By Dr. Kimberly Whitfield
I remember the day I got Tootsie … I was 12 years old and at a wedding with my dad. The bride and groom had found this pregnant stray on their doorstep a few days before the wedding and just hadn’t had time to take her to the shelter before the wedding. They were planning on doing just that the very next day … a litter of puppies, and a new dog did not fit into their plans for the beginning of their marriage. So, after much begging, pleading, and yes, a few well-placed tears, I had a new dog as my “wedding present.” Tootsie was my partner, my best friend, my cross-country companion and my son’s very first pet for the next 18 years of my life.
Then she started losing weight and developed tumors along her mammary chain (in her breasts). They were diagnosed as benign so we opted to just let them be. The tumors kept getting bigger and she kept getting thinner and thinner. I could tell she was getting “tired” and wasn’t enjoying things the way she used to.
So … How do you know when it’s time?
I get asked that question all the time in my practice from pet owners. What I usually tell them is your pet will let you know … it’s just your job to listen to them. You know your four-legged companion better than anyone else in the world. You can “read” them better than anybody. Sometimes we just don’t want to listen. I was in denial with Tootsie. She would have two really great days, but then five bad ones and that was the cycle for a while. I chose to only focus on the great days and downplay the bad ones … I let my best friend suffer and go on for too long. I kept her around for me and didn’t honor her enough to give her the relief she deserved sooner.
Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes a little more difficult to know. Animals are very adept at hiding their pain from us. Their primary goal is keeping us happy; I believe they don’t want us to worry for them. If you don’t want to believe that, we can go with the “animal instinct” theory … an animal that shows weakness, pain or signs of injury can, and usually will, become prey. Even our domesticated friends still have some of their inherent animal instincts, so it is in their best interest to hide any ailments until they are no longer able to. So it’s our responsibility to watch for signs—suddenly they are not as interested in their favorite toy, meal, walk. There are times it can be a drastic change from one day to another, other times it can be insidious small changes that we could easily miss.
There are a few signs that mean it definitely is time …
* When your pet can no longer get up to go to the toilet
* When your pet is crying out in pain (not from an acute injury)
* When your pet stops eating all together
* Or when you simply look at them and know its time
If there are any times you are confused or not sure, please talk to your Vet.
You’ve decided it’s time… What next?
The next step is contacting your veterinarian and scheduling the appointment. You need to decide whether you want the vet to come to your house or if you want to go into the office. I prefer in-home euthanasia as it is so much less stressful for our beloved four-legged companions. They are in the comfort of their own homes, with all their familiar things and scents around them. I find the transition is very peaceful. Alternatively, there are some that don’t like the idea of putting their pet to sleep at home. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. I have a separate “bereavement” room in my hospital. It has a big comfy futon and a nice quiet and peaceful room. The transition is usually very fast, peaceful and painless. They usually just look like they are going to sleep.
Afterward, LET YOURSELF GRIEVE.
It is normal to feel sad and grieve; they are a member of your family. Plant a tree in their honor, make a scrapbook, and if the grief is very bad there are Pet-Loss Hotlines. I helped found one while in medical school at WSU. Their number is 1 (866) 266-8635. I also think it’s a good idea to involve the whole family, including kids if you have them. I believe one of the great reasons pets share our lives is to teach us about life, and death. Some people avoid being there or keep their children away … and while I honor their choices, my belief is that it is a natural part of life and when handled with dignity and compassion it’s not traumatic.
Humans die on their own, why shouldn’t our pets?
Dying in your sleep, whether human or animal, is a peaceful transition. Anything else can be an excruciating experience for everyone. Most terminally ill people wish they could be given relief … in the Veterinary world we can give that to our loved ones. I have, over the years, come to view it as “our final gift of love” to those whom have served and loved us well over the years.
I hope you enjoy every moment you have with your four legged loved ones.
Dr. Kimberly Whitfield
Animal Medical Center of Asheville