Dog Gone

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

When a dog is incontinent, blind, deaf, and a bit demented – but still wags its tail and cuddles, is there still dog left in the dog?

How do you decide?

This morning’s walk with my walking buddy has me musing about pets and pet partings. Dogs, specifically, since they’re the main pet type I have experience with.

(There! That reveals the suburbanness of my farmgirlness, doesn’t it?! Allergic to cats, brief stints with newts and hermit crabs, drew the line at guinea pigs and hamsters and canaries, and nary a pony, lamb, piglet, or even chicken on the premises. You can be a farmgirl without the farm animals, can’t you? Please?!)

My friend’s beagle is the youngest-looking ancient dog you ever did see, so much so that to this day, when somebody meets her for the first time they think she’s still a pup. (Look closely and you’d see she’s grizzled, not to mention the bumping into things, but there’s something so rounded and youthful about certain beagles.)

For months now, our walks have featured updates on the dog’s multiple health calamities. She’s on more medications than my dad was at the end of his life with dementia, cancer, and stroke. She fell off a high porch, miraculously unharmed. Now my friend’s vet is saying that putting down a dog is a matter of weighing the dog’s quality of life against the owner’s quality of life. And this owner claims that having a dog pee in her and her husband’s bed is not an undue hardship. I’m pretty sure that’s where I’d draw the line – but then again, I didn’t snuggle the dog for 18 years.

As attached as I can get to a beloved pet — yes, even a newt — I’m always a bit surprised to learn about the extent to which people aim to keep them alive.  In the past month I’ve also learned that two friends give their cats daily diabetes shots, and heard about another paying for expensive surgery on a cockapoo. To them, giving animals available modern medicine is yet another way of showing love. I wonder if the farther we get from pioneering days (or maybe just farm life), the softer our hearts have grown toward our four-legged friends.

Maybe it’s because farmers live on more intimate terms with animal life – and therefore animal death — that the ones I know seem more comfortable with the idea that love can also mean letting go. I remember rural relatives who routinely “put down” animals that had outlived their usefulness, for example. A dog whose foot was caught in a trap seldom had it repaired by a professional.

Remember Old Yeller? Poor Arliss comes to love that stray, who proves his value again and again – only to contract rabies while defending the family. Then Arliss, bless his heart, has to shoot him.

Yet I can also appreciate how dearly attached we can become to our four-legged friends. When my teen-years mutt Butch collapsed from old age, my Mom cried for three weeks. (I was long gone from home, but so did I.) My walking buddy’s husband likes nothing better than a long weekend nap with his beagle nestled on his chest. “Blissed out” is how she described both man and dog.

Not “pets” so much as “friends.”

Euthanasia is verboten for our human loved ones, but does it ever have a place with dogs? It did with Old Yeller – what about a beagle with dementia? How do you decide? My Butch and my newts died natural deaths, so there was no tough decision-making. And hermit crabs surely don’t compare to animals who turn their big brown eyes on you with a nuzzle and a lick.

Do farmers living on life-and-death farms make a distinction in the heart between their “indoor animals” and “outdoor animals” ? What about horses, are they different from dogs?

(Some of you know I had a miniature dachshund — that’s him below and with my daughter, above, in her “Little House” bonnet — who was later adopted by another family following a marital dispute, but that tale doesn’t exactly wag in this discussion.)

So is pet love doing everything possible, or is love letting go? How do you know?

  1. Delisa Marchetti says:

    I am sorry to hear that your beloved dog is having these issues. When I have been faced with this in the past, I let the dogs level of pain be my guide. I believe it is important to try and care for our senior animals as long as we can, as long as they are able to experience quality of life. My childhood dog Sparky died at 16. He was a loving companion to my disabled mother. My parents struggled with what to do when Sparky developed kidney disease. Dad carried him outside, bought piddle pads for the house, endured and cleaned up his little accidents and purchased doggie diapers. They lovingly cut up boiled chicken into little pieces and hand fed him. He learned how to give Sparky i.v’s every day. Sparky continued to cuddle next to my mother’s side in her reclining chair and lovingly lick her hands. He lived for another year, dying peacefully in his basket during the night. We watched him closely for signs of pain and he seemed content with enduring. But if he had been suffering, we would have taken him to the vet and let him go. I hope this helps a little. My advice is to listen to your vet, listen to your heart and watch him closely, you will know what to do when the time comes,

