I've never had a child. I have no doubt raising children is a hell of a lot harder than raising dogs—with one exception.
Every (good) dog parent knows from the time of adoption that we will have to make a decision that leads to the dog's death. We'll have to hold them as they die. And, unlike parents of human children, we pray that our fur children will die as teenagers, and long before we do. It is our final act in the promise of "forever" that we made to them as pups.
It is the HARDEST thing about having a pet. While I understand it's counterproductive, I start worrying about that day years before it comes.
Many years back, a neighbor dog had gotten old. She had good days and bad, but the bad days were getting more numerous. Everything was an effort for her. Everything was pain, managed by injections and pills. The parents had set many dates for euthanasia, but when the day came, the dog would have a good day. So they just rode that roller coaster, not knowing what to do....afraid of what they knew must be done.
One day the parents came over to get me because the dog was really bad and they didn't know what to do. I know it sounds weird, but dogs do communicate. And this dog was loud and clear. She was writhing in pain and begging to die. I told them to call the vet immediately and put her out of her pain. She died naturally while waiting for the vet to arrive.
After that experience, I did a lot of soul searching. And I decided I would never keep an elderly or terminally ill dog alive because I couldn't bear to put her down. I decided that I would I never give an elderly dog cancer or liver treatments to buy them six months of life, because what is the quality of that life when they're on chemo or dialysis? I know dogs have different pain tolerances than humans, but I know when I'm in pain, it's hard to think of anything else, even if I'm on medication. That isn't quality of life. Not being able to enjoy the things you love is not quality of life. "Hanging in there" is not quality of life.
I have only had to put one dog down so far. I was blessed with an easy decision. Passion was a large dog and 10 years old. I swear she had been asking to die for a year. But since she seemed perfectly normal, I told her she was silly. And she WAS perfectly fine....she ate, did her walkies, played with Kizzie. And then one day she collapsed and I took her to the vet. They told me she likely had cancer and might not live through the night. So it was a simple decision. We went home, held each other all night long. Talked and laughed and shared memories. I apologized for not listening to her sooner. And the next morning I brought her to the vet.
Now, the same thing that happened with the neighbor dog happened to Passion. After suffering all night long, she was her old self that next morning. This is a phenomenon called "brightening" or a "last hurrah"...the dog (or human) perks up right before they die. The neighbor dog had brightened and dipped repeatedly over months. Each time they got to keep her a little longer. But who was she staying alive for?
I contend that dogs have a completely different relationship with death than we do. They don't fear death. They do know they're diminishing. And they're ready to go long before we're ready to let go. Of course, we really don't know for sure how a dog's mind works, but based on the speed and capacity at which they're able to forgive, forget and live in the moment, it's clear their minds work differently than humans, much as we tend to humanize everything they do.
So I decided I would gauge my dogs' behavior and physical comfort. And I would not let them suffer either mentally or physically just because I wanted another day, month or however long with them. In fact, I feel the same way about humans. When the inevitable is clear, what is the point of suffering to make everyone else happy? If you've ever watched someone die slowly from cancer, you know that staying alive just prolongs everyone's suffering. We have no other option for humans. But we do for dogs.
The reason I'm writing all of this is because last Tuesday I woke up to a Kizzie in severe pain. Kizzie is 12. And he's a big boy. His beautiful mane is graying. Readers of this blog know him as my sunset-watching companion, the boy who became a leader at mommy's request, the boy who gets toys brought to him from the other side and, one of my most popular posts of all time, the boy from the post about vibrations in the universe.
Kizzie is the kindest, most gentle boy I know. I call him "mommy's clown faced boy" because he is always smiling. He's maybe the only man I've ever loved fully, walls down and heart wide open. And there he was head-down-tail-down-unable-to-settle-panting-staring-into-space in pain. The vet had a few ideas about what was wrong. All of them pointed to realizing Kizzie's forever is coming.
Kizzie is fine today. His issue was a best-case scenario...he had a ruptured disc. Not the bloat I thought he might have when I brought him in. And not the spinal tumor that the vet said could be the issue, though he has lost a decent amount of weight, so who knows what's lurking? So, for today, we have tomorrow. But since I won't let an elderly dog suffer, I do have to start thinking about this. I mean, actually I started thinking about this a few years ago, which is what prompted our nightly sunsets on the front stoop. We may still have tomorrow, but I can't fool myself that we have years.
I'm a total wussie when it comes to this stuff. That's why I have multiple dogs in the first place. At the age of five, I started worrying about the day I would have to say goodbye to Passion. So I got Kizzie. And when Passion died I got Magick. I'm not proud of admitting it, but one of the reasons I have three dogs is because I need someone to hold if one of them dies. As a card-carrying loner and hermit, I wouldn't be able to live any other way.
All that said, Passion's death was actually kind of a beautiful thing. We got to say goodbye and chat all night. And I held her in my arms and sang her her theme song as she was drifting away. And just when I was ready to get up and leave, a final puff of air left her, as if her soul were waiting for me to finish saying goodbye. I felt honored to have been there every step of the way in her life. Which doesn't mean it wasn't gut-wrenching to say goodbye to my girl. But it is the price we agreed to when I first met her. She more than held up her end of the bargain. I had to hold up mine.
It's easy to forget the dues we have to pay as dog parents. We may even think our dues are going for walks, picking up poo and working with our dog to sit, stay and heel. But the real work—the work nobody wants to do—comes at the end of the job. It is both a privilege and the most heartbreaking job we'll ever do.