As part of an ongoing Ploughshares series on writers and their pets, novelist Bill Roorbach movingly remembers his dog Wally, who was dying of kidney failure and had to be put down:
I held my hand on his heart, felt the last beats. Later, I called my elderly parents. My dad, no dog lover, said Mom was fairly lucid, which hadn’t been true for months. She knew who I was and asked how things were going. I told her about Wally and she said, “These animals with their short lives teach us so much about death.” …
Two weeks later, on April 16, Easter Sunday, my mother died, too. I got there in a cloud of tears (six hour drive down to Connecticut from Maine), got there an hour too late and only sat with her body. As the months of mourning proceeded I found I kept returning to my time with Wally, his heart stopping in my hands, and that was (impossible to explain) deeply comforting.
Dusty is now fifteen and a half and incontinent. She has to wear a diaper now, and has countless warts that disfigure her but cause no actual harm. I’m approaching the moment when these decisions will be forced upon me. The other day, I simply wondered whether I could “put down”, i.e. kill, my beloved beagle. But there will surely come a point when compassion demands it. The last time I held such power in my hands – collectively with family and friends – was helping enforce my friend Patrick’s desire not to be resuscitated if he succumbed to AIDS. Oddly, I got Dusty as a way to remember Pat; he had a beagle from the same breeder, and Dusty always somehow brought my dead friend back to me.
It will be tough. But in these things, I’m sure Dusty will also guide me and Aaron. Dogs know how to live better than we do.
Why would they not know better how to die?
This post struck a chord with a lot of readers:
I feel your pain. We have had to put four dogs to sleep and one cat (age 18.5). This is not counting my parents’ pets. When we put our last dog, sweet golden retriever Zella, to sleep (very unexpectedly), I did as I always do and stayed with her through the whole procedure. My husband couldn’t bear to be there, and so he said good-bye and left to wait outside.
This, however, made Zella a bit agitated – “Why is Papa leaving?” She was not feeling well (she had hemangiosarcoma, which is basically a blood-fed tumor, in her case larger than a softball and pressing on her liver), but she perked up when the vet came in because he had been working with hamsters and his hands and shirt smelled so awesome. So she was wagging her tail and smiling when we invited her to sit on the floor, which she did not want to do. So I sat on a bench in the room and she hopped up next to me and sat/leaned against me. As the serum was injected, Zella just leaned on me more and more and ended up with her head in my lap. It was really a very peaceful and sweet way to die.
The vet told me afterwards that he wished every pet owner would stay with their pet at the end, because when they leave the room, the pet gets agitated and it’s harder for the staff to keep them still, making the whole process so much more stressful for the pet. He also said that the women always stay, but only about half of men do, which I thought was interesting.
I’ve attached a picture of sweet Zella on the day before we took her in. She was SUCH a great dog! I am very sorry about Dusty’s health. It is so, so hard to say goodbye to a wonderful dog. I will be thinking of you when that day comes.
The decisions you have to make on behalf of your companion animals just rip you apart. We recently faced that problem with our beagle, Buddy. By age 14 he had lost almost all of his teeth (we never could get him to floss), he had been blind for two years and almost completely deaf, yet he seemed to get some enjoyment out of life. He still loved to eat, of course; he could still consume a milk bone with no teeth. And he could usually make it out the doggy door to the back yard when he needed too. Most of all, he seemed to get very happy when we would lie down next to him and pet him.
But sadly, about a month ago, things got suddenly worse. He refused to eat his kibble (he would still eat treats) and his back legs were giving out, so he could not stand up reliably. He could no longer make it through the doggy door; we had to carry him outside and back in. He barely recognized us and he slept 99% of the time. When he would stand up, he seemed to be in pain. After conferring with the vet, we decided it was time. However, he had been my best friend for so long … it took me a couple of days to agree. But we finally put him in the car for his last ride. He always hated going to the vet. Nasty things seemed to happen there. This time he knew where he was, and tried to struggle before going in the vet’s door; then he sort of gave up. They got us into a room in short order, and we spent some quiet time with him. The doctor came in and asked us if we wanted to stay while she gave him the shots. There was never any question; we had him since he was eight weeks old, so we were going to be there at the end.
By this time he was just lying on the table anyway, seemingly passed out. When she gave him the final shots, it seemed to make very little difference; his shallow breathing just stopped entirely. I took one last look at him and just lost it, bawling all the way home.
When we got our house, our other beagle, Cloe, gave us a quizzical look seemingly asking, “Where is he?” That night, she kept getting up and wandering around the house, then letting out a short high-pitched yelp, and looking at us questioningly. She knew he was missing.
The next day, she seemed to adapt and life went on. So we gave her a lot of love, and we adapted too, but we always remember Buddy. I cannot find the actual quote, but I am sure that Arthur C. Clarke once wrote something like the following: “One of greatest tragedies of human life is the all too short lives of our animal best friends.” So Andrew, prepare yourself.
A reader sends the above photo:
I don’t know you from Adam, but I do subscribe to your blog. My wife and I just put our dog down yesterday. I attached a picture of him sedated. The vet tech gave him a shot and he went from panting in pain to this peaceful rest. They gave us 10 or 20 minutes alone with him and then came in and administered the overdose of anesthesia. We petted him while he passed on.
I often look to your blog to try and find comfort when things happen in the world. I guess now I am looking for something on a personal level. Thanks for listening.
I just read your post about Dusty and twice you used the phrase “put down” (the first time without quotes). For the love of God and all that’s holy – I’m an atheist – can we please start a movement to change that horrible phrase? Put down? That’s something you do to a phone or a bottle or a piece of luggage. It’s absolutely NOT what you do with a companion who’s been there through thick and thin; who’s been loved and loved in return. I very recently had to let go of my big Endymion, a gorgeous, amazing, friendly and loving cat of many years and I cry whilst writing this. I most certainly did not “put him down.” I let him go. Let go > put down.
Good luck with Dusty, you have my love and support.
