By Faith Maloney, Best Friends co-founder
“He’s very sick, Faith,” said Dr. Docktor, my veterinarian. “Look at his gums.” He gently lifted up Prince’s lip and I saw that they were white. Tests had revealed that my Prince Charming had liver cancer. He couldn’t make any red blood cells and was dying. Dr. Docktor explained it all to me and asked me what I wanted to do.
I was no stranger to the wonderful gift of euthanasia at the end of life, but this was my best friend and constant companion. This little six-pound black Chihuahua had made a big impact on my life. I was not ready to let him go. I knew that he had not long to live anyway, his illness was so advanced, but was I ready to make the decision to take his life?
Although Prince and I did everything together, we did not have a chatty relationship. We had an understanding that did not require words. But on this day, I opened up my mind and “spoke” to him. “What should I do? I love you so much I don’t want you to die.” I don’t know what I expected to hear back, but as clear as a bell the words began to form in my mind. “I’m ready to go. Don’t keep me alive for your sake. It’s my time.”
To be honest, I don’t know if Prince actually “said” those words, but the feeling of contact and communication was intense. I picked up the phone and called the doctor. “It is time to euthanize Prince. I’ll be right there.”
For those of us who love our animals, this is one of the most difficult decisions we are going to have to make, and as most of our pets (except for some birds) don’t live as long as we do, it’s inevitable.
To help people make this decision, I often ask them the following series of questions:
Do you like and trust your veterinarian?
Building a solid relationship with your vet over the life of your pet is very important. He or she will have had time to get to know you both and will be in a good position to advise you during the difficult times. If you do not have this relationship with your vet, then either develop it or find another vet.
How many people are affected by the illness and possible death of the pet?
If it is just you and your pet, then the decision might be easier. But if there are other family members involved in the pet’s life, then their feelings and wishes need to be considered.
Including the children in what is happening at every stage is very important. If the pet is sick, then explaining in simple but direct language what is wrong can help remove the mystery from a child’s mind. This gives you the opportunity to show that animal bodies don’t live forever. Then, when the sickness progresses to the point where your pet needs to be euthanized to prevent further suffering, the child will understand it more easily.
How much money are you prepared to spend?
Most of us hate having to look at this. We feel we would do anything humanly possible to save our animals’ lives. But unless you have an insurance plan, many treatment options or specialists today can be very expensive. If you choose an expensive treatment, will your vet allow you to pay over time? Are you prepared to forgo that vacation you had planned, or the purchase of that giant screen TV?
If extensive nursing care is needed, do you have the time?
Of course you want to have the time for someone who has been so important to you and your family. But you need to be realistic. Is everyone out at work or school all day with long commutes back and forth? With diabetes, for example, the pet may need an insulin shot twice a day, 12 hours apart. Can you fit that into your schedule?
What kind of place do you live in?
For a dog who has rear-end paralysis, special carts with wheels are available to support his back legs, while the dog propels himself forward with his front legs. These work great on hard surfaces like concrete or a firm lawn. They do not work well in sand, loose soil, or very rocky areas. You may have to decide if a cart is an option in your area.
How does the sickness affect the quality of your pet’s life?
How do we define quality of life? A question I asked myself when faced with this decision with my dog Percy was, “Can Percy still be a dog?” The large pit-bull mix had developed arthritis in his spine. He was on a variety of treatments and supplements, all of which helped prolong the quality of his life for many years.
But the arthritis eventually became so bad that Percy could barely move around. He could no longer climb the back steps into my house without help. His life was not fun anymore. After consultation with my vet, we put Percy to sleep.
When it’s time, and where applicable, allow all of the family members an opportunity to say goodbye to the pet. Some veterinarians will even come to your home to perform the euthanasia. This is an individual decision and may not be appropriate in all situations. The term “euthanasia” means “gentle death,” and when done by a caring professional, can be very releasing for a family after having experienced a painful illness.
Creating a ritual around the life of your pet can be very healing. If possible, lay your pet to rest in a quiet part of your yard and put up a marker with his or her name on it. This can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. A rock with the pet’s name in indelible marker written on it, a piece of wood with the name carved into it, a ring of stones, or a newly planted tree on the site will help family members remember all the good times they had with their pet. If you choose cremation, then you can create a place of honor for the ashes, with pictures and stories contributed by everyone in the family.
Talking about the pet seems to be an important part of getting through the inevitable grieving process. Remembering all the little things that made your pet an important part of your life helps to ease the pain. Animals teach us unconditional love, loyalty, kindness, and a host of other wonderful things. They make us better people. After a period of mourning and remembering the old days, think about adding a new animal to the family. You and your family will see that life goes on and that it is possible to love again.