Dec 312008

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…

 December 31, 2008  Posted by at 12:40 am Tagged with: , , , , , ,

  12 Responses to “Knowing when it is time to let go an old pet”

  1. Roland, that is so sensitive, wise and touching. It makes my eyes smart with tears.

    There is much there that equates with human aging.

    For a human, being able to maintain dignity and mobility to go to the bathroom independently wud equate with quality of life. I guess for Kolya it wud be you still there for him, loving him.

    I want to cry when reading your words that Kolya’s leaving is the first journey he’s taken without you.

    I know these thoughts would resonate with many people out there. Especially with a friend in my studio who had to put her dog down 2 mos. ago.

    When can we share this blog?


  2. Thank you for writing of your experiences with and feelings on Euthanasia. Today is Sunday the 4th and on Tuesday the 6th between 2 and 3 the vet is coming to my home to help my best friend Dakota slip away from his pain of Bone Cancer. He is only 8.5 years old and a beautiful Blue Dobie of 94 pounds.

    He was diagnosed in mid October. Took him in for what I thought was a sprained leg from chasing a squirrel in the yard. Fine when he went out and limping when he came back in. The news hit me like a pile of rocks. Cancer in his chest as well. The bone cancer however is very fast in it’s growth. He is now on three legs at all times and many things are difficult for him. The right front leg is affected.

    He is on 100mg of Rymidal twice a day and 150mg of Tramadal twice a day and an additional 50mg sometime after midnight to help with the pain until morning.

    I have had Dakota since a very young pup of just under six weeks. He is my best friend and partner. He is the reason I exist. Everything I do, is with him in mind.
    Since his diagnosis I have been consumed with thoughts of losing him and visualizing the entire process of the vet coming. His head in my lap and his last breath. No longer will he greet me at the door or lay next to me at night in bed.

    I awoke Saturday morning to the decision of it being time. Dakota had to go out to relieve himself around 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning. Three steps lead to the yard and as I held the flashlight on the stairs he could not make his body go down them. He cried in frustration which tore me up. He wanted to go but the pain was far to great to step on that right front leg. Steps are difficult with only one front leg to get down on. Up is not an issue.

    He seems to have so much life. Still trys to play with his favorite stuffed monkey and is right there ready to go when I tell him we’re going some place. I simply can’t bear to watch him get any worse. The tought of his pain is more than I can put him through. The leg is hot and throbs when I lay my hand on it. It’s in the wrist joint at this time. Big knot making the joint 2 inches larger than the other leg.

    Appetite in the morning is not good but he does eventually eat. Sometimes laying down and I hand feed him.

    Not sure I am doing the right thing. Not a great deal of time to think about it. The closer it gets the more I feel unsure.

    Any input would be greatly appreciated.


  3. For anyone who may have read my words and uncertain feelings above I have made the decision to move forward on the 6th (tomorrow) and allow Dakota the painless peace he deserves. I can say after praying for an answer last night I awoke this morning knowing in my gut what I should do.

    Today I am buying him a large Chuck steak. I’ll warm it just enough to take the chill off. He’s been on a raw diet for years. With the steak he will have a baked potato with plain Yogurt. One of his favorites. Boiled thinly sliced carrots and for desert a no no under normal circumstances, Vanilla Ice Cream. I will feed him off the fork each piece of meat as well as the potato and carrots. He is a very gentle eater. He will drool between bites, watching every movement of my hand.

    I will enjoy each moment as much as he.

    Perhaps this is not the proper site to express my concerns or decision. I am not a blogger and found this site while looking for Euthanasia information. After reading the article I felt comfortable asking for advise and then the next day letting you know of my decision and that I feel okay now about it. Won’t be easy, but I have a way to help him.

    • For what little it is worth, I believe you are making the right decision. The prognosis for osteosarcoma is grim, and if he was in that much pain on Tramadol and Rimadyl, he likely had a fracture and would not recover meaningfully.
      In time, the pain and loneliness fade, and we are left with the cherished memories of a shared lifetime full of laughter and joy…

  4. Thank you so much for your words. They add strength to my decision. It is about 11:30 a.m. here and the vet arrives in a few hours. I snuggled with Dakota in bed last night and once asleep it was the best sleep I have had in a couple of months.

