Making the Decision to Euthanize a Pet
The Decision No One Wants to make
Buddy was as country as a dog could be. Considering he lived on our horse farm, that was only appropriate. There was nothing he enjoyed more than going out into the fields during bushhog season. As Steve pulled the machine around on his tractor cutting weeds, it ran rabbits out of the brush. Buddy knew how to work around the tractor in order to get them on the run.
During the day, when Steve was at work and I was the one taking care of the horses, Buddy was my dog. He went with me to the two barns to feed the horses their breakfast before coming back to the house to eat his own food. He usually went out around the perimeter of the property while I was inside doling out sweet feed. He worked his way back to the lower barn just as I was finishing up with the feeding.
Sometimes he went with me instead, opting to stand outside Little Man's window. The curious quarter horse likes to look out at what's going on in the barn while he eats his sweet feed. His curious nature results in his losing nearly as much of his feed out into the walkway than he actually gets to eat.
That's why Buddy and my little girl Bell often stood there. They sometimes liked to share in Little Man's meal.
In the evening, it's Steve's turn to feed the horses although I often go with him then as well. Once again, the dogs would get excited about the trip to the barn. It wasn't as though they couldn't go there any time they wanted. It was about going with us. The only difference was that during the evening shift, Buddy was Steve's dog more than mine. He walked along behind him, sometimes stepping on his heels. Whatever work needed done, Buddy was right there with him.
Like most of us, Buddy began to slow down somewhat as he got older. He still looked and acted younger than his years, always insisting on following us to the hay field or for walks through the woods. It wasn't until he stopped making the trips down the hill to the second barn that I realized something was wrong.
The Beautiful Golden Retriever
Every dog breed is unique in its appearance, temperament, and lifespan. Larger breeds tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller ones. Golden retrievers typically live from 10 to 12 years. That's a really short time to spend with someone who is such a big part of your family.
I always had small to medium sized dogs growing up. I didn't realize until later in life that this was probably due to my mother's fear of dogs. I guess I never realized anyone could actually be scared of something I had adored so much since I was only 3 year old. That was when I had campaigned for my first dog and finally won after my dad's gift of a black stuffed dog had been met with fury.
My first dog was a beagle mix that I named Caspy, after my favorite cartoon Casper the Friendly Ghost. I was a teenager when Caspy died, falling dead of an apparent heart attack early one morning before I was awake. I was grateful that I wasn't the one who found her.
My mother gave me a new chenille bedspread to wrap her in. My father dug her grave under the big old apple tree on the hill behind our house. They took care of everything and I never had to see Caspy. I think that made it easier for me to accept losing her.
I've owned other dogs along the way, but never had the same kind of attachment as I did to my first golden retriever, Sarge. I got Sarge for my son who was young at the time. He had seen the dog "Comet" on the popular sit-com Full House and wanted one like him. I've never see a smarter dog in my life.
My attachment to Sarge helped me get through some rough times. Always having him there, happy to see you regardless of what kind of day you had, meant the world to me. When he went missing, I thought I might lose my mind. I couldn't stand the thought of never knowing what had happened to him and never seeing him again.
I suspected someone had taken him. He was a beautiful dog who was always ready to get in your car and go for a ride. It was when I was trying to find Sarge, running ads, going house to house, posting flyers and offering huge rewards, that I found Buddy.
Buddy had obviously been thrown out of a vehicle. He was terrified of them and had to be carried and placed inside. Not a simple task for a dog that weighed more than 70 pounds.
He had ended up on a woman's front porch, exhausted and matted with burrs. She called me because she had seen my posters. She thought she had found Sarge. Once I told her it wasn't the right dog, she said she would just "shoot a gun and run him off." He was upsetting her dogs inside her house. That's how he ended up at my house.
I wasn't ready for another dog; much less one that looked so much like the one I was still searching desperately for. He was the lighter golden color, whereas Sarge had been the darker reddish gold. He looked like a ghost sitting on the same bank in front of my house where Sarge used to sit.