I’m sure mine will be one hundreds of notes you get on this topic. It’s one I have been thinking about for many months now. My dog, my very first dog, was diagnosed with incurable cancer last October. With treatment, we were told he would like have a year. And so treatment it was. It’s been nine months, and I have fought through an extended grieving process. Beyond the medical treatments, the dog has suffered longbouts of anxiety that we have struggled to manage. I have often found myself thinking that if it is this much of a struggle with the dog, what will happen when my now 60-year-old parents start to wind down their lives? My dog, through his illness and eventual death, is teaching me how to plug ahead, and to love, cherish and find grace in a friend whose time is limited.
At the moment, things have normalized. And we are loving the hell out of our buddy while we can. His personality is back for the most part, as you can see in the included photo.
Another was better able to cope with the death of her 92-year-old grandmother after the loss of her pets:
In the last four years, we have had to put three pets to sleep. Our first was our 12-year-old lab, Max, who suffered from severe hip dysplasia and then got cancer. We opted not to do chemo because he was already feeble. We tried some natural remedies that I do believe gave us a few more good months with him. When we made the decision to put him down, he had stopped eating and could not pick himself up to walk outside.
Our cat got a cancer diagnosis about two years after Max was put down. He was almost 19 years old and the cancer was in his nasal passage, which caused him to not be able to breathe very well. We tried some medications to reduce the size of the tumor, but ultimately we had to put him down about a month after diagnosis, when his reduced oxygen intake made him disoriented and very weak. His kidneys also started failing.
Our second lab, Cooper, who was our first “child” together (Max having come into our marriage from my husband and kitty from me) got a cancer diagnosis about a year after Max was put down, which resulted in us having to amputate one of his hind legs. He rebounded from that almost immediately and enjoyed life as a tripod until last fall. I had noticed that it was taking him some extra time to pull himself up to standing position and that he seemed to lose his balance more often. He was 11, so I did not give it to much thought. We had not noticed any new tumors in our check-ups. Cooper always acted like a puppy and was so happy to be around us. His behavior did not change as he got older; he was always a happy dog and, for some reason, chose me as his favorite person. I liked to call him my 85-pound lapdog.
When he stopped eating for a few days, I immediately took him to the vet. It was cancer again, but this time a different, more aggressive form than what led to the earlier amputation. Hemangiosarcoma. Cooper had tumors on most of his major organs. These types of tumors were filled with blood vessels in danger of rupturing at any moment and causing massive internal bleeding. In fact, it appeared that some of the tumors may have already ruptured, as his abdomen was partially filled with blood (which is why he would not eat). During the time these tumors were growing and spreading, he never act like he was in pain, he just appeared weaker than normal. I would have to help him into our bed at night (where he normally slept) because he could no longer make the jump. He needed a little assistance walking up steps. He never stopped being the most loving dog, furiously wagging his tail anytime one of us was around.
When the vet confirmed the nature of the cancer and the risks of massive internal bleeding if one of the larger tumors ruptured, we made the decision that very day to put Cooper down. While it had been difficult with Max and the kitty, because they both had seemed so physically and mentally ready to go, the grief in making the choice to end their suffering was somewhat manageable. With Cooper, his overall personality remained fairly unchanged. He was still so happy and loving at the time of his last diagnosis. The staff at the vet hospital even remarked on what a happy tail-wagger he was. That made it a much more difficult decision because I wanted to take him home and spend more time with him.
Knowing that the tumors on his organs could rupture at any moment and cause him to have a terrible, painful death, however, helped us make our decision. We could not allow that to happen when we had a chance to ease him into wherever he would next be going. We brought our kids to the hospital and we spent a good hour just hanging out with Cooper in a room by ourselves and saying our goodbyes. When it was time, my husband took my kids out, and I laid down next to Cooper and held him and talked to him while the injections were made and for some time thereafter.
I miss him so much, and even though deep down I know we made the right decision for Cooper, I wonder if he could have comfortably lived a few more months. On the other hand, I also wonder and fear that he had been in pain much longer than we ever knew, and his sweet, loving disposition just masked his pain and discomfort.
All of this is to say that the lives and deaths of Max, kitty, and Cooper have helped me get through other things in my life. After we had put down Max and kitty, my grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 92. She was at home with hospice care for several months. I think having gone through the passing of Max and kitty helped me through the passing of my grandmother. I had not previously lost any human member of my family that I was especially close to. My grandmother’s passing in some ways helped me through Cooper’s death (she died about three months before he did), and his passing likewise helped me with accepting my grandmother’s death.
I wish the best for you and Dusty and just wanted to relay that, based on my experience with the four (or three)-legged loved ones in our lives, it is true that you will know when it is the right time to let them go.
The real reason I wanted to write to you, though, was to share a picture with you. During our last moments with Cooper, my husband took a picture of the kids and me with him. I was so torn up after putting him down that it took me two weeks to even look at the picture:
While the photo is a bit fuzzy, I hope you can see the extra-special twinkle in Cooper’s eye. This was his last gift to me and so typical of who he was.
Quote For The Day
“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan,” – Irving Townsend.
The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets, Ctd
Readers continue to contribute to the popular thread:
Thanks for this post about Dusty. I had to put my very first dog down a few months ago, and it continues to haunt me. Ike started to have issues with the steps in my home, then couldn’t make it without my carrying him, then his system just starting shutting down. I sent my mom this picture [above] and she was on the next flight from D.C. to LAX.
I brought her to my home only long enough to pick up Ike, then go to the vet. There wasn’t much they could do, so the deed was done. I didn’t think I would weep like I did, and I find that when I see a death scene in a movie or TV show, it all comes flooding back. I really appreciate your affection for dogs in general and your beloved Dusty in particular.
There are vets who will come to your home to administer euthanasia. It’s much preferable to taking her to a vet.
Many readers chose that path:
I remember the day my wife and I looked at each other and recognized the day had come to “put down” our gentle springer spaniel of 14.5 years. Part of me desperately wanted to chicken out and not be there for it, but it’s really your duty to do so, after all the loyalty the dog has given you. It helped that the vet arranged a house call. The kids, to my surprise, asked to be present and were. There was no great moment or storybook lesson, but it was peaceful, quiet and right. I won’t like it any better when our spry young rascal reaches his time, but I won’t dread it so. A lingering lesson, yes. Dang dogs.