  2. TJ says:

    We had to put my husband’s best friend (who happened to be a big white thoroughbred horse) down two years ago, after Doc contracted melanoma which spread internally. We watched Doc closely, and when we could see the pain in his big brown eyes, we knew that it was time to let him go – for him, not for us. My husband had raised the horse from a colt and had him for twelve years, Doc was literally his best friend for over a decade. We took the kids out and took a bunch of pictures with Doc that last day, cut a piece of his mane off (which I later braided and put into a photo keepsake box for my husband) and gave him lots of lovin’ and carrots. My husband went back the next day to meet the vet and tell Doc "Goodnight, buddy."

    I’ve got an aging cat who has been MY best friend for many many years, and is now having health problems which we simply, sadly cannot afford to treat. As long as she is glossy and happy and occasionally chasing cat toys, I’ll love her and enjoy every day. When the day comes that she can’t, I’ll have her put to sleep and laid to rest in a special spot I have saved in my garden (her favorite place to lay, other than beside me in bed).

    There are alot of references to animals in the Bible – lions laying down with lambs, Jesus coming back riding a white horse – I’m hoping this means that we’ll see our good-hearted creatures again in heaven! None of us REALLY know, but that hope is good enough for me.

  3. Rachel says:

    I understand totally . My standard poodle had been with us for 14 years and after a small fall ( down 1 step..more of a trip actually), He , over the course of 24 hrs, became paralyzed and incontinent. I spent 2 sleepless nights sitting with him and I will never forget the look of pleading in his eyes, as if he was saying "make it stop". I hated seeing him like that as he was such an adventurous dog. I could fill a book with his exploits and ,more than, nine lives. We made the tough decision to end his pain and confusion and it was one of the hardest things I have done. I spent the next day bursting into tears and saying" Louie would have loved this" So yes, pets are friends and as such we must care for them and do what is best for them and not us. Thank you for letting me talk about my beloved friend Louie.

  4. Janice K. says:

    As someone who has recently experienced the dreaded ‘e’ word, I can tell you that you will know when it’s time. Because you are so close to your animal, you will just simply, KNOW… I would like to think that I am getting better at this, but it is always a painful struggle.
    In my case it was one of my mother’s (she passed away in December)cats, Pete. His sister, Pansy broke her leg and while I was caring for her, dear Pete developed renal failure. The pain of losing our sweet Pete was horrible, as it became clear that it also brought up the loss of mom. I like to visualize Pete and mom trundling about the garden together, forever…

  5. Candy B. says:

    I believe in this high tech,busy world our pets have become the friends that always have time for us. Unconditional love is a big deal and that’s what our pets provide. Although I live a full life, due to a disability I’m home much of the time, and I’ll tell you my dog is not only my best buddy, he makes me get going every day because he needs care! As for illness, I agree with Janice- you KNOW. My cat Smugs had kidney failure and we did every intervention available that we could afford because Smugs loved life and really tolerated the treatments fine. One day he came up and just looked at me so sad and I just knew it was time. If you’re close to your animal you know. Sometimes they die in your arms- there’s no decision to make. Your heart’s broken for a while but the love you had is worth the pain. I guess that’s why although I always say "I’ll never get another pet" after one dies- I always do and I love them just as much!

  6. carol branum says:

    hi paula,When I was a kid,daddy ended up running over my dogs at least once as year with the combine or tractor,so I was never that close to dogs,we never had dogs in the house,coz dogs were considered livestock,the only livestock that got into the house was a baby animal that was near death in the middle of a snow storm.{Calves}As an adult,I never had a dog in the house untill this past year,I got a yorkie mix,and now I sleep with her,daddy still throws a fit about it being in the house.I am crazy about her,but,don,t feel things are as clean now,but,I don,t intend to change things,she is sweet,and I admit,I have gotton attached.Have a great day!carol Branum

  7. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Delisa–just to clarify,it’s not my dog but a friend’s. Didn’t want you all to think we’re talking about the pup in the pic.

