On Death and Dying in Dogs

15 yo Chessie
15 yo Chessie

This is Chessie, he’s 15 years old. I got him when I was in college; he was a dog pound rescue, a ~4 month old, shy neurotic pup with a lot of instinct to chase things. Back then I couldn’t see much beyond school, and never really expected him to be anything but a companion. But, I trained him, and after graduating, finally had enough money to compete with him. He earned a lot of titles in obedience, agility and even a “PT” in herding (though his desire to “grip” and run livestock limited his further progress there).

He has been a good friend all these years, weathered my many training mistakes, me losing my temper and patience with him many times, and some irresponsible things I did with him when I was twenty-something (like tying him outside my Calculus class one afternoon, which resulted in him escaping and running around, un-capturable, menacing everyone in terror until the police were summoned :-0). We have been through a lot of life together, many houses, roommates, growing up, boyfriends and dog show travels.

But now he is in the twilight of his life. Though still healthy in many ways, his kidneys are on the way to failure. And, his rear end has become neurologically crippled so that walking is very complicated, though not painful. And, he is mostly deaf and senile. And so it goes, I assume that someday soon, I’ll either wake up to see that he has passed away, or I’ll have to choose to put him down.

There lies the rub for me. All my dog show friends reassure me, “you’ll know when it’s time.” But, that doesn’t seem to hold true for me. I lost an elderly cat to cancer a few years ago, and I completely didn’t know whether or not to euthanize. His death seemed imminent day after day, where I figured he only had hours left, so there was no sense in putting him down. But, he’d make it through that day, and the next, and the next. Each day, I’d think, “man, maybe I should have done it yesterday, but it looks like today will be his last.” In the end, I wished I’d done it much earlier; I’m not sure if to save him, or myself, or both, from the trials of the dying process.

One friend offered this suggestion: pick five things that they love, and when they can’t do three of them, then it’s time. Well, hmm, for an old dog, there isn’t much: Chessie stopped wanting to train new material a year or so ago, but he still enjoyed doing easy material he already knew. Several months ago, he stopped wanting to ride in the van though, so opted-out on going to training nights. He used to like to go for a run in the field, but in the last couple of weeks, he’s been opting out on that too. He still does like to eat, and be petted. So, I guess that’s two out of four-where does that leave me?

Chessie eating duck feed
Chessie eating duck feed

I can’t help but notice the parallels to my two ninety-something grandmas. They too have cut back on most of the things they used to enjoy. One sleeps a lot, and watches TV the rest of the time. The other is frustrated by her fading memory and reasoning ability. I recently met a lovely 90 year old lady, who said, not in a complaining tone, but in a contemplative manner, “I never planned on or expected to live this long, and I kind of wish I hadn’t. Just too many things going wrong with my body.” In old age, there is pain, loss of eyesight and hearing, and the unglamorous things- bladder and bowel control isn’t what it used to be, and it’s challenging to maintain one’s desired level of hygiene. And, dementia can cause people to say things that are not always real “Emily Post,” if you know what I mean, Gentle Reader. 🙂

Chessie, too, has lost his social graces- he used to get along well with other dogs and was well behaved with people. Now, he takes food from the other dogs in a demanding manner, growls at everybody to get out of his way, he’s grumpy, and if he falls and I try to help him up, sometimes he bites! Hard! Here is a photo of him having snuck into the duck pen, he’s porking out on duck feed like Winnie The Pooh caught in the honey! His appetite is one thing that remains robust!

I suppose it’s good that we have, with animals, the option of euthanasia; to prevent them from needless suffering at the very end. But, it’s a heavy burden both to cope with the living part of end-of-life care, as well as be the one who has to decide when euthanasia is the appropriate choice. One part of me is anxious for this phase of life to be over, another part dreads that happening. I guess you just take it day by day, and hope you make the right decisions.