Another reader who decided to have a peaceful death at home:
Our first dog, Wolfgang, was very special. He had a strong sense for how we felt, and did what he could to comfort and console when appropriate. He was diagnosed with lymphoma 15 months before he died. We were not yet ready to release him and so spent a small fortune on chemo. Mostly that 15 months was good; we treasure those times. 80% of the time he was the dog we always remembered, although easily tired. He was not in any particular pain. He nonetheless experienced “crashes,” about a week after a new chemo treatment, and each time we helped him through it.
The last time he crashed came before a weekend. Weeks before, an x-ray disclosed that the lymphoma was back and spreading. The vet offered to board him, but we wanted him at home. On Monday, he would see a canine oncologist to administer another drug. But Wolf stopped eating and drinking. We did our best with a turkey baster to try to get some fluids and mashed up superfood into him. On Sunday afternoon, the sun was out, and I carried Wolf out to our backyard, where he had an hour of surveying his realm, poking his nose into the breeze, etc. I stayed with him overnight, lying with him on the floor. I started to lose it at one point. Wolf kissed my hand and rolled over as best he could to get a tummy rub.
My wife relieved me at four in the morning. Wolf died in her arms within the hour. Wolf was waiting for her, as he was always a momma’s boy.
It’s not for everyone and every situation, but I’m glad we kept Wolf at home. He died where he was happiest with the people he loved. And we did not have to make the hard choice about inducing his death. It’s hard to imagine a better passing. It would have been different had he been in pain, but there was no evidence of that. Yes, it demanded a lot of our time, but really, if you can’t spend time on those you love, what’s the point?
I experienced a far different death when I had to go to the vet’s and give the instruction to put my sister’s dog down. The dog had collapsed and was in pain, and it was the right call. Nonetheless, I was sad that my sister wasn’t there (she was on the East Coast) and that Sadie passed on in a clinic rather than at home. I have since heard of at least a couple of local vets who will come out and administer a lethal injection in the home. Clearly most vets will not do that, but I’d recommend finding one who does before the issue becomes critical.
Okay, I never thought I’d send you a pet picture, but for the sheer ridiculousness of this, here’s our beloved Bob:
As you can see, he was patient with my daughter’s dress-up games, as well as a loving “mom” to our cats (and us). We were luckier than most of the readers who’ve posted on this thread, since we found a vet who came to our house to put him to sleep. And thank God for it; Bob just HATED the vet, and the thought of him spending his last hour on earth in terror was too much. Our vet was loving and gentle, so Bob drifted away happy and comfortable as I held his head in my hands.
I’m proud to say that we gave our dog Princess a good death. It was the least we could do after her years of loving us. Princess was a 14-year-old German Shepherd / Border Collie mix that weighed 60 pounds healthy. But in her last year, she dwindled down to 45 lbs. She suffered from incontinence, hearing loss that led to anxiety, and frequent bouts of diarrhea. I thought I cared about our carpets until she reached this stage of her life. I never imagined that changing a doggie diaper would be part of my daily routine.
About two weeks before, she simply stopped eating much of anything, then ten days later, she stopped following us around the house to spend all her time in her bed. In Portland OR, we have a mobile vet service that specializes in in-home euthanasia. When it was clear to us that it was time, we called them.
It was a sunny, warm day for October in the Pacific Northwest. Princess died in her favorite spot on our front porch, in the arms of my husband while I stroked her head. A week later, we planted her ashes in a bed of new daffodil bulbs. We still miss her very much, and we travel too much to have pets now, so she’s never been succeeded. Still, when my time comes, I hope that I have a death like hers.
A few years ago, our dog (a Westie) was in very rough shape. We had probably waited WAY too long to take this step, and he was suffering. Then, on a Sunday morning (when all the veterinary offices were closed), he could barely breathe, was panting in a panicked manner, and seemed to be pleading to us with his eyes. My ex-husband was beside himself and nearly in hysterics, so he was no help. I called a 24-hour emergency vet number and asked if it were possible to somehow put our dog to sleep at home, so as not to prolong his suffering (capped off by a traumatic car ride, which he always hated). The vet said something along the lines of, “Well, I cannot tell you how to euthanize your pet, because that would be illegal. What I can tell you, however, is that a strong dose of Benadryl has a narcotic effect of dramatically slowing down the heart and lung function. Best wishes to you.”
So that’s what I did. Two or three capsules’ worth emptied into a dab of wet dog food. We were able to snuggle with him until he relaxed and then simply, slowly, stopped breathing. The next day we took his body, which we had wrapped in a blanket with his favorite toys, to the vet so that he could be cremated.
Just read your post about Dusty and the inevitable question of “when.” Two weeks ago we put down our much loved, nearly 17 year old chow, Sammy. You recognize elements of the downward slide and you willfully shut out others. But he didn’t operate on that plane. He knew. And he told us. He stopped eating, even the beloved treats, and then started to fall down and was incapable of getting up. To be blind to those calls would be willfully cruel.
We called an incredible vet, Hannah, who comes to your home. She lets you sit on the floor with your pet’s head in your lap and the process begins. She administered the shots, Sammy gave a final kick and with that said good-bye. She has the pets cremated and scatters the ashes in an apple orchard. There is great comfort in that scenario. So if you can find a NYC vet who offers this service, Andrew, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It soothes the human caretakers and I like to think it’s easier for beloved dogs.
Many readers are also sounding off on our Facebook page. One popular comment:
We help our dogs to die painless, dignified deaths when the time comes. Yet we do not allow the same for humans. A shame!
Readers continue the popular thread:
I just read your “recent keeper” about Dusty. I am so sorry. It brought back a lot of memories of my beagle, Toby, who left us in July two years ago. She was also experiencing an age-related decline of health (she was 16) and I , too, was challenged on when was the “right time”. Without going into details that may add to your burden, I can only say that Toby, in her way, told me when it was the right time. I had hoped for three more days so our daughter could come home from college, but it wasn’t to be.
Remember you may be crying not only for her but for all the other loves in your life who have passed. When Toby passed, a part of me thought “Whoa, where are all these tears coming from”. But I realized they come from a deep down place where I was grieving for my parents, family members and pets.