    A lot of wisdom here so far…

  8. Holly says:

    One day you wake up and you "just know". My dogs have looked at me with the "look" telling me they know it’s time, or their tail doesn’t wag anymore, or their body is tight with the pain. But, when that day comes, there is no doubt in my mind "this is the day". My dogs have become family members the moment they arrive, and they are in my care until "that day" comes. I grieve deeply, sometimes for a very long time. I write in my Pet Journal about what that dog taught me and what his quirks and unique personality traits were. Then, when enough time passes, I look back and remind myself of the wonderful pet God gave me for a time.

  9. Patti A says:

    Your topic is so timely!! We have seen a decline in our family pet (ironically, also a beagle) and have reached the point where we need to make a decision. There was no question that although he was slowing down and sleeping more than playing, Banjo’s accidents were a minor inconvenience. But it’s now clear that he’s in very much pain and wimpers in his sleep.

    I always appreciate your insight, but this month really hit home.

    Thank you!!

  10. Maura says:

    I had to say goodbye to my beloved Sheltie, Zoe, last winter, when she was just a few months shy of her 14th birthday. She developed a kidney infection, spent a week in the hospital, finally started eating again, and I brought her home. A day later, she started to have trouble breathing and as I sat on the floor with her in my lap (just as I had when she was puppy, I could see fear and panic in her eyes. She didn’t know what was happening to her, and there was no way I could explain. After a half hour or so of this, I took her to the emergency animal hospital, where a sweet young thing of a vet explained that the treatment for the kidney infection (pushing fluids)had exacerbated an enlarged heart. There was nothing we could to make her better. Ever. And so I said good-bye to my beloved Zoe. But that’s not really what I want to comment on. Zoe was a cancer survivor: A few years earlier she developed a limp that turned out to be a symptom of chondrosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue that was so rare in her breed that the referral vet who eventually amputated her leg was so loathe to do it he had her biopsy redone three times. After Zoe lost her leg, tho, she had nearly three wonderful, active, playful, unselfconscious years. The biopsies and the surgery were hugely expensive, but my dog and I (and her extended "family"–my four children)gave and took an incredible amount of love and joy afterwards.

  11. Debbie Straub says:

    Typically, your pet will let you know when it is time. If you are even remotely in tune with your fur baby, you can look in her eyes and see that she is saying that it is time. I have 3 dogs that are now considered senior citizens. I will be heart broken when those times come. They are my family members as I am a member of their pack. God blesses each of us who are pet owners with the joy of sharing life with them, and I pray His comfort when death separates you.

  12. Vicki says:

    Four years ago we had to put our beloved beagle "Sam" down.
    He was bleeding internally, and we did not want him to suffer. He was the most faithful and loving companion dog. It hurt like hell and even talking about it now brings tears to my eyes. It wasn’t easy to watch the final minutes, but he was with us through tough times, so we had to be there for him. Some how you will know when the time is right,you just come to terms with the situation and you have to do what is right and humane for our little buddies.

  13. aurelie higgins says:

    We had a black scottish terrier (like president Bush’s) who was also named Barney. We had him for 12 years before he developed cancer in his spine. He was in constant pain and became more and more unable to walk or use his back legs. Whe he started to bite whenever we tried to pick him up or move him it was time to end his suffering. I held him while the vet put him to sleep and I buried him in the back yard and have planted a lilac next to him. I cried for weeks, especially when I saw the neighbor walking his scottie down the steet. I do not know why be treat animals different than humans but I hope that if I ever get that sick or in that much pain someone does something to alleviate it. Perhaps a coma or too drugged to know the difference.

  14. Riley says:

    Quality of life is the key issue. If your companion is unable to function in a way that assures you that s/he is still enjoying a good quality of life, then it’s time to seriously consider releasing them from their body. Severe incontinence caused by kidney failure, inability to eat, impaired mobility, lack of interest in surroundings, restless movement during sleep often caused by pain, disorientation and confusion, severe vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, failed vision and hearing loss are all symptoms which indicate that your companion’s body is failing. If there is no treatment available to radically alter the symptoms you are seeing, then it’s time to release your friend. Within this context, be very careful about having painful treatments or heroic surgery performed on an old dog that is suffering. S/he doesn’t deserve to endure more pain just because you don’t want them to die. We don’t ever want our animal friends to die, but that wanting is unreasonably self indulgent, and allowing them to waste away and suffer isn’t fulfilling your promise to care for them in all phases of their lives.

