The Agonizing Process of Deciding When It’s “Time”

The Agonizing Process of Deciding When It’s “Time”

My dog is sick. 

Sort of. 

He’s old. “Slowing down.” 

But that’s not a disease.

Let me start again. 

As a house call veterinarian, I am frequently asked to peacefully end a pet’s life. It’s an honor to be trusted with this responsibility. I give my patient an injection of a sedative and they drift off to sleep, surrounded by the people who love them so much that they are willing to let them go. There are tears. Sometimes mine too. When I give the second injection, the euthanasia medication, the pet isn’t aware that anything’s happening – they’re snoozing. Oftentimes pet parents comment that it’s the first time they’ve seen their pet fully relaxed in a long time. The medication stops their brain, and then their heart and diaphragm follow suit. They leave behind pain – both the pain that has plagued their body as well as the pain of their absence left in the hearts of their people. 

Gabhyn will be 12 years old at the end of June. That’s a good lifetime for a Golden Retriever. His brother passed away almost 2 years ago. 

He wags his tail when we talk to him, and he loves to go on walks around the neighborhood. He loves stuffed animals – he carries them around gently in his mouth, leaving them no worse off except for a little slobber. 

He also has arthritis. The muscles over his hips and thighs are getting thinner and thinner. He has glaucoma in his right eye and lost his vision on that side. He doesn’t really want to eat, but sometimes he’ll eat half his serving of the prescription, high-calorie GI diet I ordered for him. The advantage and disadvantage of owning an ultrasound is that I know his gallbladder is huge, his liver looks fibrous, and his spleen is mottled. He has something thickened in his heart. Does any of this matter? I don’t know. 

He walks over to lay his head on my lap and wags his tail when I pet him. 

And so I keep fighting with him. An anti-inflammatory for his arthritis, an anti-nausea medication, an appetite stimulant, Adequan injections twice a week, two eye drops for his glaucoma. We’ve given up on his joint supplement – I’m forcing enough on him anyway. Sometimes he’ll take the pill pocket, sometimes I jam my hand down his throat. Prescription dry food, prescription wet food. 

Is it time? I don’t know. The irony is not lost on me that I guide my clients through this process and yet I don’t know how to help myself with the same decision. When it comes to my own pets, all my brain cells fall out and I’m useless. 

For all the pet parents out there trying to know when it’s time, you aren’t alone. The decision of “When” is almost impossible. I can tell you there are quality of life scales, that it’s better to go a week early than a day too late, that we’re making the right decision. But I also know that it often doesn’t feel like the right decision. That when it’s your own baby, the knowledge that you’re postponing the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier. We do the best we can, and let the tears fall when there’s nothing left to do.

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