During the past 12 months I’ve lost my mom, my dad, and my dog. It’s been the year from hell – so much death, and all at once. We rescued Chewy from a shelter and he instantly became my best friend. He died at age 7 – so fucking soon – due to a rare cancer. In the nine months since then, every day I mutter aloud, “I wish Chewy were here.” Dogs nudge themselves into our lives in such a way that they become family, and even in the wake of my parents’ deaths, my mumbles and daily griefs center on that brown and white friend, which makes me wonder if I’m focusing on him at the expense of grieving for my parents. Were he still here, I just know he’d have silent wisdom to share with me on this godawful year.
I’ve had to put down several pets who were very dear to me. Each time, when that day arrived, I knew it was time. Either my pet was obviously suffering or it was apparent that the body was shutting down (but not quickly enough) and it would be cruel not to intervene. Meanwhile, other than one case of sudden illness, all of my pets have enjoyed lengthy golden years. My wife and I provided each with extra creature comforts as the various needs of old age presented themselves. I always knew that waiting another day would have brought needless physical discomfort.
I should add that my Christian faith helps soften the blow of a pet’s passing, since I believe the Resurrection and New Creation will, of course, include animals. And, as long as animals are along for the ride, why wouldn’t that lot include our animals?
I’ll leave you with this: I was once told a story (a true story, I might add) of a stodgy, old professor at a Christian seminary (think John Houseman’s Kingsfield in The Paper Chase). Students generally gave the guy a healthy buffer in the hallways, and they avoided asking him questions during lectures, if it could at all be avoided. However, a student once dared to approach the grumpy theologian and ask him if he thought that our pets would join us in Heaven. The professor arched his eyebrows and stared at the student as if he were crazy; and then replied: “Of course pets will be there! It wouldn’t be Heaven if they weren’t!”
I’m in my mid 20s and went home this year to visit my parents for Easter. They have been tending to their two beagles for a few years, since my youngest sister went off to school. We got the dogs in the late ’90s, so even for beagles they were getting up there. One was a runt we got from a breeder as a Christmas gift, and the other was a severely abused and malnourished rescue dog we got after the local paper did a story about our town’s animal shelter and he was on the front page, cowering in the back of his cage.
This Easter, the beagles weren’t doing too well. Both were over 15 years old. They had been loyal companions but were sick – the rescue, Gramps, had had a tumor on his neck growing at a terrible pace since around Christmas. It was nearing the end for him, and my parents had planned on taking him to be “put down” the following week, as he had begun showing signs of suffering and couldn’t hold down food or water, and his breathing was so impaired that he hadn’t slept in days.
So my parents and I, three nonbelievers, sat down to a little informal Easter breakfast this year, and our Gramps came barreling downstairs into the dining room just as we began to eat our eggs. He was wobbly, like a drunk on his way out of the pub. We were all confused and startled, but Gramps stumbled into the room and fell in a heap under our dining room table. He breathed heavily several times, wagged him tail a bit, and expired as we all knelt at the edges of the table, still in shock to see him moving so quickly. He was gone, just like that.
I am the first to have a laugh at the silly, cheaply sentimental things of our culture. And I think the notion that “everything happens for a reason” is absurd. But that experience made me consider that perhaps these animals have something to teach us, even if they don’t know it. I firmly believe Gramps used the last ounce of strength he had in him to be near us in his final moments.
We had to put our 15-year-old lab to sleep last year because of internal bleeding. She was so tired she could barely walk. I looked in her eyes and just knew it was time. You will too. I have found that the best way to remember them is to eventually adopt another dog. It takes a while to find a suitable dog, but rescue is the best! These sweet dogs always remember that you saved them … or maybe they save you.
(Top photo from a reader: “One late esteemed hound and his successor”)
Not Only Humans Lose Their Pets
A moving, real story about an elephant and her beloved canine friend:
The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets, Ctd
A reader sends the above photo:
I usually can’t stomach stories about losing a pet, but I’ve been reading each one on this beautiful thread. Thanks.
Many more reflect on the need for selflessness when it comes to confronting our pets’ mortality:
Your love for them compels you to let them die with dignity in their own time and not on our time. When their bodies fail them, they are telling you in their own way to let go. I have learned this lesson the hard way when I kept my dog alive (with numerous surgeries and excessive medications) way longer than I should have. I have held two loving companions as they took their last breath. I cried for days on both occasions, but for different reasons. The first was due to guilt because I kept my canine companion around for selfish reasons such as that I couldn’t bear to live without them. The second time was due to the loss of my canine companion. The second loss has been much easier on me in the long run.
Our Sunny, a 16-year-old beagle, died in March. She was deaf, half-blind, crippled with arthritis … even maybe a little demented, since I don’t know if she really knew who my husband and I were anymore. But what told us that the time had come were her cries of pain. They weren’t whines or howls, just almost human cries. Our attending veterinarian and her husband were lovely and compassionate. We held our dog and told her how much we loved her and that she was going to be free of pain very soon. I wish I could say we would be free as well, but it is a better pain to grieve for a friend who’d given us so much rather than to endure the guilt of keeping her with us one more day because of our own selfishness.
I will be thinking of you, Andrew. You’ll know when it is time. God bless you.
I recently lost a dear pet, Tobias the Shetland Sheepdog. My wife and I loved him dearly, so we clung to him long after we should have made the rational choice. He suffered from arthritis and was mostly blind and deaf, to the point he wouldn’t go outside except in bright daylight. Still, he was the best little dog a human being could ask for. He had the most pettable ears. It’s very difficult to let go of a beloved pet. I just wanted you know you’re not alone.
I hope that both you and Dusty will be fortunate enough for her to pass away peacefully in her sleep. But if that is not to be, take comfort in the blessing of being able to ease her suffering. My beloved beagle developed lymphoma at the age of 14. I made the seemingly impossible decision to put him to sleep when he reached the point that the tumors in his neck were so large that he could no longer drink water. The alternative for him was an excruciating death from dehydration. He was so sick and weak that when the drugs were administered he simply relaxed and was gone. He died in my arms, surrounded by people who loved him. We should all be so lucky.
