating your pets and extending or ending their lives.

As we struggle to make wise decisions, we have to consider how our ideas about death and illness affect the choices we make for our dogs.

Honey the golden retriever chews a stick in the snow.

I have a feeling this is going to be a long one. I’ll just lie down in the snow and chew my stick.

How Do You Decide

Over the past several years, I’ve surrounded myself with people who love dogs.

I love reading joyful stories about finding love in a fur coat. I commiserate and offer suggestions when someone struggles with a training issue.

But the hardest moments are when someone struggles to know if it’s time to let a beloved dog go.

I go a little crazy when someone posts a heartfelt question: “How will I know when it’s time?” Just to have some idiot reply: “You’ll just know.”

Maybe some people do. But that’s no comfort to someone who’s struggling with the most difficult decision many of us ever make.

So I have a suggestion for bringing at least a little clarity to the question before we have to make it.

Ask yourself how you feel about being ill or dying. And consider how your feelings affect your choices. And those of others who love your dog as much as you do.

Honey the golden retriever enjoys her stick.

Still going? Okay. Ummmm, sticky.

Opposites Attract

You might think that sharing the burden for making decisions about a loved pet makes things easier. Maybe in some ways.

But I’ve always found it extra difficult to also consider if my choices will seem cold to my husband. You see, we have very different thoughts on life, sickness, and death.

My husband Mike had cancer as a child. He describes drinking chalky barium, recovering from surgery, and throwing up on the drive home from his latest treatment.

But he also talks about how nice all the nurses were to him. How he was the center of attention (his favorite thing ever). And he still has the darling little checker board with all the pieces shaped like poodles that a family friend gave him in the hospital.

Mike goes to the doctor regularly. Doctors are Mike’s friends. They saved his life.

And sickness, while never fun, does have the pleasant side effect of people taking good care of you.

Just writing this, I’m starting to think of my husband as an alien.

Honey the golden retriever at Ithaca Falls.

I’m starting to see why you’re always thinking about sickness and death. It’s awfully gray and gloomy around here.

I haven’t been to a doctor in 25 years and I don’t plan to go any time soon.

Hospitals terrify me, even as a visitor. And I’m more afraid of chemotherapy or radiation than I am of dying of cancer (I understand that if I were diagnosed with cancer, that might change).

When I look back on the minor childhood ailments I suffered, I remember a string of unhappy experiences. And I certainly don’t remember feeling well cared for.

I will never forget enduring a severe ear infection while the piano tuner was in the house. I wrapped one pillow around my ears to block the noise and another over my mouth to smother my screams. (Hint to parents: if your kids get a bad ear infection, cancel the  visit by the piano tuner, okay?)

When we consider death, my husband and I are also different.

As a practicing Catholic, he feels it’s wrong to end life before the time God has allotted to him.

As an already-good-enough-so-I-don’t-need-to-practice agnostic, I believe our existence ends at death. And I don’t consider that a bad thing. Nor do I think it’s necessary to do everything possible to extend life when its quality declines.

Honey the golden retriever sit in the snow.

You’re still at it? I guess I’ll sit down.

I know better than to impose my neurotic fear of doctors on my pets. So I take them for regular wellness visits. And I work closely with my vet to give them the best care, healthy or sick.

But that doesn’t mean my husband’s and my ideas about illness and death don’t affect how we treat our dogs.

What About The Dogs

Because I find hospitals and doctors so horrible, I tend toward more conservative treatment options for my dogs.

I try to consider their needs as well. But I find it difficult to sort out whether I’m caring for my dog or being neurotic.

We adopted our last dog, Shadow, when she was eight years old. Shortly after we brought her home, our vet found a small tumor on her jaw.  A biopsy revealed it was bone cancer.

Shadow the mixed breed dog has a pretty smile.

See Honey? Sometimes we do get sun in Ithaca. Here’s Shadow sunbathing.

Our vet recommended we see specialists at the university vet hospital. Our consultation began with a half hour wait sitting knee to knee with other people and their variety of pets.

Oh, did I mention Shadow was reactive to other dogs?

She did far better than I expected. But after a few minutes, I took her outside to wait.

The consulting vets said that with no treatment, Shadow would probably live only a couple of months. But if they surgically removed her jaw and followed up with radiation treatments, we might extend her life to as much as six months or more.

The thought of Shadow having to go through surgery, relearning how to eat without one part of her jaw, and enduring regular visits to that crowded waiting room followed by radiation treatments sounded awful.

After talking it over Mike and I agreed to make the most of Shadow’s time with us without subjecting her to heroic medical treatments that might just gain us a few months.

Amazingly, Shadow lived two years with that tumor getting larger and larger. So I guess we made the right decision.

Unless the treatment the vets proposed might have cured the cancer and given her many more years of life.