    Don’t procrastinate just because the decision you face is a difficult one. Have the strength to do the right thing because you love and respect your animal companion. Indulging in "Maybe he’ll be better tomorrow" thoughts only prolongs the inevitable, and will surely invite you to revisit those thoughts with strong feelings of guilt at a later date because you waited too long. Trust your intuition and rely on your connection with your animal companion. Put aside your own unwillingness to let your friend go because you will miss them. This time in your animal companion’s life is not about you. It’s about showing them that you love them enough to let them go.

    Talk to your dog about your concerns. You’ve established a pattern of communication with your dog that works for both of you. Let your friend know that you think it may be time to let him go. Trust that he will hear you and understand that you’re ready to release him. Dogs are very loyal and intuitive companions, and if your friend understands that you’re ready, he will rest easier knowing that peace will soon come to him. Don’t even doubt for one minute that your friend will hear you. Dogs know what we’re thinking and feeling — often far better than we do — and your thoughts and feelings will be heard.

    If you are able to draw on your reserve of strength to make the decision necessary to release your friend from his body, reach inside of yourself one more time and stay with your dog after you bring him to the veterinarian to have the injection administered that will send your companion on their way. (Some veterinarians will come to your home if you’d prefer to have your companion leave in a familiar setting, and if you are able to arrange this, that’s the best possible way of saying good-bye.) Regardless of location, your presence is very important at this most difficult time. Being able to hold your dog and feel all of the pain and discomfort slip away is a necessary conclusion to your physical friendship. Ask the veterinarian to sedate your companion so there is absolutely no discomfort involved for either of you.

    Understand that death is just change. Certainly you will grieve for the loss of your animal friend’s physical presence, but know that you will always carry the love you shared with you. That permanence of spirit never changes.

  15. Missy says:

    I have read these comments with tears. My beloved Frasier is 16.5 blind, deaf and has an accident now and again. We almost lost the old man a short time ago after a boarding accident. After that incident I had a long conversation about making the remainder of his life a bit more gentle with the Vet. I think the best advice the Vet gave me was to make my mind up now of what is and what is NOT accecptable when it come to end of life issues. My old man Frasier has been my companion thru many struggles ,a few husbands, a couple of homes. So I figure I could stand a few piddle pads, diapers, feedings and special needs, etc. I know that when the difficult decision needs to be made I will be there smiling as I stroke him. He will tell me and we will make the decision togeather…this much I know because we have this bond he and I. I couldn’t imagine sending him to heaven without him seeing me smiling at him and telling him I can’t wait until the next time we are togeather. This is the least I can do for each and every tear he has ever licked from my checks over the past 16.5 years. It would be my honor at that time to serve him and be his faithful and loving companion as he draws his last breath.

  16. KimberlyD says:

    I first had to decide this about my cat Missy she was attacted by something and her back was broken, I tried to save her but she was in pain. What a hard thing to do for a 17yr old, my parents made me take her to the vet by myself. I didn’t cry till I got home. I had another cat Tara, got pneumua (sorry on spelling), he waited till I got home and he meowed when I got out of the car and I picked him up and he died in my arms. My cat Jezabell was 18 yrs old and she just went in the woods and didn’t come home. My mom had a poodle Frenchie, and he was a wonderful dog my mom died in 2002 and we thought he wouldn’t live long without her and he almost didn’t but he bounced back, so I took him in and he was 15 yrs old than, he ended up being blind and deaf, when he was 18 he had cancer and I thought that was to much for him to go through and I had him put to sleep. I held him till he died…makes me tear up thinking about him. Was I keeping him alive for me, for he was my mom’s dog, was it like keeping her alive? He was a great little guy but he had cancer and couldn’t see or hear, I thought it was the right thing to do.