I put up flyers, ran ads, tried to find Buddy's owner. No one responded. I believed that they had put him out on purpose, perhaps not happy with some behavior they didn't know how to correct.
He chased the horses and ran off to the neighbor's houses. I had to go hunt him several times the first week or so. I believe he was trying to get back to where home used to be.
The vet said he was about a year old, declaring January 1st as his birthday. Looking at older pictures of him now, I can see how young he looked. Over time, he stopped chasing the horses and started going with us to feed the horses, cut the hay, and bushhog the fields. He found a place here, and he stole our hearts.
When Buddy came here, Steve had an Australian Shepherd named Jake that helped him with the horses. After we lost Jake, I went out to watch Steve get ready to go to a horse show. I was amazed when Buddy nipped as a hesitant horse's heels to run it up into the horse trailer. It turned out he had taken over Jake's job of helping load the horses. The only way he could have known what to do was from the time he watched Jake do the same thing.
A Long Life That Was Far Too Short
This January marked Buddy's 13th birthday. A year longer than the high end of a golden retriever's expected lifespan. He had already started slowing down before that, just as we all do when we get to a certain age. It was when he spent his days lying on the dog bed on the front porch and ventured no further than the upper barn near the house that it became obvious; he wasn't well.
During October the year before, I had taken Buddy to the vet when he stopped eating. Goldens are especially vulnerable to cancer and that was my biggest fear when I took him in. It was also the first thing the vet talked about regarding potential causes for his lack of appetite.
It turned out that he had a severe bladder infection, but no sign of cancer. I had to start him on a round of antibiotics and make sure he had plenty of clean water available. He is an outdoor dog who runs loose during the day and stays in the dog house in the kennel during the night. Neither of my dogs ever roamed away from home. The point of the kennel is to keep the coyotes away from them at night.
The kennel has a covered roof and I winterize the entire thing once the weather gets cold. I know people like to think all dogs belong indoors. But my dogs have a thick double coat and they absolutely love it when it snows. They're their happiest when it's in the twenties or thirties outside. However, being an outdoor dog made things a little more challenging when Buddy got sick.
Back to the Vet's Office
In early January, right after Buddy turned 13, he stopped eating again. He was drinking a lot of water and urinating more frequently. I took a sample to the vet, but there wasn't any sign of blood. Then, I noticed that he seemed to have fluid collecting in his abdomen.
I took him back to the vet's office and, once again, they thought it might be cancer. Even then, I was hoping that I wasn't going to have to make the decision to euthanize my dog.
I know there are cancer treatments for dogs and they cost a fortune. Even if it was something I could afford, I wouldn't have put him through that when he was already one year past his life expectancy. But it wasn't cancer and that wasn't the decision I had to make. Not then.
Buddy had an enlarged heart. His blood wasn't circulating efficiently and it was causing him to collect fluid in his abdomen. The vets put him on Lasix to help remove the fluid and put him on a heart medication to help his heart work a little more efficiently. Neither of these drugs seemed to help and he started getting worse.
I called the vet instead of taking him back for his next appointment. It was getting harder for him to get around and getting him in and out of the car meant a lot of heavy lifting.
The vet said there was one more thing they could try. There was a drug called "Pimobendan" that helped the heart work better. It would have to come from a compounding pharmacy and it was quite expensive. It might buy me some more time with Buddy.
I agreed to buy the drug and the vet placed the order. It was a lot trickier than I thought. It needed to be administered twice daily at exactly 12 hours apart on an empty stomach. Buddy then needed fed exactly 1 hour after taking the medication. I needed to try to give him a low sodium dog food and supplement his diet with protein. That meant cooking fresh meat for him and having it ready at 6 am and 6 pm every morning.
This was during the coldest part of winter and we were having really cold temperatures. Normally, all I needed to do was wrap the dog kennel in heavy plastic to keep the cold wind out and my dogs were fine.
Buddy's poor circulation meant he was getting and staying colder. He still couldn't come into the warmth of the house because the drastic change in temperature would make him sick.
