In my years as a dog rescuer, I have been frequently been asked “Is it time?” by dog owners who are struggling with the decision to let their dog go to its rest. Telling the vet “go ahead” is the hardest thing we ever have to do as a god owner. In my experience at least, this decision has had to be made in a time of crisis when the dog is critically ill.
A few months ago, Bailey, one of the Miniature Schnauzers in my rescue, had been undergoing a slow decline for several months. For 14 years of age, he was doing pretty well! My husband and I decided to go and visit family for a weekend in Kansas City, leaving my dogs here at home with a trusted friend to pet-sit them. We returned late on Sunday night, and my friend reported that Bailey had not been getting up and around very much all weekend. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, just wanted to sleep more than usual. I made a mental note to take him to the vet the next day for a check-up.
When I went to let the dogs out the next morning, Bailey did not join the other dogs at the door. He was lying on his side in his bed. He didn’t lift his head to greet me. I petted his head and he did make brief eye contact with me. Then he just seemed to disappear with a distant gaze. When I went to attempt to pick him up to check him out, I found to my horror that Bailey was completely paralyzed on one side. I called the vet and immediately got an appointment for him, but it was apparent to me that Bailey had suffered a massive stroke overnight. He was just… gone.
Our very kind vet checked Bailey out and confirmed my fears. He had, indeed, suffered a major stroke. There was no hope, no treatment. We agreed it was time for Bailey to go to Rainbow Bridge and end his suffering.
If there are such things as levels of difficulty in making such a decision, Bailey’s was at the “easy” end of the spectrum. No chance of improvement, no quality of life… letting him go was the kind decision to make. Unfortunately, I’ve also had to make this decision with several other dogs over the years.
It’s even harder when finances come into play… and they do. That’s just reality. You’re standing there sobbing over your critically ill dog on the table, trying to figure out whether the bleak prognosis the vet is giving you merits heroic (and very expensive) efforts. If there’s real hope of improvement, I’ve always made the decision to treat and worry about how to pay for it later. But sometimes people just can’t afford lots of tests, treatments and hospitalizations. I can imagine no greater agony as a pet owner than knowing you could do something but you just can’t. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a rescue can be convinced to assume the care of the dog to finance his recovery. Of course, the drawback to that solution is that you give up your dog – but at least the dog will survive.
Recently, I had another difficult decision to make. I had a 13 year old Schnauzer, Monty, always healthy as a horse, collapse suddenly with no previous evidence of illness. The vet said it could be from any number of causes and could not guarantee that, even with heroic efforts, could he get Monty back to consciousness. It was obvious that Monty was in some kind of pain. It took me a long time agonizing over it, but with his advanced age I did not want to put him through even more suffering. I let him go. I still feel that I made the kind decision but I also deeply regret having had to make it.
When people ask me for advice about an optional decision, say when they have a dog who is doing a slow decline, I always ask them several questions. Is the dog enjoying his food? Does he enjoy receiving attention – being petted, held, etc? Does he enjoy going outside? Does he still show interest in his toys? And most importantly of all, is he in severe pain? If you have a dog who doesn’t eat, shows no interest in life activities any longer, and especially is in pain, the decision becomes clear that it may be time. A veterinarian is the best person to advise you. Maybe the dog has some good quality time left and the only issue is pain. Maybe the vet can give him medications for the pain and improve his quality of life.
Whatever decision you make, always consider it from the dog’s perspective. If you have a dog and it is obvious it’s time, are you keeping him alive for him… or for you? That’s when you have to become completely unselfish and do the very hard thing.
Talk to everyone you can – your veterinarian, fellow dog owner friends, your significant other, your best friend. Your path should eventually become clear in one direction or the other. Oh, and don’t forget – talk to your dog, too.