    Dakota’s meal was fabulous. He savored each small bite off the fork. Eating the entire pound and a half of steak and all of the carrots. Had no interest in the potato and yogurt. I savored each moment feeding it to him.

    He is by the way a very spoiled animal. I have always made him a priority in my life. I’ve done nothing without first considering him. As a young pup he was in day care while I worked. Had to board him once for a few days. He went to a kennel with music and heated beds. Tried to have a relationship a while back but learned there’s only been room in my life for one guy and he snores enough for anyone I may have met. Love to hear him snore. Dakota has fulfilled my life with so many great times. You and Me BABE has been our motto. Man I am going to miss him.

    At this moment my heart is very heavy. I am however doing better than I expected. I’ve had a couple of months to prepare. I feel I am to the moment doing the very best I can for him under the circumstances.

    Thank you again Roland for your words of wisdom. I may or may not send out another note after it’s over. I am again, very sincerely grateful for your words.


  5. Yesterday around 4:00 p.m. Dakota slipped into a very very deep sleep. Only for a moment did he seem alarmed when the solution was going through his veins. His head against my chest, he arched his neck and turned his head a couple of times. The vet explained it would be for a human the initial feeling of slipping under anesithesia. He laid his head on my lap and went into a deep sleep. He took a deep breath, then one more. The vet checked for a heart beat. Hearing one although very faint and slow, she said it would be a minute or two before the heart stopped entirely. And that’s just how it was.

    We talked for awhile with Dakota laying beside me on the sofa, head still on my lap. Then it was time and we wrapped a lavender blanket around him which they had brought. Pulled a large plastic bag over his rump to about his shoulders. I helped the vet get him off the sofa and lay him on the stretcher which was next to the sofa on the floor. The tech was there to do this but I wanted to do it. I laid his orange monkey on top of him under the blanket and he was buckled onto the stretcher and taken to the vehicle they arrived in.

    I hugged the vet and thanked her for coming out and said one last good-bye to my guy. Watched them pull out of the drive and did my best to keep it together. My daughter was here with me and spent the night. I didn’t sleep at all.

    The anxiety I felt just before she arrived is like none I have ever experienced. I know I did the right thing for Dakota. The vet said he was tired, painful and ready. She has cared for him for several years. I know I provided the absolute best care possible for him up to the moment he passed.

    Since learning of his bone cancer in mid October I have been obsessed with the diagnosis and ultimate end. Seeing it hundreds of times a day in my mind. Watching him go from a limp to being on three legs and the bone of the wrist growing larger week after week. The bad bone eating away at the good bone.

    I lost my job on Sept. 20th. Had an interview but did not get the job applied for. I shortly later learned of the cancer and my desire to find a job was put on hold. I am not financially secure but became so obsessed I doubt I could have been productive knowing Dakota would be alone for however many hours. Waiting and hurting. My primary concern the past couple of months has been making sure I had his breakfast ready so he could have more drugs and repeating the process for his evening meal. He was always most painful in the morning. It was a long time since his evening dose of meds. I would often hand feed him while he laid on the sofa or floor. He didn’t want to stand to eat. Once fed he would hobble to his favorite chair and that’s where he stayed. He still loved to go with me and I always took him. He could jump up into the SUV but could not without a great deal of pain jump out. I would open his door and say “wait for Mom” and grab his collar to hold his weight off the leg as he jumped to the ground. We had it down real good.

    I am grateful for all the time I had with him the past couple of months. And my decision to be with him. I’ve not been unemployed this long a period in my life. Financially it has hurt me in many areas. But every day, every moment, was worth while.

    Now it’s time to get on with life and back on track. Today is my first day without him. I swear I heard him bark this morning. Then I realized it was something else. It’s going to be difficult but in time I will be okay. Haven’t yet picked up his dishes or his chew toys. Think I will wait a bit. That too has it’s own time.

    Being able to share this has helped me. I hope it helps someone else who may be going through the same thing.

    For anyone reading this and owning a pet, provide the best you can for them, respect them, cherish them, and love them like there is no tomorrow for there may not be. And when the time comes to you as it has come to me you will know you did the very best you could for them. All of your memories will good and you will have no regrets.

    This is my last entry and I truly appreciate being able to share this.