Did my conservative decision keep Shadow from enduring too much? Or did it prevent her from possibly being cured of this terrible disease?

I guess I’ll never know.

Honey the golden retriever has snow on her face.

How can you resist this face? it’s time to stop blogging and start playing.

Knowledge is Power

We can’t know too much. Or maybe it’s more accurate that we can never know enough.

Choosing treatment and end-of-life options for our animals will never be easy. But if we consider our ideas about life and death in advance, we build a framework that we can base our decisions on.

And if we’re honest about how our philosophical, religious, and childhood experiences affect our thinking, we can accept helpful suggestions without getting defensive.

I’ve never liked thinking about losing my pups while they’re still young (or old) and healthy. But that means that when they need me to make tough choices, I’m not well prepared.

Perhaps there’s a better way.

Honey the Golden Retriever Takes an Apple for Teacher.

Knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is snacks.

Think Now When You’re Not Under Pressure

I feel very lucky that my golden retriever Honey is such a healthy girl.

She has no food sensitivities or allergies. She’s active and happy. I hope she stays that way for the next 50 years.

I know that’s too much to hope for.

So I’m asking myself questions, now, when I’m not under pressure.

  • What does Honey enjoy most in life?
  • What does a quality life look like for her?
  • How does she cope with being in a strange place without us, like a vet hospital?
  • How does she deal with pain?
  • What would she be willing to put up with if it gave her something she really loved?

And I’ll ask my husband to answer these questions too so we can see how well we agree on what’s good for Honey without our own “stuff” getting in the way.

I started this process a few years ago when I heard a hospice vet give a presentation. She said that the most important thing we should consider when making end-of-life decisions for our pets was what protects our relationship. (If these issues are important to you, please go read that post. The vet’s comments were so helpful to me and they may be to you.)

Isn’t that a wonderful guide to follow?

Why shouldn’t we spend time thinking about our relationships with our animals while they’re happy and healthy? It will give us useful guidance for those times when our head isn’t clear and we’re overtaken by grief.

And I need the constant reminder that when I make important choices about Honey’s health, it’s about protecting our relationship. And not just about my ideas about illness and death.
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Your Turn: Do you have any guiding thoughts that help you make the best care decisions for your pets?

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  1. What a thoughtful, well-written post. Having made end-of-life decisions for my two previous dogs, and having stayed with them through their final moments, I can say it is not an easy thing to do. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My dogs bring me so much joy every day that I believe it is the least I can do for them.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Martine.

      I agree that being by our animals’ side when they pass is a gift. It may feel bad for us. But I can only think they feel less frightened with us nearby.

  2. I’m all about “quality of life” for both humans and canines. Not “really” knowing what I would do when faced with a decision as difficult as this, I find it “as difficult” to weigh in beginning with a “what if” scenario. So, I guess I’m a coward for not wanting to “think about it” until the time comes…

  3. Pamela, Thank you for another thoughtful piece. One of the reasons I enjoy your blog is you go beyond cute photos and training advice. The uncomfortable truth of having a pet is their relatively short life span. The first time I had to decide what was best for a pet (cat with cancer) I went with all out treatment. He did live/survive another three years. But at what cost? It would have been kinder to let him go. I will never do that again.
    As you and Mike did with Shadow I now always go for what is best for the pet. With all the medical advances available today that is not always an easy choice. But who ever said life choices are easy.

    • Thanks, Patricia.

      I’m so thankful for the rise of the hospice movement for pets. It brings a new way of helping us think about end of life issues. And hospice doctors have excellent advice about maintaining quality of life that regular vets don’t specialize in.

      As with your cat, we’re all doing the best we can. And no, life choices are never easy.

  4. Good advice to think it all through now. Roxy is getting up there in years, and I hate the thought of making these decisions. But make them I must, at some point.

    • It’s always a balancing act.

      On one hand, we want to enjoy every precious day we have together. But we don’t want to hide our heads so that when we need to make hard choices, we’re not ready for them.

      Hopefully, Roxy will be your lovely model for many years to come.

  5. First, I don’t have a religious bone in my body, so nothing I decide in life is guided by religion. My view of human healthcare (and probably religion as well) is very much colored by childhood experiences. My mother contracted ALS when I was about 10 or 11. It ravaged her body and left her brain trapped in a body she could no longer control. She couldn’t eat or talk either, or even write a note to get her needs across. True hell.When she still could, she would beg us to let her take the whole bottle of pain killers and get it over with. No human deserves to die like that and I totally feel human euthanasia should be an option in the appropriate situation.

