Our relationship with our dog is often one of the longest and most steady relationships we have in our modern lives. They see us through love and hate, hiring and firing, weight gain and weight loss without ever wavering in their devotion.
Losing such a friend is devastating. The fact that the friend is an animal, and therefore supposedly less important to some than a person, is irrelevant.
When contemplating the very hard choice of knowingly ending the life of this dear companion, people ask us, “How will I know when it is time?” That’s an important question, and here’s what we suggest:
First, talk to your veterinarian. Ask her for signs you can look for. But remember, just like the rest of us, veterinarians can vary in their opinion. When to let your dog go is deeply personal, and it is best to find a veterinarian who is in line with your thinking. If your current one isn’t, do not despair – first talk frankly to your current vet and, if things cannot be resolved, ask around a bit. Our bet is you can find someone who is in synch.
I have a wonderful relationship with our vet so we ask him, “Am I in the grey area now?” The “grey area” is the “anytime from here on out is ‘okay’” zone. I asked him about Caras when my old friend was fifteen and failing. My vet gave me the nod. I knew then that whenever I decided my wonderful old dog had gone as far as he could or should go, it would be okay. Two weeks later I made the hard decision to let Caras go. It was hard but it helped knowing that the timing was okay.
Bracken did not give me this chance. Her pain came on fast and was unrelenting. My vet and I could not get it under control. The choice was made for me. I let her go.
I tell anyone who asks, “Love them, care for them, and when the minuses are greater than the pluses, you’ll know. Trust yourself, you’ll know.”
Now, brace yourself a bit, because there will always be someone who disagrees with whatever you do. This is just one of those life choices that is so deeply personal and emotionally complex that disagreement on timing is par for the course. Why anyone feels compelled to debate the timing – either too soon or not soon enough – with someone who is grieving the loss is beyond us. The deed is done– support your friend and, if you cannot support your friend, the very least you can do is keep your opinion to yourself.
But, for myself, I have a saying I use as a guide, “Better a day too early than a minute too late.” There are things I never want my animals to experience if we can help it – panic, suffering, confusion. With Caras I avoided them, with Bracken I could not.
We all do the best we can.
When the time has come, your vet will help you through it. You can stay with your dog or not. Choose what makes you feel most comfortable. If you can, support him to the last. Both Bracken and Caras felt my gentle touch and heard my words of love as the needle slipped in. The last thing they knew was my whisper, the last thing they heard was “Good dog, you’re such a gooood dog.”
I wept later.
I weep still at times, like, for example, as I write this.
If you have time, ask your veterinarian to use sedation before the final drug. This simply means your friend will be asleep and unaware, and should there be a problem of some kind, which are incredibly rare, he will never know.
The actual drug takes only seconds to work. The death is painless and shockingly quick. Afterward there can be body twitches, reflexive gasping for breath, and tremors. These are normal signs of the body letting go; your dog feels nothing at that point, he is gone.
And know, at that moment, when you stand stunned and hurting, that we are sorry for your loss. No matter how alone you are, there are thousands of us here who understand completely.
Some of you will want another pet right away, not being able to bear the lack of a dog in your life. Others of you will not want one for awhile, because you need time for the wound to heal a bit. A few of you will never want to feel such pain again. All of these reactions are normal. Don’t let other people tell you how to grieve. Respect your own way. Your dog loved you exactly the way you are; try to do the same.