Like just about everyone who has ever faced this question, I continually re-examine my view. Although we each desire never to misjudge this question, we cannot really know the “answer.” So we struggle to decide what is right, and spend hours sitting with our aging dogs, willing ourselves to know their feelings.
Of course, so fundamental a decision is supremely private: we each confront it with the necessary courage and integrity at the end of a lifetime of love. We try to balance emotion and reason and do what is best in our hearts and minds for our beloved friends who live too short a while. I do not criticize any other person’s viewpoint; rather, I offer my view, in the hope that people who are wrestling with the question will find it useful. My answer to this question even a few years ago was different than it is today…
Part of what makes this decision so difficult is that well-cared for pets generally live far beyond a point where they would die in nature. Inability to hunt, disease, dominance fighting, and other natural factors mean that true geriatrics is rare in nature. By the time we are wrestling with this question, our pets have already outlived their natural lifetime, and so every day we keep them alive is, in effect, a choice we are making. We cannot hide from this truth—we are profoundly responsible for this final decision.
Many people try to evaluate quality of life by comparing present life with youth and quickly discover that old age does not have the same quality. But life possesses quality, regardless of action, quality that cannot easily be understood, much less measured. Certainly there is joy in chasing balls, herding sheep, and running through the woods, and as such joy fades, the quality of life is changed. But there is joy in lying on a pillow while your friend strokes your ears. There is joy in memory, in imagination. There is quality in being alive. I remember my great-grandmother’s last days. She was 100, and I was 10. I did not really see the point of her last years-she was largely bedridden and needed help even to go to the bathroom. But in her final days I caught a glimmer of her wisdom: perhaps those days held value I could not see. As she spent those last days surrounded by family and friends, I found myself wondering what is the value of a day in a life? Surely it is not going to the bathroom by oneself, or even playing soccer, or walking on the beach, even though I love those things.
Without really knowing what gives a day, or a life, value, how can I decide when the days no longer contain “enough”?
Death, and dying, and even pain, have dignity and grace. They are a part of life, a part that we often fear and do not understand, but nonetheless a valuable and important component of the whole. Most of us know memories that are painful but are nonetheless cherished.
People often suggest that keeping an animal around “too long” is selfish. Certainly this is sometimes true. I believe that far more often the opposite is true: euthanasia is chosen because we cannot stand to see our beloved friends suffer. We cannot ourselves bear the emotion of protracted demise. We cannot comfortably watch an animal once so vibrant now unable to easily stand.
People talk about loss of dignity, suggesting that when their animal becomes incontinent, for example, they must euthanize it to avoid the sense of shame we imagine our friend might be feeling. I believe that dignity, for people and for animals, derives from elements more intrinsic then simple physicality.
There are circumstances in which euthanasia may be a true kindness because the owner knows that the animal is confronting a long period of pain with little or no chance of meaningful recovery.
People often talk about their dog “telling them when it is time.” I believe there is much truth in this. There comes a moment when, overwhelming though the grief may be, you know that the end has come. Their eyes no longer sparkle, the fight to live is gone, the will, the joy. I know each time this moment has come for one of our dogs, Lauren and I have felt it simultaneously. There may have been days or even weeks of wondering, but there comes a moment when we both know that our friend’s body has become a prison from which we can free them.
Most importantly, know that there is no wrong time so long as you are doing what you believe is best for your animal. Do not rush the decision—you can always wait another day to be sure. And do not delay—when you are sure your animal is no longer happy, it is time. And whatever decision you make, let it go immediately. There is no value in second guessing your decision.
As I write, my grand Anatolian Shepherd, Kolya, lies at my feet. Reluctantly I acknowledge that my friend has become old now, and stiff, tender sometimes, and slow. Only yesterday, it seems, I was sitting on the floor playing with his litter and trying to decide which squirmy pup should come home with me. For fourteen years Kolya has been my best friend, and I sometimes feel I cannot stand the grief of him leaving. He is the only living being who shared with me my adventures in Montana, who was with me as I lay wretched with food poisoning on the roadside near Barstow, who remembers Tillie as she truly, improbably was. How can I be without him? How can I bear the unimaginable loss? Each night I lie with him alongside and wonder what is right? Kolya no longer “does” much; he rarely runs or plays, and his demand for petting now comes more with his eyes then the rest of his body, but for me – and I believe for him – life is about “being,” not “doing.” And as long as he is comfortable, I will give Kolya the honor of being as he has always been – himself, independent, surrounded by love. I cannot know what awaits him as he departs this world; it will be my friend’s first journey ever without me. If possible, I will let Kolya decide when it is time. I will strive, as always, to make every moment of his life as excellent as I can, and to support him fully. When Kolya departs, I will be with him. I will love him. I will remember him always, and I will try to be the person he saw in me and to remember the lessons he taught me. That is the best I can do…