(Note: This is an older story, but the one story which I continue to receive comments about. As there have been requests to see this story again, I decided to post it, here. I actually don't think it's one of my best written pieces, and out of the 1500 or so articles I've written over the past 10+ years, it's one of the very few first person stories I've told. Feel free to comment. Thank you - RY)
by Rachel Baruch Yackley
February 26, 2005
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
A couple of weeks ago we took our dog Bear to the vet for the last time.
This final appointment was made after months of watching our old friend's health rapidly decline, due to old age. Although it was a predictable end, it was a hard decision for my husband, our daughter, and myself to make.
Understood among pet owners is the sense that any creature which has lived with you for years becomes part of the family. The dog or cat, bird or hamster is incorporated into your daily lives.
Just as with humans, dogs who live long, healthy lives, as ours did, eventually start showing signs of old age.
During the last few months of Bear's life, his descent into old age became more noticeable, and more rapid. We gave him aspirin every day for his arthritis and he loved it when I massaged his hips. He began napping through most of the day, after his morning walk - sometimes not waking until 3 p.m.
My anxiety level perceptibly rose as I would check on him throughout the day to see if he was breathing.
His hearing was gone, a loss that was most obvious when we would approach him and he would startle. He'd even been getting gray hair. His thick black coat, that of a chow-huskie mix, was filling in with gray, all around his muzzle, and on his chest. Then he had problems with incontinence.
At this point, our veterinarian, Thomas Favale at the St. Charles Veterinary Clinic, counseled Mike that it was up to us to decide how long we wanted to continue with this. Obviously Bear was not going to get better, and at over 13 years old, he was not only old, but obviously in failing health.
"Each doctor has a different style. None would tell a client (that euthanasia) is what they have to do," said Marty Strauss, the office manager at the St. Charles Veterinary Clinic. "Each person has different thresholds. What could be comfortable with one person might be way too early for another. Everyone has their own definition of when enough is enough."
In an article, "The Hardest Decision a Pet Owner Has to Make," by Krista Mifflin (About.com), the author directs pet owners to ask the hard questions, like is your pet still with you because it's best for it, or because you want to keep her here? If medical treatments are involved, are they "adding quantity of life without adding quality? Does the pleasure of living outweigh the pain?
Strauss, who has many pets of her own, is aware that this situation is evolving with her family's oldest dog.
Her own children, ages 17, 13, and 8, "asked me, when the dog urinated in the house, and struggles going up and down stairs, if we are going to do this. I personally feel if I'm keeping my dog alive for me and not for her, that's not right."
It was obvious to us, as time went on, that Bear was in pain, probably most of the time.
Part of what makes the decision to put a dog to sleep difficult is that they are very stoic animals, and do not show they are in pain. This is an inherent survival skill for these animals.
But, as Strauss said, "By the time you see the symptoms of discomfort, they've probably been in pain a long time," and so it is important to pay close attention to your dog, especially to any changes in his or her behavior.
Several years back, we had our cat put to sleep after months of giving him insulin shots for diabetes. Our daughter, Rebecca, was probably around 7 years old at the time, and had such a close relationship with this cat that he would snuggle under blankets with her, sit next to her when she read or watched TV, and even let her dress him up in doll clothes.
At her young age, we decided to keep the conversation to a minimum, making sure she knew the cat was very sick and that we were doing everything we could. When the time came for me to take the cat to the vet that last time, I didn't tell Rebecca ahead of time. She mourned the loss of the cat for months, crying at the drop of a hat, and was very angry with me for a long time.
So, this time, we decided that there would be a lot more discussion with her beforehand, about what was happening with Bear. For about two weeks, amid many tears, we talked about how the dog's body was failing, and how it was time to talk about letting him go. When the time came, the three of us talked about when we wanted to make the dog's final appointment with the vet, and who would go.
Strauss said that there are several great books available which are especially helpful for families with children, who are experiencing the loss of a pet. One which she recommends is "Dog Heaven," written by Cynthia Rylant, as well as "Cat Heaven," by the same author.
Rebecca decided that she wanted to do a few special, favorite things with the dog during his last few days, so we took him to the forest preserve, and we took him for a long ride in the car. His energy seemed pretty high and he was obviously smiling, which all made the decision so much harder. But looking at all the factors, we knew we were making the right decision for Bear.
We all went to the final appointment, and Mike went in with Bear. The parking lot is as far as Rebecca could go. She was crying, and one thing she kept saying over and over, which I'll never forget, was how every time the dog went into the vet's, "he always came out." But not this time.
It felt like Mike was gone a long time, but he eventually came out alone, and got into the truck. Looking very pale, he said he decided not to stay while Bear was put to sleep.
When we got home from the vet that night, I saw something sticking out of our mailbox. Taking it out, I found it was a condolence card from one of our neighbors. It was such a thoughtful and touching thing to do and it still makes me cry.
Then the next morning, there was another condolence card stuck in our mailbox from another neighbor. The day after that, we got a condolence card from my sister, Lisa, in Chicago. And a few days later, we received a lovely condolence card with a personal note from vet Favale, who had taken care of Bear for all of his 13 years.
The St. Charles Veterinary Clinic also makes follow-up condolence telephone calls, when the doctor feels it is needed. These calls were initiated about nine years ago, and are made by a clinic employee who has a unique ability to understand and connect with the clients.
"Everybody around you, when you lose a human companion, recognizes the loss. But not everyone does when you lose a pet," Strauss said.
I feel like I should have sent the vet a condolence card, too.