    My cat Luckie right now is sleeping on my wooden chest, he is 20 yrs old and still can see and still can hear, he beats up the neighbor dog a pit bull! He eats good and drinks good for I watch for this, and he was my mom’s cat also. I keep wondering and worry if he sleeps to long is he breathing?
    Its hard to decide when is the time?

  17. cheryl patton says:

    I feel the pain of the decision to end the life of a beloved friend and pet. It has been a year this month that I had to help my Sweet Annie come to her end at the vets’ office. Annie came into my life shortly after I was divorced. My cousin brought me Annie because he thought I needed a dog and Annie would enjoy a country lifestyle. It took a while to bond, she was hyper and wanted to herd the neighbors critters. She was part blue heeler so the herding of animals came natural to her but frustrating to me. My neighbors were tolerant and over time Annie became my best friend. After 12 good years together, I could tell Annie was beyond tired and ready for me to let her go. We spent our last weekend driving around to all of our favorite hangouts and having some pretty serious goodbyes. I stood in the parking lot of the vet’s office with Annie in my arms sobbing. It was one of the hardest moments ever and I wanted to do it alone because that was how we lived, two spirited females, each others best friends. Taking her in and saying goodbye broke my heart and set her free. I will always be able to see her sweet brown eyes looking at me with that unconditional love that dogs do so well.
    Charley, a big yellow lab keeps me company now and he is great company but I still step out on the deck on a moonlit night and whisper good night Sweet Annie.

  18. Charlene Moeller says:

    I too am sorry to hear that your beloved dog is having problems.
    Two years ago my dog of 13 years contracted cancer. I had her for only two weeks once it was discovered. She was a real trooper. I guess that is why she did not show signs of any health problems until the very end.
    I agree with the many comments that once the quality of life of the dog is gone, it is humane to put them to sleep.
    I made a comment to my sister when I put down my dog that even though it just about killed me, I think we humans should have the same courtesy we give our beloved animals.

  19. Pati says:

    It is too bad dogs can’t just die when they are sick , old or both. But realistically, farm people don’t have extra money to spend on dogs.

  20. Teresa says:

    As others have said, you’ll know when it’s time to help your furry friend cross the Rainbow Bridge. Putting my 16-year-old terrier to sleep last December was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. (I had so hoped he would depart this earth on on his own, not leave it to me!) That dog and I had been through so much together. He was mostly blind, hard of hearing and incontinent. I simply worked around his ailments because the crochety old man had a lot zip left in him. I knew it was time when a seizure/stroke left him unable to move on his own. I held him while the vet administered the injection. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt and relief when it was all over. And a sense of loneliness. The house was so quiet without the click-click of his toenails on the kitchen floor. Give yourself time and permission to grieve. And when the time is right…go adopt another dog if you are so inclined.

  21. Martha Kiger says:

    Wow- this is a subject near and dear to my heart- Our dog Bob, a terrier with a larger than life presence came into our lives when we almost ran him over on a road trip in Pennsylvania- "Turnpike Bob" was the easiest dog to love and he loved people back in that non-judgmental way we cherish some dogs for. He was about 4 when we got him and he went everywhere with us. When he was about 6 we adopted our little boy who was almost 2. Our little boy ate, played, slept and breathed with Bob. When Bob was ten- he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. As a health care professional I was intrigued to find out that veterinary medicine had progressed from my childhood pets nothing-much- to-do-about-it sickness and death, to now where there is treatment for all manner of illnesses inclusive of the same tests and types of medicines used by humans. Bob indeed looked to us for his care and our boy was especially desperate to keep Bob in our family and our lives. Bob needed regular EKGs and 16 pills a day- which our son devotedly helped us administer. But like a loved parent or friend, there came a time when our little Bob had to be carried most of the way on his walks and had trouble sleeping. Our son began to mourn the inevitable when Bob could no longer get comfortable snuggling in bed with him and it was two more months when our vet counseled us to forgo annual shots and to prepare ourselves. We made a decision to let him go before he suffered too much. When the date came, we spent a rainy day, sitting on the living room floor, telling stories and petting his grizzled fur, feeding him a rare steak, and comforting ourselves with thoughts of richer life with such a great dog. It was if he knew it too that it was his time to leave us. The next day, our little boy kissed Bob goodbye and left for school, wishing he could come with us to help the vet put him to sleep. Unsolicited, he gave us a little lidded box, to house Bob’s soul when it left his sick little body. As evidence of the impact this little vagabond had on our lives, our son would like to become a vet someday to help dogs like Bob and families like ours. So, in short, as Temple Grandin the writer penned- animals indeed make us human and enrich us in more ways than we can count. When it’s my time to go- I hope I know! Thanks for your lovely blog!