  6. To the point and an excellent article.

  7. I have been reading all of these articles to try to make the hardest choice of my life. My dog Bodye is 13 years old and have had him since he was 8 weeks old. He has had a couple of hip surgeries and has been fine and mobile. He has lived a good life and i have given him EVERYTHING. In the past month he lost his ability to walk on his own. His back legs do not function properly but seems to get around the best he can. Took him to the vet and found that he has cancer and a very large tumor. The vet says i should put him down but i cannot seem to bare to do it. Guess i am being very selfish. I just don’t want to lose him. I know i need to put him down but when do i do it? He still wages his nub, licks my face, eats and drinks like a horse, and sometimes even wants to try and play. He is on drugs to help with the pain and it sems to help. When do you know to put him down? When do you know to end his life? I love him sooooo much!!


  8. When I awoke this morning to my fur babies, I noticed right away that my beautiful 13 year old tabby’s legs were paralyzed. He was lethargic, would not eat and his pupils were dilated, He was rushed to the vet as just the fact of seeing him unable to walk was unbearable. Upon examination the vet told us he was going into heart failure and a blood clot had formed in his lover body. We were given the devastating news that he was in a lot of pain and that water had begun to form on his lungs,We could no longer bring him home and there was no medication that could help him,
    Our vet was amazing. She left the room to allow us the time to digest the news. We took the time to take some last pictures of my baby and we called our kids.
    I asked the vet how the procedure would be from beginning to end. I was determined despite myself suffering from a sever anxiety disorder that I would be with him until the very last minute. I needed him to know that I would be there and he would pass away in my arms. During the injections I held him and told him he was the best little boy in the word and I told him I was sorry for what was being done to him. After he passed the vet left us time alone with him where I was able to give him a belly rub that he loves so much and I kissed his forehead multiple times. As hard as it was to stay during the entire procedure, at least the last words he heard was that he was so very loved…. RIP My Sammy Sam I will love you forever xxxxxxx

  9. I know the feeling of losing something dear to you. I remember my old girl Hershey. I have lost my long time best pal last year too. Whenever I remember her, I just can’t help but be emotional. She died of old age. It was hard to see her like that. She can barely hear and her eyes were almost gray. She couldn’t see anymore. Whenever I call out to her she kept turning around, searching for my voice when I was just right in front of her. One night she was howling differently, like she was in deep pain. So I went out and covered her with a blanket while I talked to her and stayed beside her until she fell asleep. She was the strongest dog I have ever known and seeing her laid down like that was just so much to bear. We have a new dog now. Like you, I can’t help comparing my Hershey to the new one. I won’t ever forget her.

  10. Knowing when to let a faithful friend go,i’ve read this post so many times i now realise my decision was the right one to make. Tom a handsome,beautiful,loving and faithful friend was put to rest just over 18 months ago,a tiny Yorkshire terrier who guided me through much turmoil and gave me the most love i could ever imagined to recieve. At almost 16 years he fractured a femur whilst after giving me lots of kisses when i returned home banged the door frame leading out to the garden,i live in the wilds and the cottage is very old so door frames don’t give,he suddenly couldn’t stand or walk and i realised straight away something major had happened trying to get him to stand only made things worse.

    I called my local vet and two hours later was given a diagnosis,pin the break,amputate or put him to sleep,when presented with options of putting him through months of recovery,restricting his home to the point of being a virtual prisoner i took the most difficult decision of ending his life.

    I’d known inside Tom hadn’t been himself for some time,walks became a chore for him and only to please me,i’m sure he had some form of kidney disease so with lack of knowledge or denial i hoped his mobility combined with tiredness would get better,it didn’t nor did i understand how difficult life was becoming to be for such a little chap.

    I’m still not over his loss and doubt i ever will be but now i know to let him go was the most humane act i could have done.

  11. I have read all these comments and as devastating as some are, your words and love for your beloved pets are truly wonderful.
    I am going through an emotional turmoil right now and I now that it’s a personal choice, but I’m so torn. My beloved 13 1/2 year old Olivia has back leg problems, she drinks like a horse and has started urinating in the house. Her appetite is okay. She is loosing some hearing which is normal, her eyes don’t look as bright as that I’m sure comes with age. She may have Cushing disease or kidney disease. I do not want to put her through a significant amount of tests or drugs. I have an option of getting a scan to better pinpoint. Though so many drugs can cause even worse effects. I’m in so much turmoil right now and your stories have reduced me to tears.

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