In March I talked about dementia as a viable consideration when you’re facing an end-of-life decision for your dog, but based on the number of inquiries I’m receiving lately about other conditions that might play into your decision I thought it might be helpful if I expanded the conversation and asked you to look at other issues as well. This is a kind of “big picture” approach to the topic.
Some dogs leave their bodies without assistance from us. Their deaths are “natural” and require no intervention. However, one of the most difficult—yet very necessary—aspects of our responsibility to the dogs we love is sometimes needing to make the decision to allow them to move on to their next expressions of spirit when their bodies fail them and their quality of life becomes seriously compromised. Our dogs depend on us to help them make their transition, and it’s very important to perform that final service for them with love and respect.
Quality of life is the key issue. If your dog is unable to function in a way that assures you that he is still enjoying a good quality of life, then it’s time to seriously consider releasing him from his body. Severe incontinence caused by kidney failure, inability to eat, impaired mobility, lack of interest in surroundings, restless movement during sleep often caused by pain, disorientation and confusion, severe vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, dementia, failed vision, hearing loss, and the light fading from his eyes are all symptoms that indicate your friend’s body is failing. If you haven’t already done so, make an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the seriousness of the symptoms. Ask for a blood analysis, have x-rays taken if necessary, and in short, have your veterinarian perform whatever diagnostic tests might be helpful. If there is no treatment available to radically alter the symptoms you’re seeing, then it’s time to release your friend from his body. Within this context, be very careful about having painful treatments or heroic surgery performed on a dog that is suffering. He doesn’t deserve to endure more pain just because you don’t want him to die. We don’t ever want our animal friends to die, but that wanting is unreasonably self-indulgent, and allowing a dog to suffer isn’t fulfilling your promise to care for him in all phases of his life. Dogs want to be well and they want to stay with us as long as they can so you need to be aware of the amount of energy your dog is expending while he is trying to be well. Don’t ask him to struggle with a failing body or to stay too long because you’re unwilling to let him go.
Don’t procrastinate just because the decision you face is a difficult one. Have the strength to do the right thing because you love and respect your animal friend. Indulging in “Maybe he’ll be better tomorrow” thoughts only prolongs the inevitable, and will surely invite you to revisit those thoughts with strong feelings of guilt at a later date because you waited too long. Don’t look for signs of improvement when they exist only in your hopes. Trust your intuition and rely on your connection with your animal companion. Put aside your own unwillingness to let your friend go because you will miss him. This time in your animal friend’s life is not about you. It’s about showing him that you love him enough to release him from his body.
Talk to your dog about your concerns. You’ve established a pattern of communication with your dog that works for both of you. Let your friend know that you think it may be time for him to move on to his next expression of spirit. Trust that he will hear you and understand that you’re ready to release him. Dogs are very loyal and intuitive companions, and if your friend understands that you’re ready, he will rest easier knowing that peace will soon come to him because you’ve heard him and understand that it’s time for him to physically leave you. Don’t even doubt for one minute that your friend will hear you. Dogs know what we’re thinking and feeling — often far better than we do — and your thoughts and feelings will be heard.
Once you’ve made the decision, don’t second guess yourself. It’s quite common to have second thoughts because … well, because it’s so hard and you really don’t want to lose your friend. Or, perhaps once you’ve made the decision you see what you interpret as improvement in your dog’s condition. Be careful here: don’t read into what you see just because you so desperately want your dog to be well. Or, you may actually see a bit of change, but that’s because your dog knows you’ve heard him and is showing you that he’s relieved you’ll be releasing him from his body. Within this context I once spoke with a woman who was reluctant to let her dog go because she felt like she would be taking his life and in fact, as she said—killing him. I told her that the disease, in this case cancer, was killing her dog’s body and that by releasing him from his body she was giving him life, not ending it. Dogs are much more than their bodies. What they are as spirit lives forever.
If you are able to draw on your reserve of strength to make the decision necessary to release your friend from his body, reach inside of yourself one more time and stay with your dog after you bring him to the veterinarian to have the injection administered that will send him on his way. (Some veterinarians will come to your home if you’d prefer to have your friend leave in a familiar setting, and if you are able to arrange this, that’s the best possible way of saying goodbye.) Regardless of location, your presence is very important at this most difficult time. Being able to hold your dog and feel all of the pain and discomfort slip away is a necessary conclusion to your physical friendship. Ask the veterinarian to sedate your friend so there is absolutely no discomfort involved for either of you.
Understand that death is just change. Certainly you will grieve for the loss of your animal friend’s physical presence, but know that you will always carry the love you shared with you in your heart. That permanence of spirit never changes.