Because I’ve shared my life with so many dogs over the years, people often ask me how to know when it’s time to put a dog down. For a long time, my answer was the same: if a dog is still eating and still wagging his tail, leave him be. That’s terribly simplified, though. I wish there were a simple answer, but each case is different. One thing it will never be, is easy.
Just last month, I made the decision to have Wolfie euthanized. He was five days short of fifteen and still loved to eat, and for the fourteen months I fostered him, he had never wagged his tail — unless he was trying to work up a poop. But he couldn’t stand up or walk on his own, not even to potty, and that meant that he was getting washed up several times a day because he’d peed on himself, or pooped and then rolled in it.
He wasn’t a good candidate for a cart; his vet was sure he’d had a stroke, and he wasn’t showing any signs of recovery. I had to look at his life with an objective eye. I had no objection to taking care of him forever in that condition — but that was no way for him to live. It was poor quality of life. Ultimately, his vet agreed with me, and I let him go.
Even though I know it was the right decision, it didn’t spare me the anguish of making that decision, and it didn’t spare me the heartache or the tears. It didn’t help that it came on the heels of putting Waldo down fourteen months earlier, in an entirely different situation. Waldo was 10-1/2 years old, young by our standards, when we discovered that he had metastatic hemangiosarcoma. It’s a sneaky cancer that produces no symptoms until it’s too late to do anything about it. Our big boy started eating less and not wanting to go for walks any more. We took him to his vet with these symptoms and they discovered the mass on his spleen.
His films showed that it had spread to his chest. His bloodwork showed that he had pancreatitis. Our first decision was to relieve the pancreatitis symptoms, and then, we could give him chemo treatments, but the very next day he collapsed from a tumor bleed. Although chemo could have bought him six more months, it certainly wouldn’t have been any fun for him: not to mention the fact that he could have another tumor bleed at any time and could even bleed out from that. No decision had ever been clearer: save him every possible moment of suffering, because we loved him so very much. My heart, I think, will never be the same. A week hasn’t passed since that day that I haven’t ugly cried bitter tears of loss and heartbreak.
There is so much to take into account when you are faced with having to make the decision, but at the very root of it, the answer lies in the dog’s quality of life. We’d do anything for our pets, wouldn’t we? We’d get them the medicine, get them the surgery, whatever is necessary to save them–but we must be sure that our decisions are primarily concerned with their comfort, and not ours.
I once heard the best advice ever about knowing when it’s time, and I’m happy to be able to pass it along to you here: make a list of all the things your dog loves to do, whatever it is. Your list should be unique to your dog, so really think about it. No one knows your pet as well as you do. Car rides? Dog park? Daycare? Walks? Runs? Chewing up your slippers? Playing fetch? Cuddling? Eating? Tearing up the trash? Chasing squirrels? Sleeping? Going for ice cream? Keep a list. As your dog stops enjoying doing the things on the list, cross them off. Believe me, you’ll know when it’s time.