    So how does this affect my decisions about my dogs? I definitely know I’m not making them wait for nature to run it’s course. With my sweet old Dylan, I felt like I made him wait too long as I couldn’t bear to say goodbye. John feels I let him go too soon and we could have “kept him going” another couple of weeks. He was blind, deaf, down in the back, and incontinent . His kidneys were failing and he had lost interest in food. When a corgi gives up on food, there is no bigger sign that it is time to let go. I had a lot of experience with death, both human and pet, and knew I would survive it. John had zero experience so wanted to stall it as long as possible. That is still his only experience. (His parents hover around 90. There are tough times ahead!)

    We all want our pets to die peacefully in their sleep. Unfortunately, that’s a very rare blessing. We have to give them the ultimate gift of an easy death. Yes, it’s hellishly hard, and it truly is the most difficult of decisions, but we owe them that and so much more.

    • I’m so sorry for your mom’s suffering. And for you and your family going through her illness as well. I can see how your ideas would be shaped by your mom’s experience.

      It sounds like you and John have some differing ideas similar to Mike’s and mine. Hopefully you won’t have to make any difficult decisions together. But I believe you’re right. Giving our pets an easy death is a terrible but wonderful blessing.

  6. I would always put the dog’s well-being and quality of life first, just like you did with Shadow and would never prolong a pet’s life if they were suffering, because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I’m the type of person that would rather enjoy every day with my buddy when they’re healthy, rather than think or discuss plans about ending their life ahead of time.

    • I understand your feelings about enjoying every day with our pups while they’re fit and strong. I like to do the same thing too.

      But many of us need a reminder of what a good qualify of life looks like for our pups when we’re facing the idea of losing them. That’s why the way you enjoy Haley every day will always help you make good choices for her.

  7. It is very interesting to hear your experiences and thoughts. My mom was like you; she avoided the hospital to the end. I wish she had relaxed that life rule a little bit and lived longer, but she died on her own terms and there is something to be said for that.

    Euthanizing Lamar was incredibly hard, I’m not sure if I’ll ever quite forgive myself for it. Tashi passed away on her own and though she wasn’t comfortable at the end, it seemed right to me–she didn’t seem ready for me to have her killed. So you’re absolutely right–our own feelings about it do affect our dogs’ experience. For me, there’s no way to know if its the right decision…tuning in to one’s relationship with one’s friend and pet is probably the best way to go.

    • I’m trying to find kind, touching, and insightful things to reply to your comment. But the words aren’t coming.

      I’m just resting in your thoughts. And agreeing that “there’s no way to know if its the right decision…tuning in to one’s relationship with one’s friend and pet is probably the best way to go.”

  8. Great post!! It gave me a lot to think about!

  9. Mom thinks about this a lot lately with Katie getting older. There are days where she wonders if Katie will make it to 13 yrs old in June, and other days, she thinks Katie will make it to 15. Is Katie in pain, is her life as it is now making her happy enough? So many things to think about, but Mom thinks about them all the time so if a time comes where she needs to make a decision she can hopefully do it.

    • As our dogs age, it’s such a hard balancing act–live for the day but prepare for the future.

      When Shadow was diagnosed with cancer, I mentally prepared myself for having a short time with her. And then she went and surprised me with going on and on and on. Hopefully Katie will continually surprise you.

  10. When I was 18,our Bullmastiff had cancer. My mom wanted to put her down before my family left on a trip, fearing it was too much for me to deal with. I said we would be okay. A few days into it, Angel was having a terrible time and I drove her to the vet’s to put her to sleep. It was incredibly painful (emotionally), but I think she had a few good days with me. Years later I made the decision to not take my 17 year old Yorkie (childhood pet) down to Cornell where “they might be able to help her”, because I didn’t have the money and I felt like it would stress her out. My big regret was she died alone at the local vet’s office. I can never fault someone for doing everything to keep their pets alive. Personally, I have to think about the animal’s quality of life and I don’t have an unlimited budget. It isn’t easy to make the decision to end a life, but nature is cruel sometimes. If we can limit the suffering of another, I think it can be a kindness.

    • Wow, you shared so many different aspects of making tough end-of-life decisions in one short paragraph.

      And I’m with you on not thinking things should be done because they can be done.

      I shared in an earlier post that my previous dog Agatha was suffering from liver cancer at 16 years old (she was also blind and deaf). She was really suffering on a weekend when our local vet wasn’t available. So I took her up to Cornell knowing it was time and that she was in a lot of pain.

      The vet resident suggested doing a complete work-up to see if we had other options. I felt terrible having to argue with this eager young vet student that she needed to kill my dog. But I knew it was the right thing to do.

      Sometimes we really do know more than the vet when it comes to our own pets.