We got heat lamps and ran them into the kennel. I put a down-filled blanket on the floor of the dog house and covered Buddy with fleece blankets every night. It wasn't enough that I had to go out to medicate him at 6am and then hand feed him at 7am. I couldn't stand not to go check on him throughout the night.
At first, Pimobendan acted like a wonder drug. Buddy was back up and out to the barn during both trips during the day. He even made the trip to the lower barn and back up the hill for a little longer. That was what I wanted. I didn't want to buy more time for me. I wanted him to get to spend what time he had left doing the things he enjoyed. He had a great week. And then he started to get worse.
Phase 2: The Beginning of the End
At first, Buddy enjoyed the attention and the luxury of being hand-fed chicken. Then I had to fix things like hamburger. He stopped eating the dog food at all, and I had to feed him constantly throughout the day because he would only eat a few bites of meat.
In spite of the medications, he started gaining fluid in his abdomen. His stomach was making loud noises of protest and then he wouldn't eat or drink anything either. I called the vet's office to see if there was anything else I could do.
He told me that if he was having these symptoms even on the medication, it was time to think about quality of life. I knew what that meant. I was going to have to make that decision after all.
I told the vet I would think about it and call him back the next day. I didn't mean it. I meant to keep Buddy alive for as long as possible. But that was before I saw the misery he was in. He stayed in the dog house that morning, not moving or getting up until he felt the need to vomit. He turned his head when I offered him food. He only took a drink of water once or twice all day, and I mean one drink.
I sat out there with him a great deal, unable to comfort him. He laid his head in my head for a little while once before he had to get up and relieve himself from the turmoil in his gut again. He looked at me pleading with those beautiful dark eyes. I wanted to help him, but I didn't have any more tools in my arsenal. That is, except for the big one.
I called the vet's office and told them I was ready to bring him in. They scheduled the appointment for the next day. Although it is in my nature to ask questions, I didn't this time. I didn't want anything else to think about other than giving my dog some relief from his misery.
I had looked up information about euthanizing pets earlier; before I knew that it would come down to it. A lot of people had questions, many who wondered if they had done the right thing even after the fact. A lot of them discussed the pros and cons of going to the vet's office versus having their pet euthanized at home.
I can confidently tell you that these decisions are different for different dogs and their owners. Buddy loved going to the vet's office. He thought it was a great place to socialize with other animals. Everyone also thought he was the most beautiful dog they'd ever seen. He got petted from the time he got out in the parking lot until he went back out the door!
I also had my female golden retriever Bell at home. She had been Buddy's constant companion from the time she was 8 weeks old. She's now 9 years old. I didn't want her to go through that experience at home.
The Day of the Appointment
We took turn about talking with Buddy and telling him how much we loved him. I kissed him on the head about a thousand times over those last few days. Steve, who isn't normally won over by dogs, talked about how much he had enjoyed hunting rabbits with him, albeit not in the traditional sense using guns.
I took the outdoor dog bed and put it in the back of my van where he could lie down as comfortably as possible. Steve had to be at home to pick our son up from work. He loaded him into the van for me, but then I was on my own.
I started the drive to the vet's, about 15 minutes away, glancing Buddy in my rearview mirror and talking with him. When I glanced back and saw him going in circles on the dog bed, I knew what it meant. Either Steve lifting the over 80 pounds of him into the van or the motion of the driving had caused a disturbance in his digestive tract. He was panicked and didn't know what to do.
I was going off an exit onto the road that led to the vet's office. I couldn't pull over and there wasn't much point in it by then.
When I pulled into the vet's office, Buddy decided he needed to try and climb across the seats and get to the front. The mess from his bowels covered the dog bed, the blanket, and him. He was in pain, misery, and upset about something he knew wasn't supposed to happen.
When I opened the back hatch, he was across the middle seats which were leaned forward. His legs were down in the gaps between and he was struggling to get out. I said, "Stop it, Buddy, it's okay."
He froze in place and looked directly into my eyes. He let me lift him out from his awkward position and out of the van. I'm not sure how I did it, but I managed to pick him up and set him gently down on the sidewalk.
