By Cherie T. Buisson, DVM, CHPV
Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Veterinarian
In 2016, I lost my dachshund, Muggle, to Cognitive Dysfunction. This brain disease of “doggy Alzheimer’s” is one that steals not only our pets but our own peace of mind. Just like in human medicine, we tend not to give brain diseases credit for being diseases. Even as a trained hospice veterinarian, I kept thinking things like “I can’t euthanize a healthy dog because he’s acting weird”. I fought with myself, convinced that I was only considering euthanasia for my own convenience. After all, he was still eating and running around after a bath. How could I take that away from him?
Yet, this same dog who had once spent every possible moment glued to my side would snap if I tried to pick him up. He would try to run away. He would sleep all day and then pace relentlessly from 5 pm to bedtime. Sure, he had arthritis and the typical dachshund “bad back”, but really, his body was in pretty good shape and was being treated for discomfort. I agonized over the best choice to make. I instituted every treatment in my toolbox to help his disease. I cried a lot. I felt alone.
A week before his euthanasia, I tried talking to myself the way I would to one of my clients. I was compassionate and gentle with myself (for once). As I let this conversation go on in my head without fighting it, the question popped up out of nowhere:
“What will he be missing if he’s not here tomorrow?”
The answer turned out to be “food”. Because at this point, he really did nothing but eat, sleep, and pace. The only joy he showed me was when he gobbled up his breakfast and dinner – and any snacks in between. I was working so hard to keep him comfortable so he could have less than 5 minutes of true enjoyment a day. He was isolated and alone (by his choice), just like I felt. We were both suffering for no good reason. I made the choice to say goodbye later that week. My husband would comfort me each time I broke down, saying “We don’t have to do this, Honey. We can wait”, but I knew we couldn’t.
That Friday night, I phoned a veterinarian friend on my way home from work. “Please tell me I’m doing the right thing,” I said. “Please tell me he’s not a normal dog, and I’m not a selfish jerk for doing this”. She assured me I was doing the right thing, and that it had been coming for a long time.
We said goodbye on a fuzzy blanket in the living room. I fed him forbidden foods he’d never had, and I swear he gave me a grumpy “you’ve been holding out on me” look, right before he started to snore from the sedative. When it was over, my husband looked at me and said, “Oh, God, we should have done this weeks ago”. And the hole in my heart started to heal.
Since that day, I’ve been asking clients to ask themselves this question – and include both good and bad things in the answer. My purpose is not to encourage or discourage them in their decision making, but to put the focus where it belongs – on their pet. Too often we get so tied up in how WE are feeling and OUR reasons that we forget our agony comes from a place of love. We are trying to do the right thing and afraid we are making selfish decisions. I also tell them that we don’t have to wait to say goodbye until there are no good things left on the list. It’s ok for a pet to pass on a good day.
If you are facing the loss of a pet, please don’t feel like you have to do it alone. There are resources out there to help. I’ve listed a few, and there are thousands of others. This is never an easy decision for anyone – even a veterinarian who does this for a living. Give yourself a break and allow yourself to lean. And remember, some of the worst grieving happens BEFORE you say goodbye. Having support before, during, and after you lose a pet makes a huge difference.
Pet Loss and Grief Resources (there are many local groups that are just an online search away)
- Your veterinary team is there for you to answer questions and to guide you.
- www.pethospice.com (Help with determining your pet’s quality of life)
- www.IAAHPC.org (International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care)
- www.APLB.org (Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement)
- www.daybydaypetsupport.com (Day By Day Pet Caregiver Support)
- www.inhomepeteuthanasia.com (Directory of veterinarians who provide home euthanasia)