  11. I’ve had to struggle with these decisions a lot lately. I’ve lost three family members (father, brother, mother) and three dogs in the last five years. A lot of loss. Obviously we didn’t get to choose “when” for my family, but there were still care decisions that needed to be made and tough choices…should my 84 year old mother have a “whipple” procedure to maybe address her bile duct cancer…and possible result in sickness and intestinal problems as a result? Or just leave her be. (we didn’t do it and she had a great 18 months).
    Do we put Becca through radiation and chemo and more to address her bone cancer? Radiation yes, chemo – one treatment and that was it – enough! I’m of the same mind as you – less treatment is better, you don’t have to do every known treatment to prolong things just because you can, sometimes it’s better to let nature take it’s course. Doctors are great, but I think sometimes we go to far. The last thing we want for any loved one is to suffer and sometimes you have to let go before you are ready.

    • Your comments are why hospice has been such a helpful tool– for people and for other animals.

      Sometimes it’s nice to have advice just about improving quality of life and decreasing pain.

      Sorry the past few years have been filled with loss. You’ve probably learned many lessons you’d have preferred not to learn.

  12. I think a key thing to consider is what constitutes life… Is life simpley turning oxygen into carbon dioxide or is it about living? Mity is not very well at the moment, and seems to be getting worse daily. I worry about him. He is slowly going death and blind, I worry that his world is becoming more scary, is he feeling more alone? Is he scared? But he still runs, he still plays, he still enjoys napping by the fire. He is still living. Yes, he runs slower, sleeps longer but he is not in pain and so for the moment we struggle on and we will until he is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Then when the pain becomes too much, or his life becomes more of a chore than a joy we will call the vet and say goodbye.
    I think putting their quality of life before our own selfish wants and needs is the one thing we can do to repay them for all their loyalty and love.

    • Sorry to hear Mity is showing his age.

      My dog Agatha lived to 16 and she was nearly deaf and blind toward the end of her life. But I also think she was very happy.

      In fact, at sixteen years old, she got up to a little mischief. I came home from work one day to find she had gotten a loaf of bread off the top of the refrigerator. I can only guess she used a chair to get up on the table and then pulled the bread off the fridge.

      I think she had the time of her life.

      Dogs don’t know not being able to see or hear is a bad thing. They just adjust.

  13. My main concern with Kissy was her quality of life and our bond. About two weeks before I allowed the vet to give her that final needle, I asked him how much time he thought she had left. He said that quite honestly he couldn’t say for certain but suspected that it wasn’t much more than a month…that would have put it right around the Christmas/New Year holidays.

    My Dad was here for Thanksgiving and our wedding anniversary (as he always was) and he said something to Sam that night that helped me make the decision for Kissy: “Sue and Kissy have a special bond between them like I have never seen, even between Sue’s Mom and our first three dogs. It’s a bond that will last throughout Sue’s life, even long after Kissy is gone.” I knew then that Kissy’s quality of life had deteriorated to a point where she was suffering without hope of relief. It was time to let her go with me at her side. I asked God every night to let her hold on until I could be with her while we administered her final relief. He did.

  14. What a great post. Such a difficult topic and decision. In some ways I think the decision is harder because it is actually a decision we make for someone other than ourselves. We’ve had tough discussions about Delilah and the elevated liver levels. We both agree that we do not want to put her through a biopsy and that if it were something awful like cancer we wouldn’t put her through chemo or radiation. If my pet is ill, I want the time they have left with me to be happy times and not filled with treatments that make them feel awful or stressful visits somewhere. For Delilah I know the day she stops jumping backwards as I carry her meal to her designated eating spot, that means she’s done. I will hate it, I will cry and probably never get over losing one of these two guys who have so effectively wrapped themselves around my heart, but I love them enough to want them to be pain free. I would hope it would be what others would choose for me if I couldn’t choose for myself.

    • Beautifully put, Jodi.

      Prepare yourself. The first time you leave food on the counter and Delilah leaves it alone is going to be a very rough day for you. Hope that makes you appreciate your little sneak-thief as you entertain family over the holidays. :)

  15. I absolutely love this post. It’s so true that so many responses to the question are “you’ll know.” It’s an absolutely gut wrenching decision we’re faced with as pet owners and it’s one that will never be easy. It’s such great advice to think about it beforehand. When my last dog Carter was beginning to get very ill at the age of 13 my boyfriend said “he’s suffering.” And although I was super pissed at him in that moment for even slightly suggesting the idea I knew he was right but it had to be my decision. And that’s the hardest part.

    I’ve known many pet owners who have give their dogs every treatment available to prolong their life; and it was always clear that their dogs were well loved and cared for. I’ve also known many that have opted not to operate on tough diseases and those animals were greatly loved as well. It’s such a personal choice, I don’t know if there is ever an exact right time. And even though I’ve had to make the choice a few times I’ve never felt that it was the “right” time, just the necessary time.

  16. And in all honesty a lot of my decision making process in regards to euthanasia is made once I muster up the courage to even say it aloud. It’s never easy, and I certainly emphasize with every pet owner whose had to make the call themselves.