Note to our readers: This column contains graphic descriptions concerning the loss of a dear pet, and the struggle by all of us as owners to “do the right thing’’ when our beloved dogs reach their final days.
My apartment is very quiet. It’s because my best friend isn’t here anymore. Pepper was an “alarm barker.” Every footfall on the stairs outside my door warranted dozens of warning woofs. If a tree fell in Spain, he barked about it. My other two dogs are very mellow, but Pepper was as tightly wound as Eddy Van Halen’s guitar. And I liked him that way. He was my protector, my constant companion, and my anchor.
And now he’s gone.
Fourteen and a half years is supposed to be a good amount of time for a dog’s life. But I sincerely had a delusion that he was going to live forever. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it doesn’t work that way, but “denial” isn’t just a river in Egypt, as they say.
I knew that some day I’d have to deal with his departure.
I also knew that people often make the decision for their pets, to “put them out of their misery.” To “be humane.” I knew I couldn’t do that to Pepper. I couldn’t be the one to hasten his departure even a second too soon. Who was I to “kill” this glorious creature, my best friend? No way. I wasn’t going to live with that guilt.
Little did I know that letting them depart on their own can come with a whole other kind of guilt and horror.
In 2006 I had picked up a lovely stray off the highway and named her Lulu Belle. She was of dubious origin – I could see Shepherd, Lab, Pit Bull, and about a dozen other breeds in her. She was as old as the hills (think: very old hills), mostly blind, full of ticks, and very underweight. In the next six months I put 12 pounds on her, got her veterinary care, and turned her into a very content old girl. She had clearly been abused, but was so happy to have a warm, loving home, as evidenced by her waggy tail.
She also had a terrible seizure disorder, which got worse and worse, and after six months it became clear that her quality of life wasn’t there anymore. She spent the last 24 hours of her life wandering into corners and crying, falling down without being able to get up, having seizures, and in a generally miserable state.
I called in a house call veterinarian to evaluate her, and she came and lay down at his feet. He told me that dogs know when it’s their time. He gave her a shot of Valium and she went into a deep sleep. Then he put an IV into her front leg. I whispered into her ear to be a good girl at the Rainbow Bridge and that I’d see her again someday, and that I loved her. She slipped off to Heaven so peacefully. I was sad for both of us, but I wasn’t horrified.
Having had that experience, in retrospect, I don’t know why I couldn’t have done the same for Pepper. His last day was exactly like Lulu Belle’s – he had just had both of his eyes removed due to ocular cancer, he had developed a seizure disorder and had been seizing all day, and he wasn’t “himself.” He wandered around, agitated, upset. I gave him something to calm down (we had been to the vet that morning) and he finally lay down after hours of walking, walking, walking. I thought he could finally get some healing rest.
I made up the couch in the living room so that I could sleep with him that night and comfort him. I was sure that if he could just get some rest, he’d be fine in the morning. Then he started coughing up blood and wandering around again. It was terrible. I thought that perhaps he had bitten his tongue during a seizure.
I put him into my lap and cuddled him and told him to rest, he’d be ok in the morning. He settled down for a few minutes and then jolted up and screamed like a person in pain, then collapsed in a seizure and started to struggle to breathe. I panicked. I screamed and cried and held him. I begged him to get better, just give me one more day. I told him the plan – rest now, feel better in the morning.
I called my neighbor to come downstairs and we both held him as he struggled to hold on to life. It was over 20 minutes of horror. I called a house call vet that I knew and frantically begged him to come over, but it was too late. I hung up and told Pepper I loved him over and over and over. Within 5 minutes Pepper stopped struggling and his heart stopped for good. We held him and petted him and I cried.
Sure, it was the “way it was meant to be,” but had I known it was going to be so terrible, so full of pain, I would have spared him that last day, even if it meant taking the last few hours of his life away.
I will never again allow a dog to “go naturally.” I have two dogs currently and have already informed them of the policy change. I know I will have other dogs in the future, and will always opt to euthanize them in the end rather than have them go through the difficult work of dying. Euthanasia, done correctly, with a sedative in the beginning, can be a very peaceful way out of the world.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you experienced a dog dying in either way? What do you think is the most “humane,” allow the dog to live to its last natural second, or take some time off of the end to give it a peaceful exit.
R.I.P. My darling Pepper: 1997-2012