“Dogs’ lives are short, too short, but you know that going in. You know the pain is coming, you’re going to lose a dog, and there’s going to be great anguish, so you live fully in the moment with her, never fail to share her joy or delight in her innocence, because you can’t support the illusion that a dog can be your lifelong companion. There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love while always aware that it comes with an unbearable price.”
As Dean Koontz says above, we know that dogs’ lives are short when we enter into the agreement to allow them into our hearts and lives. One moment they are young and bouncing, and it seems like the next, we are deciding whether to keep them going, simply for our fragile hearts.
Loving a dog is so different to a solid relationship with anyone else. Dogs have a huge heart to body mass, and I’m confident that we link hearts with them, sharing an endless loop of heart to heart emotional feedback, all moments of all days. When half of something so substantial is no longer there to share, we feel that we have lost part of ourselves and have in many ways. So, we might go beyond the point where our dogs are still comfortable and happy because we don’t want to lose them. Or we might feel that we rob them of one more day, one more episode of sunshine in their face or an extra sigh of contentment.
One of the most common questions we hear is, “How will I know when it’s time to let my dog go?” Many times, we honestly just know when the dog has had enough, but sometimes we don’t. And later, we punish ourselves time and again for holding on that little bit too long at the expense of our friend’s peaceful passing when they were ready. It feels like we can’t win doesn’t it – that’s because when we are inevitably going to lose a bundle of love in our life, we can’t.
The veterinarian that put my two little heart condition dogs to sleep – the two I mentioned earlier – used to say that a dog needed to have five good days from seven to have an acceptable quality of life. An excellent vet, filled with compassion, he believed that a day early is better than a day late, and I’m inclined to agree. How do we know, though, the difference between a good and bad day?
Quality of Life
The term quality of life is used regularly within the subject of euthanasia. Whilst only some countries have legalised euthanasia for people, it seems much more straightforward because we can voice the choice for ourselves. Yet, with our dogs, we must do what we have always done, observe, and use an element of choice for them.
Quality of life is a measure of wellbeing or happiness. It considers the positives and negatives in life and is a very subjective topic, determined by individuality.
Some people say they knew when their dog lost their appetite and stopped being interested in food that their quality of life had deteriorated so much that it was time to let them go. Allowing a dog to go on without being interested in food is distressing for the dog to experience and the person who loves them to watch. After changing the food type to something soft, digestible, and tempting, we can only hope our dog eats and force that to take away their choices.
Incontinence can detrimentally affect the quality of life. Most of us will happily keep cleaning, time and again, if the dog is calm by their lack of control. However, it can be upsetting to the dog to be incontinent in the bed and on themselves. So, we must question how fair it is to allow that repeatedly to happen. When on their medication and towards the end of their lives, my two tiny heart ladies would merrily flood our wooden floors with the amount of urine you could expect from a baby elephant. Yet when they started flooding themselves, we began to question how they felt about it.
Mental health and CCD can cause problems beyond your control. If a dog is so confused that they are terrified of things they used to like or become aggressive because they don’t recognise their family anymore, we have to consider what is in their best interests.
Pain and mobility are the massive quality of life factors. Does the dog live relatively pain-free, and can he move around unhindered? Do his legs still work, or is he reliant on being physically manipulated to carry out basic physical tasks such as getting out to the toilet? Anyone can become miserable and depressed if in constant pain, and our dogs are no different. Pain relief can work wonders, but when we can’t apply any more treatment or have reached the end of treatment availability, we must ask ourselves how fair it is to expect our dogs to live in pain.
Some dogs will hide their pain, and their wagging tail can mask many symptoms. These “good doers” can be challenging to read and decide how much pain they have. There are many subtle signs to watch for, including a hunched back, stiff posture, difficulty getting comfortable, refusing to walk, signs of aggression when touched in a specific area.
The happiness factor is crucial, but it can be challenging and subjective. It might be evident that your dog’s happiness is fading when a dog no longer takes pleasure in the things that used to make him excited and happy, such as food, toys, or learning. You are the person best placed to assess your dog’s happiness, as you have the heart bond and know your friend’s intricacies.
We have access to a vast range of veterinary treatments for our dogs, and the decision to withdraw or cease therapy for one or more health problems will not be taken lightly by the veterinarian. Sometimes we can push the vet to do more because we don’t want to give up on our friend’s health and presence in our lives. If the treatment has more negative consequences than positive effects on the problem, though, we could be prolonging the inevitable, and sometimes this can even distress the dog.
Pain relief, for example, may be necessary, but with excessive use, it can affect the kidneys and liver to the point where a dog becomes increasingly unwell in other areas. Or dogs that have developed advanced-stage cancer may have a slight chance of beating it, but the dog would need a massive operation for a slim chance of a favourable prognosis.
Alongside withdrawal of treatment, we may reach a level where treatment is not withdrawn but stays at that point, and the vet can do nothing new. For example, a dog may be on their maximum heart support, including veterinary medication, supplements, lifestyle adaptations and a suitable diet, yet still deteriorating to the point that the treatment cannot further increase.
Stabilisation or withdrawal of treatment needs to be a decision taken between you and your veterinarian but led by your dog's welfare.
When the time arrives that, despite all the possible support the dog is struggling, it can be helpful to talk with your veterinarian about the quality of life your dog has. By this point in your dog’s life, you should trust your vet, and both of you should care for your dog. If your veterinarian is not supported here, you will always relate that to your dog’s departure. You should never feel pressured to make any decision and never rush into anything that makes you uncomfortable.
If you do come to the decision that your dog is ready to go, and feel that it’s compassionate to help him along, then your vet – at a time and place mutually agreed – will help your dog into his final rest. The physical procedure happens through an overdose of general anaesthetic. If you have ever had an operation under General Anaesthetic yourself, you will know that you count to ten and just drift away.
Where you say goodbye to your dog is up to you. I prefer to do it at home and make sure my friend takes along a bellyful of their favourite foods. One of my friends lost her older dog yesterday, and before he had the injection, she gave him the Mars bar she had always promised him.
Dog loss and euthanasia are painful, and there’s no getting away from that. From the time we see the sugar dusting starting to appear on the muzzle of our beloved friend, we dread this moment. Their unstoppable ageing is a daily reminder that they won’t always be with us. We know that the moment will come where we hold them tight, perhaps also whilst they eat a giant pie, and tell them that the privilege has been ours all along. We carry the tears until they are gone, then the waves of grief begin.
It does pass, though, or at least settles down to the point where it’s not so raw. Then we go back, our tears changing to twinkling memories of our dog smiling, paw swiping and sharing their fantastic sense of humour over the years. Yes, it hurts, but it also gets better, and in all honestly, it’s worth every moment with them.