Euthanasia. It’s a powerful, difficult word, and carries so much weight and responsibility. I was lucky with my first dog, Inda; she died in her sleep in 1995 at the age of 13 after a long illness. Now, with multiple senior pets, the issue of euthanasia seems to be a constant specter around the house. I’ve become familiar with all the regimens that accompany ailing animals: subcutaneous fluids for kidney function, force feeding with syringes, insulin for diabetes, steroid and holistic treatment for dysplasia, Pepcid for digestive problems, acupuncture, glucosamine and MSM supplements, chemo for the ones battling cancer. I’ve had to put down five animals in the past three years, three in the last six months. I’ve done what we all do, exhausted every option and maxed out my credit cards paying for something, anything, that will keep them alive even a little bit longer. When my cat, Meg, finally succumbed to cancer, I took her in for a late night, final visit to the vet. When he left the room to prepare the syringes, she turned her head to me and laid it in my hand. Her meaning was unmistakably clear. She was saying, “Thank you, it’s time.” After that experience, I began to rethink the terrible privilege of euthanasia.
My dog, Albert, a coyote/shepherd mix, is 17 years old. I found him wandering the streets eight years ago. My vet estimated he was close to ten years old and most of his front teeth were mysteriously gone. He was scrawny, dirty and timid, with the uncanny ability to disappear into the landscape of the yard in the blink of an eye. At ten years old, he could jump an eight-foot fence in one leap. Albert is the dog everyone gravitates to. He always seems to have a smile on his face, his mouth slightly open in a grin. He is so intelligent that I often tell people if I came downstairs one morning and he asked for a cup of coffee, I wouldn’t be surprised; I’d get him a mug.
Over the last two years, however, Albert developed dementia. Now he wanders in circles until he curls up to sleep, wherever he happens to land. He forgot how to play fetch about five months ago, yet he still stands next to ball or stuffed animal, but then looks at the toy at his feet, unaware of what to do next.
His kidneys began to slow down several months ago and he now drinks more water and wears a diaper when he is in the house. His bladder can be unreliable, and the diaper is drenched every morning. He moves stiffly and cannot navigate even a small stairway very well. Initially, as his memory began to fail and confusion set in, he was distressed by the change. He knew something was wrong. But now he has passed beyond that awareness and seems content, if confused. His eyes are still bright and open, without that veiled tightness that comes with pain. From time to time, he has a flash of memory; he remembers to go to the door when he has to go out, or picks up a favorite old toy. He likes to be outside with the other dogs, roaming slowly around the garden or sleeping on the patio.
I ask myself, where does it go from here? At 17, he is not going to have a miraculous recovery. There are probably more things I could do for him, medically and holistically, but he is terrified of the car and more terrified of the vet. He didn’t like the taste of the last joint supplement, and with his dementia any slight change in his routine throws him off. If his food bowl is not in the same place every day, he forgets to eat. His world has become very small and controllable, and I cannot introduce new changes because I do not want him to end his life struggling to comprehend things that make him nervous or frightened.
I have decided that I will make the decision for euthanasia a little early, rather than wait for the moment when there is no other choice. It may be next week, next month or it may be tomorrow. I do not want to wait for a late night emergency, for a heart-pounding, adrenalin-filled rush to the veterinary clinic. I have friends who know I am contemplating euthanasia for Albert and they say to me, “Oh, but he still has an appetite and he can still get around.”
They’re right. When you are facing a slow decline, euthanasia becomes a distinct choice that you make, and you feel your own omnipotence. But knowing that Albert depends on me for everything, I know he is also depending on me to prevent him from suffering. It is a terrible privilege but I have that power. As much as I struggle with it, searching out the vet’s number only to file it away again, in my heart I would rather his final days follow the same routine as in the past few months. I would rather he fall asleep in the shade of the big sun umbrella after breakfast, and while he dreams of romping in an open field, his spindly legs kicking and twitching involuntarily, the vet can give him the first shot so his final moments merge seamlessly into his passage to the other side. The hard part will be left to me.
Letting our animals go takes so much courage because we can see our own heartbreak ahead. Euthanasia is an intensely personal decision and only we know the right choice for our pets and for ourselves. With the other animals, I exhausted every option, but remembering how Meg laid her head in my palm, this time I will let Albert go. In the end, I would rather do what is harder for me than for him. It is the final act of compassion I can give my special boy.
Published in the June/July 2005 issue of Animal Wellness