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Today's subject is tough and i'll warn you right now, there really is no definitive answer - only a question of which has more strength: head or heart. Friends just had to say goodbye to their 5 year old dog due to aggressive Cancer. It was a devastating decision to make, but the right one for all involved was to help him peacefully from this world. How did they know? How do any of us know when it's time to let go and say goodbye?
Sometimes, You Just Know
I've acquired clarity in an instant with 2 of my dogs. The first was Quincey, my aging Rottweiler. The dog who started everything for me. I learned so much from that dog. She truly was one of my greatest teachers. She was a kind dog. Only once did I see her show any true sort of menacing quality. I told the story of her instincts as a protector in an article called, Guard Dogs - Making them Mean for Protection. Aside from that, she was usually quick to assume everyone was her friend. She lived to a ripe old age and struggled with arthritis as a senior. We managed it through different therapies and I always watched for signs that she was hurting too much. I knew it was time to let her go when my Mother was petting her and Quincey growled and then left to lie down in the corner. This was so contradictory to her typical nature that I knew her arthritis had progressed far enough that it was causing her significant pain. The out-of-character growl was her telling me that she was hurting too much. It was my duty to listen.
The second dog was my Toller, Tyler. After being incredibly healthy through his entire life, he quite suddenly presented with Renal Failure. It was impossible for me to believe that he wouldn't recover fully, having been such a strong, healthy dog for all of his 11 years. At 11, he was still a pup in every way. I worked vehemently with my vets to try to bring him back to full health, but only 2 eternity-style weeks into the ordeal of trying to adjust his diet, testing everything, and basically trying anything I could to keep him alive, it only took an instant to know, without question or hesitation, that it was time to let him go. He told me in about 3 seconds. We were sitting on the deck overlooking the backyard. Tyler had been a diligent squirrel wrangler his entire life. He would have them on the run long before I even saw them. As I watched this usually hyper-vigilant dog laying in the sun with his head on the deck, I noticed a squirrel on the back fence. Tyler noticed it too. He lifted his head and then put it back down on the deck again. I made an appointment for later that day and said goodbye to my dear friend.
Sometimes, you just know it's the right time, but the universe isn't always so kind and sometimes, clarity for the decision is nowhere to be found.
What is the Dog Usually Like?
As with Quincey and Tyler, sometimes you can compare your dog's current attitude and love of life with their past. Are they drastically different? Do they avoid doing things they used to love? A certain amount of disinterest is normal for a dog who's aging. They may sleep deeper and not hear things in the house that would typically cue them of goings-on, but if they are excessive in their efforts to avoid walks or playtime, that could be a sign that they're no longer feeling well. If they're different in any way that is significant to you, ask yourself why. What is creating the change? Is the change big enough that it means something significant for your dog?
Quality of Life
Modern medicine can do a lot to keep a dog alive longer. In some cases, this is a blessing while in others, it's a definitely a curse. Answer for yourself honestly: what is your dog's quality of life. Are they peaceful and pain-free? They can sleep 23.5 hours a day, as old dogs often do, as long as their quality of life is still enjoyable.
Who are They Still Here For?
When I was a child, my mother had a cat named Sam. Sam was a wonderful companion for her and was her best friend through University, Teacher's College, 2 pregnancies (and 2 kids growing up) and so much more that simply won't fit in a post. Needless to say, my mother was extremely attached to Sam. Sam lived to be 20 years old and when my mother did take her in to help her leave the world humanely, it was very reluctantly and, in my opinion, about 6 months too late. Sam had been such a massive part of her life that looking back, I know my mother had blinders on when it came to the right time to say goodbye. Sam lived to be 20 because she had a great medical care and my mother's diligence. She would line the hallway with garbage bags to catch the accidents that were inevitable as Sam could no longer control her bladder. She would bring Sam to her food bowl multiple times a day since Sam would no longer seek out food on her own. Sometimes, she would eat and other times not.
In hindsight, Sam was only alive because my Mother couldn't let her go yet. I know now that it was unfair for Sam, but I also know now how hard it is to part with our beloved 'pets'. Truly, pet seems far too light of a word to use here. Sometimes, the heart and the head don't get to be on the same page. It's part of the fallibility of being human.
Talk to Your Vet
Talk to your vet about the implications of the choice. They'll be able to share their experience with you. Is it time for euthanasia? As I tried to keep Tyler alive, I asked that question of my vet several times. Each time, the response added more information to the decision I was trying to make. A good vet will give you the facts and their professional opinion on how things have gone in similar situations. Take their information and support to help make your decision. You don't have to make it alone.
If they go naturally or with assitance, in the end it will be difficult either way. Maybe one of the most difficult things. Hopefully we can all find peace in our decisions.