One of Buddy's greatest pleasures was always sniffing the lawn at the vet's office. I can only imagine the plethora of scents that have collected there over time. On that day, he did indulge just a little, sniffing at the lawn and the bushes directly in front of the building.
He walked with me through the door to the front of the counter. He plopped down against it and refused to move another inch. No one seemed to notice that he and I had more than a fair share of foul liquid feces on us. They didn't even notice that he was in misery. Still, they oohed and awed and had to pet him. For once, he didn't acknowledge the attention.
One of the techs went to find a blanket and worked it up under Buddy. She was able to easily pull him across the tile floor and into one of the examining rooms. He stayed stretched out in the spot where she left him.
I got some soap and paper towels to clean both of us up while we waited on the vet. I wasn't going to let him go through this while he was soiled. He didn't acknowledge me cleaning him. Although he normally went along with whatever you did to him, this was different. He just laid still and didn't move, as though he didn't even know I was there.
They asked me if I preferred if the "did it" in the car so we didn't have to carry him back out. I explained the mess we had encountered on the way there and that I would have to go clean the car out before I could put him back in it and take him home. They would have to do it in here.
Euthanasia: Reality Vs Imagination
Death isn't always pretty. If you've ever watched a loved one die, you know this. It can leave you with some disturbing memories under some circumstances. I had some of these memories. That was one reason I was worried about what I would see. I didn't want to remember anything bad.
I've also had the experience of euthanizing animals in a laboratory setting. Granted, it was mice and rats, not dogs. It was also done in a "humane" way so that the animals didn't suffer unnecessarily. Still, I can remember the mice scratching at the sides of the large clear compartment of the canister-like compartment they were placed in to administer the deadly gas. I sure didn't want anything like that for Buddy.
Once the vet came in, she talked to Buddy and told me that, even though he looked pretty relaxed, they would give him a shot to help him even more. We talked a little although I don't remember a lot of it. I kept rubbing his belly; the one thing that he had always enjoyed the most.
I told the vet and the tech that he had a really good week the week before. It was hard to believe how quickly he had gotten to that point. He had wagged his tail once in response to something one of them said. I don't remember what it was.
The vet and the tech came back in and sat down in the floor on either side of buddy. They used an electric clipper to shave the front of his front leg. He didn't care. They gave him a shot in the shaved area and, as usual, he never even flinched. They left the room to give it some time to take effect.
I couldn't tell you for sure that the shot made a difference. Buddy was already finished when he fell down in front of the front counter. They waited a little while and came back in. It was time for the big shot.
The tech told me I could come around in front of Buddy and hold his face if I wanted to. I wondered if she thought it strange that I preferred to keep rubbing his belly. Buddy loved getting his belly rubbed and often refused to get up or go anywhere until you gave him what he wanted.
I wasn't even sure he could feel it at that point. I knew it didn't feel good to him like it normally would. I just hoped it would give him some comfort knowing I was there beside him doing something that I would do on any normal day.
I asked the vet how long it would take once she injected him. She said it usually took about 20 seconds. The three of us sat around Buddy in the floor as she slowly injected the bright pink liquid into his leg.
Once the liquid was injected, she watched for signs that he had stopped breathing. She took her stethoscope and placed it on several areas of his chest, listening for a few seconds at each. Then she said "he's gone."
They gave me a few minutes alone with him before they prepared him to take home. I had the choice to have have him cremated and his ashes placed in a box. I wanted him buried at home, the place where he had been happy and brought a lot of joy to his family.
I hadn't wanted to leave Buddy alone before the euthanasia. Now, I went outside to clean the back of my van and the dog bed so I could take him back home. Once I came back inside, I brought one of his fleece blankets that had helped keep him warm while he was sick. The vet techs wrapped him inside and carried him out to my waiting van.
Life After Buddy
I was so afraid that if I ever had to make the decision to euthanize one of my dogs, I would feel guilty for the rest of my life. It didn't happen that way. I knew it was the right decision and the right time to make it. He was suffering and not doing any of the things that brought him joy. I was afraid of a process I didn't know anything about. It couldn't have been more peaceful.