  22. monica says:

    It looks to me like none of you read this story correctly. It is a FRIEND of the author whose dog is ill. The author has not experienced this kind of love, apparently, or she never would have given up her miniature dachsund (which is the animal pictured in this story) because of a marital dispute. That, in my opinion, is the most heartless thing you can do. Did you give your daughter away as well?

  23. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Actually Monica, the ex took him to the pound — thankfully he was rescued. You picked an apt adjective. Sorry if the fotos were confusing.

  24. monica says:

    Please accept my apology. My comment was quite rude and based on assumtpion. Of course we all know what happens when we assume something. (which happens to me more than I’d like) Anyway, I foster dogs – primarily pugs – for the Music City Pug Rescue group here in Nashville. I assumed that this was another of those "divorce" excuses. But now I understand. Yes – I agree that my adjective is quite apt–and thank God you are no longer married to someone who fills that description.

    As for the subject of euthanasia, I think that in some cases it is the only choice — your baby will let you know when it’s ready to cross over the Rainbow Bridge. For those circumstances when someone can’t afford medication or a life-saving surgery for their pet, so the only choice is euthanasia, then I would like to direct them to

    The Brown Dog Foundation is a wonderful non profit started by a friend of mine who was in that predicament once. Her huge brown dog (hence the name), Chocolate Chip, had cancer and she could not afford the treatments because of a recent job loss. Her goal in life now is to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone else.

    The foundation will pay up to 75% of the vet bill for life-saving treatment. So anyone in that same situation should check out and see if they qualify for help! No one should ever have to face that horrifying decision of euthanizing a dog just because of money.

  25. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    You’re sweet to follow up. Thanks for telling us about the foundation.

  26. Stephanie says:

    Oh my, what timing! We have been going through this process for at least a year. Our American Eskimo, who is almost 17, is also mistaken for a puppy because she’s white. Please forgive my gross details but I think they are appropriate to the situation. For over a year she has peed, pooped, and vomited all over the house. Except only on the main floor at this time as she can no longer go up steps. She is deaf, her hips are almost gone and one of her back legs is no longer useful. The vet told us several years ago that her stomach was full of tumors and we see them as they work their way out her butt. We’ve had her in a diaper for a year~12 for $20~and still, when we are at home, we will let her out then she comes in and THEN does it. And we have a cat. So, if you don’t know about cats and dogs in the same house, you may want to skip this part~graffic. The cat eats the dog’s food which gives her diarreah, then if we don’t get to it in time, the dog eats it then throws it up, then eats it and throws it up again and again all over the place. Thank goodness for wood floors but there are several places where will have to have them re~done, when…My husband has never really liked Chloe, he’s not a dog person, a cat person, BUT, he doesn’t believe in euthanasia under pretty much any circumstances. He spent $2500 the last day on his last cat when she was long gone. But my 13 year old and I are literally, completely grossed out by her. The vet won’t groom her any longer because she can’t hold her leg up to shave underneath her. They have also told me to consider OUR quality of life, which, believe me, we do. But we are worried that my husband will always hold it in the back of his mind against us. We have prayed that she would go to the light or at least cry out in pain so we would know for sure that it was for her and not just us. Thank you for letting me vent. This has weighed on our minds for a very long time. P.S. I’m also a born and raised and lifelong Texas girl living on the East Coast. Love your writing!!!

  27. Brigitte Farmgirl with a heart says:

    I just lost my sweet little girl Dixie,on november the 21th…one month before Chrismas. She was 16 and a half years old. My sister and I spend nights and days at her side. We help her walking outside, than we wash her after she could no more walk with our help…We feed her with a sering… we care for her like we would care for an old family member… We don’t believe in giving up love’s one when money or more time is require… Farmgirl with a heart

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