6 thoughts on “On Death and Dying in Dogs

  1. Sandy says:

    I am so in your in position right now. Mine is Kylie she’s a 13 1/2 yr old Rott/shep mix. I adopted her at 6 weeks only to if that at 8 weeks she had spinal menningitis & distemper! It went from there. Now the TPL replacement from 6 yrs ago is not working and her leg is having spasming. She doesn’t seem to notice but it sends me over the edge. Her brain is still “Kylie” but her body is breaking down and there is nothing I can to fix it, I refuse to take her dignity away but carrying rear end around! She would hate that & me too. I live 25 miles for any vet & animal emergency, I can’t see waiting for a crisis am i a horrible person it save her the lose of her facilities? Please help I am so confused. Tx

  2. workingcollies says:

    Sandy, I don’t know what to tell you, it is SO hard! Chessie can still get up from lying down sometimes, but I help him up most of the time now. He has made a LOT of messes in the house from not being able to get out the dog door in time. It really tries my patience, for sure!

    I feel that I don’t know what their “experience” is, if they are upset about this, or accepting of things-dogs do so well at just living in the moment and being ok with things.

    But I guess I just feel weird about “scheduling in” a euthanasia like any other vet appointment- that conversation of “how about next Wednesday at 3pm?” seems so wrong when discussing ending something’s or someone’s life!

    I kind of want some drastic event that tells me definitively “now is the time!” versus things just slowly declining and it not being clear when he’s crossed over the point of being mostly miserable.

    For your distance from the vet, I wonder if you could at least ask for a loaded syringe of valium, so that if Kylie did have a sudden pain crisis, you could make her comfortable until you could get to a vet?

    Good luck, I know… it’s hard…

  3. belltower1 says:

    Hello! I enjoyed this post very much. I recently made the decision to put down my tibetian terrier at the not so ripe old age of 10.5 … She had plenty of health problems, all which rapidly onset over the course of weeks … She was severely diabetic, completely blind (rapid onset cataracts caused by diabetes), complete incontinence, her liver wasnt functioning properly, etc. she stopped eating and grew immediately thin and frail. she seemed to go from from a normal, bouncy Citta to a miserable creature in a matter of days. In reality, we had been dealing with the decline of our elderly Pomeranian, Maddie, for many months and then the grief of that loss. Citta must have been showing signs of aging during those months which I missed.

    one day, I was struck at how she no longer wanted to be cuddled or even near me. She wouldn’t consider eating no matter how i tried to entice her. we did our shopping that morning and, when we returned, she was out of her enclosure, missing, gone. i drove the neighborhood frantic, wondering how far a blind, malnourished dog could go. I finally came home without her and found her in the front yard looking profoundly lost. I ran to her but she showed no sign of recognition. I took her inside sobbing. I knew it was time. I called her vet who was away for the weekend. The on call doctor agreed to meet me in the office in 30 minutes. I was pouring tears as I helped my children say goodbye and drove her to the vet. I knew I was making the only reasonable choice for her but it was a terrible one. I cradled her in my arms while we waited for the vet to come to our exam room. In the last minute of waiting, she laid her head on my arm and relaxed, the only sign that she still loved me or even knew me that I’d gotten for many days. It was a sad relief to let her go. I think I chose the right time or rather sensed the right time. With Maddie, I’d put it off so long that she could no longer stand even if I helped her up. One day, she was staring at me like she was trying to tell me “let me go!!!” Then she started barking and barking. It was awful. I let it go too far with her but Citta lived until there was no joy in it for her and that was all.

    If she was still engaged with the things she loved, I would never have put her to sleep. Your dog is still engaged, stealing food from ducks!!! That picture is a real gem. I think you will just know when it is time??

    • Michelle Canfield says:

      belltower1, thanks for your comments- wow, I realize I wrote this post already five years ago. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was fall of that year when I did finally euthanize him. A particular morning was a disaster with him, and then it was very apparent that day that I should wait no longer. But in retrospect, I still think I waited too long. And, I think I did with the next dog, too- my second-oldest border collie followed in the same path a couple of years later; and also had kind of a catastrophic day- similar to your description, where you realize “ok, definitely now.” Even with the wisdom of time and eased emotion, I still feel like it’s too gray of an area; such a gradual slippery slope of decline, and so hard to just pick an arbitrary day in there to let them go. Ugh! I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely sure of the answers there!

      • belltower1 says:

        Yes, and it’s just not the kind of thing to be scheduled as you said “next Wednesday morning works best if you have a slot …” We are going to look at a two year old rough collie this morning. I’m feeling really good. I know about The End now which frees me up a bit to enjoy the beginning! Life is too short to not have a dog … I really hope it works out this morning. Be well!

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