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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your Turn: Do you have any guiding thoughts that help you make the best care decisions for your pets?