Months later, I came across the Villalobos Quality of Life Scale, which is used to help owners understand when euthanasia may be the right choice for their pet. I scored my dog and was surprised and almost relieved to see that, at my most generous, I could maybe give him a score of 15 in his final days. Euthanasia was the most compassionate and loving choice I could have made. It’s been two and a half years, and I still miss him every day.
I just read your thread on putting down dogs. I went through this on April 30 of this year. Redding was my companion for 13 years. He was as handsome as he was sweet. He started to show his age a couple of years ago, around 11. So I had this two-year waiting period of wondering what you are going through with Dusty as he got slower and more fatty tumors popped up. He had been limping for a couple of weeks and the vet could not figure out what was wrong so we decided to keep an eye on it. One Saturday night he came into our bedroom just panting. It hurt him too much to sit or lay down so he just stood there. Panting. That was the sign that it was time to let him go. We got through Sunday and Monday I took him to the vet. For me it was a relief to see him pain free. My wife came with me to drive me home, but at that point she was more upset than I was. So I drove.
I was surprised that I felt what I was feeling. I was happy that my boy was no longer miserable and in pain, but kind of numb to the loss. I made arrangements with the vet to have him cremated. And over the next couple of weeks I would get sad when I walked in the house and looked at the couch, but did not see him there. I would tear up when people let me know what a good dog he was and that he is the reason they themselves got dogs. But it really hit me in the parking lot after I picked up his ashes. I had one of those good deep sobbing cries. It hits me now and again. I still find myself looking for him in his usual spots.
Anyway, just wanted to tell you my story (I believe I wrote in a while ago hoping you would cheer me up). It is hard and they do let you know, but in my case, there was also a great sense of relief and knowing that I made the right decision and did not hold on to him too long for selfish reasons in the hopes that he would miraculously get better. He loved and was loved in turn. He really was a good boy.
My family had to put down our lemon beagle, Bruce, a few years ago. He was 12, and it was clearly time; he didn’t have a major sickness, but was extremely frail and completely stopped eating and we didn’t want him to suffer. I couldn’t be there because I was living abroad, but my parents and sister took him to the vet, where they put him to sleep in the courtyard of their small office park, near a fountain. He was a so cute (huge ears that made him look like a puppy well into old age), and the rare dog that actually liked the vet. A few of the assistants even came out to be with him and cried because they loved him too. My sister held his head in her lap as he drifted off.
When it comes time for Dusty, I really, really encourage you to not let her suffer because it’s too hard for you to let her go. I’ve seen this happen way too often and it’s so painful to watch. When the spark has gone out in her eye, you’ll know. Don’t let yourself be blinded by your love and need for her.
I know you’re getting a ton of emails on this topic, but I have noticed differences in how people respond to their pets’ end of life issues. I’ll preface this with a recent medical scare we had with our 14 lb, Type 2 diabetic Siamese cat. We love him so much that we placated his constant meowing at his food bowl by feeding him too much! Hence we, in a sense, gave him Type 2 diabetes. Diet and two insulin shots a day for two years. Then something very scary happened.
Last week, my wife fed him breakfast and gave him his morning insulin shot. About 10 minutes later, he lost control of his bowels and vomited (poo, pee, and vomit almost simultaneously … an unholy trinity if there ever was one). He then collapsed on the floor. I rushed him to our vet (after giving him some corn syrup) to find out he was in insulin shock and had gone blind.
My wife cried almost the whole day. Our cat might die, and he was clearly suffering (luckily he recovered and is now in diabetes remission). If the vet told us that he couldn’t be saved, I would have put him down immediately. My wife? Not so much.
It seems many people become wrapped up in their own grief to the detriment of the suffering animal. We keep our animals alive for us not for them. It’s a bit of a paradox. We’re willing to have our animals suffer because we don’t want them to die. We love these family members, but our own feelings of loss lead us to hurt the things we love. I found myself telling my wife that we needed to think of the cat and not about our feelings. I admit that not every case is clear cut, that there’s a waiting game that can happen while treatment occurs. However, some cases are clear, yet many people wait … and wait … until they’re ready for their animal to die, which seems backwards and selfish to me.
Must we control every aspect of our animals’ lives, including making them live too long?
I delayed putting down the first dog my husband and I shared, a black Lab he had before he met me. He couldn’t bring himself to make the decision and I could not bring myself to push him to do it, even when I knew it was the right thing. I will never let my own selfish feelings get in the way like that again. I will never be able to look one of my companions in the eye again and essentially say, “You must suffer because I don’t have the guts to do what is right”.
I have had the pleasure (if pleasure is ultimately a positive outcome) of being present at the planned final moments of five of our pets, and the agony of two that were unplanned, but should not have been unexpected. One week after 9/11, I awoke to find our black labrador mix Calvin floating lifeless in our swimming pool, no doubt because his poor eyesight and shaky legs doomed him when all he probably wanted was a drink of cool water. He’d been struggling for a while, but we could not bear the thought of putting him down.
About a year before, our beagle Lester (who bore a striking resemblance to Dusty) had a growth on his liver, but we decided to try surgery, even though he was already 13 years old and had other health issues. Whether by fate or the incompetence of the veterinarian, he bled out on the operating table and that is our last memory of him.
In both cases, our own selfishness prolonged their lives beyond what was fair and reasonable. We have learned our lesson, and all our beloved pets since have been showered with love and affection on their final day; we like to think that is what they took with them to their end. You can expect to have reservations when the time comes, but trust your own instincts. Simply imagine how you would want other humans to treat you if you were in a similar situation, and the decision will be clear.
I spoke with BBC Radio 4 (scroll down to 0819) about the overwhelming and moving response from Dish readers to my post on Dusty. Pam Burne Jones, a pet bereavement adviser for Blue Cross, also joins the programme.
Broadcasting Bereavement, Ctd
A reader writes:
Your Broadcasting Bereavement post caught me in the throat. For me, it coalesces with The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets, a Dish thread I followed eagerly and with dread as my precious little dog, Georgia, was dying from congestive heart failure.
