The Two-Edged Sword


Just finished a terrific book — GOOD OLD DOG, by the Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University (edited by Nicholas Dodman, BVMS with Lawrence Lindner, MA).

Tufts.  The name is legendary in pet care and among those who truly give a damn about animals.  Clearly, they know their stuff.

Broken into twelve chapters, the book deals with everything from the definition of “old” (and how it’s different from breed to breed, let alone between individuals within a breed), to a variety of illnesses (arthritis, cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, and dementia) and the breeds around which those diseases tend to “cluster.”  The book ends with a chapter on how to make the decision to end a pet’s life.

I cried a lot., but not because the book is overly sentimental.  Far from it.  The narrative is straight-forward and engaging without being chilly.  The personal stories of dogs and their owners are included throughout, but not as a way to manipulate.

No, for me it was the memories.  If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that I lost my dear old dog Tucker last July.  (From November 2007 to July 2010, we lost all five of our geriatric pets.  You wonder why I cried?)  I miss them all deeply, but there was something extra special about Tucker.  Maybe it’s because he was the last of them to go, the true end of an era.  At any rate, he was a much better individual than I’ll ever be (as are most dogs to their people), and I’m not sure I deserved him, but I’m grateful that he was part of my life.

So…the tears…and ruminations on the double-edged sword that is pet ownership — loving them like crazy on one hand, and letting them go on the other.  Living with guilt when we think we held out too long for the miracle that never came.  Living with <worse> guilt when we say goodbye because we couldn’t afford the treatment that might have gained them a few more months.

There’s no one way to make that hardest of calls.  It’s personal and, in the end, private between you and your pet.  It depends upon so many things — your mindset, your finances (yes, much as we hate to admit it, that factors in), your pet’s illness, how they’re dealing with, how YOU are dealing with it, the viewpoint of friends and family members, and your relationship with your veterinarian.  What constitutes putting an animal first — doing anything and everything to gain them as much time as possible, or letting them go?  Maybe it’s not mutually exclusive.

Best bit of advice I ever received was from my own vet — “Go with your gut.”  Even if you can’t bear the thought of waking in the morning to not having that beloved pet at your side (and who could?), if you’re honest with yourself (and put the animal first), your gut will tell you when it’s time.  You might not like what it has to say.  You might argue with it.  But in your head and heart, you’ll know the truth.  And your job at that point is to follow that truth to its end.

Our lab-mix Bella was struck by a car when she was 10 months old.  Cracked her spine.  We brought her back from the brink with the help of some fine people and Bella’s own inimitable spirit, but there were issues.  She was regularly incontinent.  She could no longer tolerate cold for very long.  She wobbled when she walked (and sometimes fell down), and ran like a rabbit (both hind legs working in tandem).  Still, she was happy and had quality of life and although we knew she was going down-hill gradually, we thought she was doing pretty well . . . until we brought her in for a routine check-up and the vet laid this on us:  “If you said you wanted to put her down today, I wouldn’t argue.”

What?!  What are you talking about?  Isn’t she fine?  Well, no, she wasn’t, as Dr. Gamble gently pointed out.  She showed how the nerves in Bella’s hind end had degenerated to the point where her paws would flip under, topside down, and she couldn’t right them.  She showed us how frequently Bella’s hind-end collapsed and she needed help in order to stand.

You know what?  We couldn’t do it.  It was too soon.  We’d lost the last of the cats only four months before.  We weren’t ready for this.  So we brought her home and we watched her like hawks that entire weekend, and I’ll tell you something — by the following Monday I had called for the dreaded appointment.  With new eyes, we saw what we had done, how we had kept her alive for us and how she, brave girl, had gamely given us her all, as she always had.

Shortly after she died, Tucker developed colitis, probably brought on by nervous tension because he didn’t have Bella, the little guardian angel he had been with since birth.  He’d had pretty severe arthritis on and off, but we were managing the pain with meds and exercise.  We got the colitis under control by switching him to a diet of boiled chicken and rice, but he continued to lose weight.  He couldn’t get up on his own.  He developed canine dementia, and began to have accidents in the house.  Finally an abdominal ultrasound showed cancer and Cushing’s Disease so advanced that, as Doctor G put it, “There’s nothing I can do for him.”

Well, she was wrong in that.  There was one final gift she could give him — that we all could give him.  So we did . . .

. . . and in my weaker moments I question myself.  Did we do everything we could for him?  Too much?  Not enough?  Should we have tried acupuncture?  Physical therapy?  Supplements?  Would we have gained him a few extra good days, or had he already used them up?

Instinct said “Enough.”  Those eyes, looking into mine said, “End it.  I’m tired.”

Pet ownership is not for the faint of heart.  It’s not for those who look at animals as accessories, to be put aside when they get old and worn out.  Go to any animal shelter (or rescue group) and you’ll find countless animals dropped off because they’re too old, too slow, too sick.  It’s no fun dealing with those issues, but the animals deserve it for all the pleasure they give us before those times descend, as well as during and after.  Don’t let them down — and trust your instincts.  You’ll do fine.

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About Melissa Crandall

Longer ago than I care to admit--although I will--I cut my writing teeth on fanzines and media tie-in novels. Since then, I've moved on to narrative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and essays. I write to explore and understand the world around me, the things I see and experience nearby or from a distance. If I shake myself up, cool. If I shake you up, even better. Not gratuitously--what's the point in that?--but to set what I know, or think I know, on end and realize, "Well, doesn't it look different from this side!" My work is neither sexually explicit nor graphically violent. Let's face it - your imaginations will come up with things far worse than anything I could write, no matter how descriptive. Besides, it's just not my thing. I live in Connecticut with my supportive husband Ed, a cat named Ruby who might just think she's a dog, and an epileptic Australian shepherd named Holly who isn't quite certain anymore who she is, except she knows she loves her mommy.
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One Response to The Two-Edged Sword

  1. Our dog Barley told us when it was time too. Toughest decision, but I don’t think any of us ever regretted it.

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