Buddy had already loss a lot of muscle mass from not eating. The Lasix wasn't working and, in spite of his weight loss, the accumulating fluid now had his weight up to more than 80 pounds. There was no joy in his life and keeping him alive wouldn't have been to his benefit.
I never realized how much a part of our lives Buddy was until he wasn't there. I still see him sometimes, stealing a bite of Little Man's sweet feed or walking behind Steve to grab a drink of water from the water bucket he sets down to pour from the second one. He had it timed just right to get a drink when he needed one.
I still smile every time I think of him and his "routine" behaviors. Bell mourned him for a long time, but she's finally started to heal. She visits his grave with me and I believe she understands that it is his final resting place.
When You Have to Make the Decision
Like I mentioned earlier, every dog, every owner, and every situation is different. Sometimes it's what you do before you make the decision to end your dog's life that matters the most. Sometimes it's what you do after. Consider the following tips before the time comes and be prepared "just in case" you have to make a choice that isn't usually an easy one.
- Build a good relationship with your vet
I actually take my dogs to a vet's office where two vets (now three!) work together. I liked them both, and so did Buddy. I kept their shots up-to-date, got their regular exams, and took Buddy for visits whenever something wasn't "normal."
Both vets have come to my home to care for our horses as well. They know my dogs' lifestyle and their health history. They also know my dogs by name and recognize them when they see them. That might not seem important now; but when you're counting on someone to make the end of your beloved pet's life as good as possible, you want someone you can trust to work with you.
- Don't assume changes in your pet are due to aging
Buddy came to me as a one-year-old dog with a rotted canine. I don't know how a young dog gets a bad tooth like that, but it was bad enough to make it obvious. Fixing it required surgery, and it was always a possibility that it would become necessary. We watched it and I thought that was reason the Buddy stopped eating. It turned out to be something much more serious.
Dogs are prone to many of the same conditions and diseases that humans are. Joint disease can slow them down. They can develop infections or diabetes that causes them to drink more. Pay attention to these changes and ask your vet about them. Sometimes catching conditions early can make all the difference.
- Pay special attention to outdoor dogs
All dog breeds aren't meant for the outdoors and no dog should be outside without shelter, food, and clean water. When temperatures drop significantly, make sure your outdoor dog has adequate protection and warmth.
I can't stand to see a dog chained up to a post with nowhere to go and no life to lead. I keep my dogs in a kennel at night for their protection. They roam free during the day but they never go far from home without us. They always have access to the dog house in the dog kennel and to the inside of the barns.
Everyone doesn't live on a big farm. If you're going to keep your dog outside, make sure your dog has the freedom to exercise and everything they need to stay healthy, happy, and safe.
- Know that euthanasia doesn't always go perfect
Buddy seemed to accept that his time had come. It couldn't have been more peaceful and I felt a sense of relief that he was no longer in pain and misery. But that isn't always the case.
Sometimes there are complications, like dogs that are already in pain might yelp or whine during the process. Rarely, dogs have a reaction to the medication. Dogs that are already anxious about going to the vet's office might react differently to a stressful situation.
It's important to know that these problems are rare. If your dog sounds as though he's in pain, it's probably due to his condition and not the drug. If he has a reaction to the sedative or the drug, it will only last for a few seconds or minutes.
If your dog hates going to the vet's office, consider having the process performed at home or in the trunk of your car. If the stress comes from the vet and not from the location, it might still be stressful for him.
- Don't be surprised if you still have questions about your choice
One thing I realized while reading about euthanasia on the internet was that people often wonder if they made the right decision long after their pets are gone. I've always said that it was sad that we didn't have the same right to allow people who were dying a painful death the same relief that we can offer our pets. If you've ever seen a loved one die from a painful illness, you know what I'm talking about. Why, then, shouldn't we give our furry loved ones the same kind of relief that we would want for our human family members?
I used every resource available to me to give Buddy a few more trips to the barn. I spent a lot of time tending to him and telling him how much he meant to me. We both did. Once there was nothing else I could do to make him happy or even content, it was time to give him something even greater. A peaceful end to a long and happy life.