She died eight days ago, at home, in my arms. I asked my partner to take a picture of me holding her. I’m not sure why. I think it was because I didn’t want to let her go and thought a photograph would give me a way to hold her forever. I don’t use Twitter or Facebook, so I sent news of her passing via text message. But I wanted to share more than the news of her death. I wanted to share the news of my grief. I find it’s difficult to convey with words the enormity of such things, so I sent the photo too, which I’ve attached here as well.
What, then, is the last lesson our beloved pets teach us? I think it’s this: until the moment of death arrives, live – explore a new cushion on the floor, rub your nose in the grass, sniff the night air.
Alas, I’m a lousy student. One would think I’d be an expert by now, since Georgia is the 13th companion animal I’ve lost. Hopefully this time I’ll find a way to think more about how Georgia (indeed all of them) lived, and less about how much it hurts to lose them.
Friday was the first day in her life that my beloved Dusty didn’t wolf all her food down. She creaked out of her crate, meandered toward it and then began to walk back. It’s been like that every morning and evening since. The growth in her bladder seems to be constraining her more and more: she now seems permanently thirsty and proportionately incontinent. She peed through her diaper and entire bed the other night. This morning, we woke up to puke everywhere. This is happening more and more.
And yet, this afternoon, as we took her for a walk on the beach, and there was a little skip, a slight wander into the very edge of the water, and then, back home, playtime on the lawn. There are moments when she snaps back to normal, and makes me feel like a monster to take even a second of life from her. But those moments are getting fewer and fewer, and the incontinence and thirst and warts and growths cloud more of her hours and days. We talked it over and have decided that the discomfort will only get worse, dehydration could take hold, and then pain and suffering.
We’re going to let her go tomorrow if we can find a vet to come to our home. Your emails were so supportive and helpful I know many of you know where Aaron and I are right now. I’m just a little shocked at how totally gutted I feel – to end the life of this little being who has been with me longer than anyone else, whom I held in my hands at a couple of months old, who, right now, is lying in her crate, looking up at me typing. She has had 15 glorious summers on this beach; and she has loved this one. It’s just time, she is telling us.
Sweet Jesus this is hard.
We spent the morning on the beach, Dusty and I. These last few days, this usually aloof and independent mischief-maker leaned into me. She sat on the sand, her body pressed against my leg, then allowing me to hold her longer than usual in my arms before she’d squirm and wriggle away. Aaron took her to their favorite breakfast take-out spot and ordered the egg-and-bacon burger she had lusted after but never eaten before. Today, it was all hers. But something she would have swallowed in one breath not so long ago, she looked at, nibbled, and let drop. Only strands of bacon tempted her and then, a chocolate chip cookie. No hesitation there.
Our usual vet was on vacation so we took Dusty to another animal hospital, where they were extremely kind. We waited a little outside, which is when Aaron took the photo above. Dusty was shivering a little and panting, but much less agitated than she usually is near a vet. Inside she was given a sedative as I cradled her in my arms. She relaxed as I petted and held her to my face, her tongue suddenly lolling out as the muscles all sagged. There was no reluctance any more. She gave up her fiercely guarded independence to me, in the end, and it touched me so deeply. She was ornery and feisty and selfish usually – only rarely letting her guard down. But now it was fully down; and she let me take care of her one last time.
This was not like waiting for someone to die; it was a positive act to end a life – out of mercy and kindness, to be sure – but nonetheless a positive act to end a life so intensely dear to me for a decade and a half. That’s still sinking in. The power of it. But as we laid her on the table for the final injection, she appeared as serene as she has ever been. I crouched down to look in her cloudy eyes and talk to her, and suddenly, her little head jolted a little, and it was over.
I couldn’t leave her. But equally the sight of her inert and lifeless – for some reason the tongue hanging far out of her mouth disfigured her for me – was too much to bear. I kissed her and stroked her, buried my face in her shoulders, and Aaron wept over her. And then we walked home, hand in hand. As we reached the front door, we could hear Eddy howling inside.
I don’t know how to thank all of you for your emails over the last 24 hours – as well as the thread that helped me understand this whole thing better, as this loomed in the future. Her bed is still there; and the bowl; and the diapers – pointless now. I hung her collar up on the wall and looked out at the bay. The room is strange. She has been in it every day for fifteen and a half years, waiting for me.
Now, I wait, emptied, for her.
Surprised By Grief
It’s not as if I have any excuse (you warned me plenty of times) but I’m shocked by how wrecked I am right now. Patrick, Chris and Jessie, thank God, have been holding down the fort on the Dish, because otherwise I’m not sure I could think about much else right now. How can the emotions be this strong? She was a dog, after all, not a spouse or a parent.
And yet, today, as I found myself coming undone again and again, I realized that living with another being in the same room for 15 and a half years – even if she was just a mischievous, noisy, disobedient, charming, food-obsessed beagle – adds up to a lot of life together. I will never have a child, and she was the closest I’ll likely get. And she was well into her teens when she died.
She was with me before the Dish; before my last boyfriend, Andy; before I met Aaron. She came from the same breeder as the beagle my friend Patrick got as he faced down AIDS at the end of his life. I guess she was one way to keep him in my life, so it was fitting that his ex-boyfriend drove me to the farm in Maryland to get her. I was going to get a boy and call him Orwell (poseur alert) but there were only girls left by the time we got there. I didn’t know what I was doing but this tiny little brown-faced creature ambled over to me and licked the bottom of my pants. She chose me. On the ride home, I realized I hadn’t thought for a second what to call a girl dog, and then Dusty Springfield came on the radio.
My friends couldn’t believe I’d get a dog or, frankly, be able to look after one. I was such a bachelor, a loner, a workaholic writer and gay-marriage activist with relationships that ended almost as quickly as they had begun. I thought getting a dog would help me become less self-centered. And of course it did. It has to. Suddenly you are responsible for another being that needs feeding and medicine and walking twice a day. That had to budge even me out of my narcissism and work-mania.
But I also got her as the first positive step in my life after the depression I sank into after my viral load went to zero in 1997. I know it sounds completely strange, but the knowledge of my likely survival sent me into the pit of despair. I understand now it was some kind of survivor guilt, and, after so much loss, I had to go through it. I wrote my way out of the bleakness in the end – as usual. But this irrepressible little dog also pulled me feistily out.
She was entirely herself – and gleefully untrainable. I spent a large part of our first years together chasing her around bushes and trees and under wharfs, trying to grab something out of her mouth. She’d find a disgusting rotten fish way underneath a rotting pier, wedge herself in there, eat as much as she felt like and then roll around in ecstasy as I, red-faced, bellowed from the closest vantage point I could get. There was the year that giant tuna carcass washed up on the sand and I lost her for a split second and nearly lost my mind looking for her until I realized she was inside the carcass, rendering herself so stinky it was worse than when she got skunked. But the smile on her face as she trotted right out was unforgettable. It was the same, proud, beaming face that appeared from under a bush in Meridian Hill Park covered in human diarrhea, left by a homeless person. Score!
Good times: the countless occasions she peed in the apartment, always under my blogging chair, driving me to distraction; her one giant chocolate orgasm, when she devoured two boxes of Godiva chocolates left on the floor by a visiting friend, ate every one while we were out at dinner, and then forced me to chase her around the apartment when I got home, as she puked viscous chocolate goo over everything, until I slipped in it too. Yes, she survived. The rug? Not so much.
She was also, it has to be said, always emitting noise. She had a classic howl, and when the two of us lived in a tiny box at the end of a wharf, she would bay instinctively at every person and every dog she saw come near. It’s cute at first. But after a while, she drove most of my neighbors completely potty. I tried the citronella collar, but she found a way to howl that stayed just below the volume that triggered the spray. Howling was what she did. There was no way on earth I was going to stop it.
But there was one exception to this rule. In my bachelor days, I’d stay out late in Ptown, trying to get laid, and often getting to sleep only in the early hours. I installed some floor-to-ceiling window blinds to block out the blinding sun over the water – so I could sleep late (this was before the blog). Dusty – usually so loud and restless – would wait patiently for me to wake up, and wedge herself between the bottom of the fabric of the blind and the glass in the window. That way, she kept an eye on all the various threats, while basking in the heat and light of the morning. And until the minute I stirred, despite all the coming and going around her, she uttered not a peep. In her entire life, she never woke me up. This is the deal, she seemed to tell me. You feed and walk me and house me on a beach all summer long, and I’ll let you sleep in.
It was a deal. She never broke her part of it; and I just finished mine.
(Photo montage by Aaron Tone.)
Quote For The Day
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” – Anatole France.
“Like Us, Animals Grieve When They Have Loved”
Beatrice Marovich reflects on Barbara King’s recent book, How Animals Grieve, claiming that “love is so ubiquitous and natural that we can’t really avoid it” – that words like grief and love apply to more than just human emotions:
When we hear a story about deep social bonds between birds, what do we name that social bond? When we see intense forms of social devotion between dogs captured on video, what do we name it? King is constantly on guard against the charge of anthropomorphism—that she’s violating species boundaries by finding something so human as love, or grief, in animal life. “Anthropomorhic excess”, she acknowledges, can very likely “cause us to miss crucial distinctions.” It could make us humanize all of animal life. For this reason, she’s careful to specify that the physical experience of grieving in cat life looks (like all cat behavior) notably distinct from the experience of grief in dog life, which is inevitably different from goat grief.
The 17th century English philosopher Anne Conway argued that the differences between humans and other creatures were “finite” differences—differences of degree and intensity. There is no infinite difference between creatures that makes another’s form of life wholly and eternally incomprehensible. Whoever can’t see that something sort of like “justice” functions in the animal world, Conway argued, “must be called completely blind.” I’m with Conway. In a sense, then, I’m also with King. Whoever can’t see that something sort of like love, or something sort of like grief, functions in dog life must be blind.
The Other One
Today’s post on the grieving of animals truly hit home for me. Since Dusty’s death, her canine companion of seven years, Eddy, is showing what seem to me at least intimations of grief. At first: nada. Yes, she was howling when we came back to our house after putting Dusty to sleep. But that was because, we assumed, the two of us almost never leave the house with Dusty and without Eddy. She felt left out of something – and, of course, she was right.
Then she seemed almost giddy with excitement and high spirits. She could finally eat her food without having Dusty inhale her own bowl in around 30 seconds and then hover behind Eddy waiting to eat hers as well. For seven years, Eddy had to eat the food right away or guard it. Most of the time, she was forced to eat it very quickly or starve. So the day after Dusty was no longer in the house, Eddy left her food in the bowl for hours. She’d take a nap or go for a little walk-around, blissfully liberated from the food stealer.
When we prepared to take her out for a walk all by herself, she would do a full body-wag even more enthusiastically than usual, jumping into the air in little spasms of joy. Trips we hadn’t made before because Dusty was too debilitated or boisterous, we now could make with Eddy by herself. So she became completely besotted with one of my best friend’s boat, running into the bay in order to jump up on it, sitting upright in it, her nose twitching with the sea breezes. For days, she seemed extremely happy.
And then, after a week or so, something changed quite suddenly.
Her demeanor shifted to sadness and quiet. She didn’t just leave her food around to eat at leisure; she stopped eating in the morning altogether. It was almost as tough as getting her to eat in the evening as well. On walks, she trailed behind, moving slowly, tugging at the end of a long leash, as if not really wanting to go anywhere. It happened after about a week – perhaps because that was when it became unmistakable that Dusty wasn’t just away for a bit – but was, in fact, never coming back.
Is this grief? We cannot ever know. But it sure feels like it. They were never that close, because Dusty was never very close with any other earthly being, including me. But the time spent together adds up – and Eddy was always a pack animal, much happier when we four were all together than when one of us went missing. Now, one part of that family is missing for good. And I’m not the only one still aching at the sight of one crate where there only recently were two.
When Animals Grieve
by Chris Bodenner
A reader responds to Andrew’s latest post about his dogs:
First, thanks for sharing the story about Eddy’s delayed grief for losing her friend Dusty. I thought I’d share a story about when I lost one of my two cats many years ago. Molly was really the first cat I owned (my mom didn’t like cats, so we grew up with dogs). I was renting a small house and took in the stray who stayed there; it was easier to give Custard a home rather than cleaning up the mess he made of the trash cans. While Molly and Custard generally got along, they never seemed particularly close.
Then one day, I was going out of town to visit some friends in New Orleans for a week, so I made arrangements for a co-worker to feed Molly and Custard while I was gone. On my first day in New Orleans, I got a call from Steve – he had gone to feed the cats and found Custard dead. I never learned what happened, but Custard sometimes had the habit of his former stray self and would stuff himself when he had a really large bowl of food and would later vomit. I had a feeling that is what happened, and he probably choked on the extra food he had consumed. Steve very generously offered to bury Custard.
When I got home, I emotionally prepared myself for the loss of one cat but I suspected no emotional response from Molly. After all, cats never gave you any sympathy when you needed it. When I got home, I found a house with no cats and a note from Steve. He said that Molly had gotten away from him and escaped from the house. She then watched him bury Custard from a distance.
He returned a couple of times and left food on the porch but didn’t see Molly. I also didn’t see anything of her the night I got back, but she was at the door early the next morning. The first thing I noticed were that her front claws were completely worn down, and there were marks on the ground where Steve had buried Custard.
She had spent some time digging at the spot where her friend had been buried. My idea of having a cat who paid no attention to Custard’s death was completely wrong. Molly was clearly upset, and my formerly tough, independent cat kept very close to me the next few days. While she eventually calmed down, this represented a permanent change; she spent the rest of her life being much more dependent on me because of the loss of Custard. There clearly had been some deep bond between them I had never perceived.
I’m old enough now to have experienced the death of several pets – dogs in childhood, cats since I’ve been on my own. Dogs and cats can bring a tremendous richness to our lives – it’s just unfortunate we have to experience the pain of their deaths. I hope that you and your husband will take care of each other, along with Eddy, and perhaps consider adopting another dog when your hearts tell you it is the right time.
Another reader remarks on the unparalleled company that pets often keep:
I care for two dogs, brothers/littermates, now just over 10. They have literally never spent a night apart (although at times have slept in different rooms). It is almost unheard of them to not both go on walks at the same time. The only time they are separated for any time is when one or the other goes to the vet.
I live in dread of the impact of the loss of one on the other. They have different personalities, and I can see them reacting differently, but I know the survivor will show grief and possibly worse (if already aged, I think it could speed the process). As much grief as I’ll be feeling, the most important thing I can do at that point is to be there for the surviving brother.
The post that sparked this thread – a reflection on Barbara King’s recent book, How Animals Grieve – can be read here.
More readers respond to Andrew’s post on Eddy’s mourning of Dusty:
We have been so very sorry to read your recent posts about the life and death of Dusty. We are both sorry for your loss and with it, the remembrance of our Van’s death last year. I admit to starting a note to you twice last week, each time ending with “What is happening with your other dog?”, but I didn’t have the heart to send them. They just seemed like piling on, and my own memories of Van’s death were overwhelming. So I was interested to read the stories from readers on grieving pets. I thought it was time to share my thoughts from last week.
Our beloved dog Van died last year in late May after years of decline, followed in the end by seizures. He got to the day when he wasn’t really Van anymore. Like Dusty, his last day was full of love and hamburgers. The vet came to our apartment and we said our goodbyes. When I started to close the French doors separating our living room from the kitchen, so that our other dog Bettina wouldn’t be in the room, the vet said gently that we should allow her to be with us at the end of Van’s life. Bettina sniffed around him and said her goodbyes.
We were concerned about her, so we increased her walks with our dog walker from two days a week to five, thinking that at least she would enjoy the company of her canine friends. Like Eddy, she ate and seemed to enjoy her new solo life. But then, also like Eddy, she stopped eating and started burying her food in our couch and chairs. She started living under the dining room table. She stopped hanging out with us. We began to realize that the only reason Bettina ever hung with us was because Van did. We understood that he was her captain and without his leadership, she didn’t know what to do with herself.
The week after Christmas, we adopted for Bettina a 6-month-old fur brother. At first she wasn’t very enthusiastic. He is a giant puppy with no impulse control. But she did start eating again. Our dog walker insisted that Bettina was hating to love him, and that turned out to be true. Eight months in, they are now firm friends. And she is herself again.
Our reader also attaches the above photo of “Van and Bee watching the world go by.” Another reader:
I just finished reading the story about Molly and Custard. My family had a very similar experience when our 14-year old golden retriever Auggie died. Nine years ago now, we adopted a one-year-old cat named Nemo, an absolute rascal that had been left at our vet’s office when his owner could no longer keep him. Auggie and Nemo were never the best of friends. Despite being a 75-80 lb dog, Auggie was pretty much afraid of her own shadow and Nemo took full advantage. He always seem to know how to drive the ol’ girl crazy, particularly in later years when she had hip dysplasia and Nemo could get to parts of the house that Auggie no longer could.
When the day finally came to put Auggie down – and we were so fortunate that she was really only truly suffering the last two weeks of her life – we didn’t think Nemo would miss her much. After all, he’d be king of the castle! But something funny happened: Nemo started sleeping in spots where Auggie used to sleep. He was gentler and more affectionate, staying near my mom for hours (who thought of Auggie as her long-lost daughter) when she was feeling sad. He got lonely more frequently, often meowing or trying to grab our attention in the middle of the night. It was as if he had experienced a bit of a personality transplant – he was the same ornery cat, but softer and more vulnerable.
I dunno, maybe I’m projecting my family’s feelings onto a cat that couldn’t give a damn. Still, I couldn’t help but feel we were helping him as much as he was helping us grieve.
Another emphasizes a point illustrated by the first reader:
I feel like one very important thing we can all try to do is to let our companion animals be with their companions in death. Personally, I’ve told my partner that if I should die before he and my dog, I want my dog to have some time to be with my body, to know me in death, since that physical proximity is her only way of really knowing I am gone. Animals know by scent (and perhaps other means) that other animals in their presence have died. I think the same should ideally occur with other animals in the “pack” – they are, after all, not only companions of us, but companions of each other. If one dog dies, another dog in the same family should be given time with that dog to know and experience its death. There is no other way for them to really know what has happened to the one that is gone.
Thank you, as always, for the opportunities you provide for these conversations.
For the entire Dish discussion this summer of deceased pets and the impact on their owners, go here.