How to help your companion animal have a good death
Last weekend I had no thought that my topic would be my focus this week. Everything seemed completely normal. I did notice Cherry, my oldest dog, possibly breathing a little more heavily than normal as she flopped down on the floor, but thought (almost) nothing of it–her breathing has been audible for years.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, I was awakened by one of the dogs throwing up, and got up to see what was going on. I found Cherry in my office, staring at a blob that appeared to be pretty much her entire dinner, undigested. This seemed odd all the way around. I moved the food off the floor into a bowl, and went back to bed.
In the morning I found the food untouched, which was odd. Cherry was my alpha, and loved to assert her right to all things edible (and a few that were questionable). I tossed it out, and made breakfast, a light one for Cherry.
It was our custom for Cherry to go outside while I prepared the dogs’ food. She felt the need to comment on and supervise the process by barking continuously, and even though she’d been debarked when I got her, I found that a door–actually two–between us at this time of the morning made my life a little more peaceful.
When I finished, I had to go fetch her. Although she was deaf and could no longer hear me calling her, she would stand at the bottom of the stairs and watch for me to open the door. Except for Monday morning, when I found her lying down in a flowerbed instead.
When she came inside, she walked right past her bowl in a daze; I had to point it out to her. She took a couple of laps at the liquid in the bowl, and walked away. As it turned out, she never ate anything again.
I cook for my dogs, and they are exceptionally enthusiastic eaters of virtually everything I offer them. When one of my dogs doesn’t eat, it has never failed to be a sign of serious trouble. I went into my office and called the vet.
The dogs go outside when I get out of the shower, and come back in to eat their treats before I leave. On Monday, only two dogs came inside. It was freezing cold.
When I went outside with the leash to take Cherry to the car, I found her curled up on the sidewalk, her flanks shivering in the cold–a disturbing sight.
When we arrived, the vet was out of the office for a bit, so I dropped her off and headed to work. Before long I got a call from the vet explaining her bloodwork–elevated phosphorus, normal calcium, blah blah–and that the X-rays showed a mass with some calcification in Cherry’s abdomen, about where her spleen should be. The vet said she was giving Cherry fluids, and wanted to keep her and get an ultrasound done. She also asked me to bring some of Cherry’s food.
At lunchtime, I went home and prepared a bowl of rice and yogurt, topped with three freshly-scrambled eggs. I had no chicken in the house–food of the gods as far as dogs are concerned–or I would have added some. It was a hugely optimistic amount of food for a 23-pound dog who wasn’t eating. I felt hopeful as I made it, remembering that my dog Honeycomb would eat from my hand when she wouldn’t eat from her bowl.
When I got there, Cherry had sat up to greet me. She smelled each bit o food I offered, but was having none of it. She seemed disengaged, and settled her head on her paw to rest.
I looked at the X-rays with the vet. The mass was more than a little calcified–it was whiter and more solid-looking than any bone in her body, and bigger than an elongated jumbo egg. I’ve had an orange-sized cyst, and fainted from the pain–and I’m a lot bigger than 23 pounds.
I went back and talked to Cherry about what was happening. There’s more than a little irony there, since she was deaf, and no doubt understood the situation better than I did. Nonetheless, I believe a dog doesn’t need to hear my voice, or understand every word, in order to receive my message.
I called the vet shortly before closing to ask for an update. She must have been busy, because a tech I barely know told me that Cherry was still refusing all food, and that they had observed some blood in her urine and were planning to check it again in the morning. I had not observed this, and thought it was a quite recent development. I asked what it meant, and was told it could be a UTI, or it could be a symptom of something much more serious.
Irritated to have to do my own basic research to get the answer to my question, I consulted Google, and drew the conclusion that if not a UTI, the culprit was likely to be cancer.
I don’t remember the details, but I’m sure I asked for wisdom and insight during my meditation before bed. I woke the next morning with much more clarity, and immediately called the vet’s office before they had opened, saying that I wanted to talk to the vet prior to any additional tests.
After breakfast, my grounding work, and meditation, I called again. The vet told me that things were not looking good–there was much more blood, surprisingly little urine, and Cherry was very lethargic.
I asked her if there was any reasonable explanation of what we knew other than cancer. She allowed that on a list of the top five most probable diagnoses, cancer would be at least 1, 2, and 3–and the prognosis wasn’t good for any possibility. She said she expected the ultrasound to provide “definitive bad news,” and I said I thought we already had it.
I told her I wanted to bring Cherry home, and asked her to make a house call when she could. She said she thought she could come at 1:30, or failing that, at the end of the day.
I mentioned that I remembered that my landscaper at the time had been quite slow to bury Honeycomb and plant the row of hollies I requested, and that I didn’t intend to allow that issue to repeat itself. She offered to place a call to her own landscapers.
Now I was working against the clock–I had a lot to do, and a deadline. I arranged to take a personal day, whipped my bedroom into visitor-receiving shape, and eventually decided on a favorite worn and very soft cotton appliqued quilt to wrap Cherry in.
I got ready, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and went by to pick up Cherry with plenty of time to spare. I wanted to be sure we had some quality time together before the vet arrived, and very much hoped she would be alert enough to interact with me.
I was holding it together at the vet’s office until one of the techs I do know well came out to show me a plaque she’d made with Cherry’s pawprint. I’d seen some of these in the back room while visiting Cherry, but hadn’t realized the significance of the craft project.
Cherry came out walking on lead, which surprised us–I’d expected to be carrying her out. She was clearly happy to be going home. However nice the vet’s office, my dogs are clear that it is an unnatural place to be. (Honeycomb was so sure she didn’t want to be there that she pulled her IV out, not once but twice.)
When I saw Cherry looking comparatively perky, I experienced a flicker of hope–and then reminded myself that I had a dog who had stopped eating, whose organs were shutting down. Onward.
When we got home, I carried her to the grass, but she had no business to do. She started walking down the driveway to the backyard; I asked her to come in the front door. The other dogs rushed up to smell her, and Gracie (who loves to get status information through her nose) continued to do so for awhile.
We sat on my bed for awhile as I reminisced about our road trip to New Orleans and other good times. I cried as I gently petted her fur. Cherry moved her head so that her nose was touching my hand.
Eventually she raised her head and looked at me meaningfully, like I should know full well there was someplace else she needed to be. I wasn’t sure where that was, but I lifted her down to the floor. She wandered into my office, seeming perhaps to want to visit all the important places in the house.
I spread a blanket on the sofa, just in case, and lifted Cherry onto my lap. After awhile she started to pant a bit; her breath was pretty bad, as expected. Water seemed like a good idea, so I went to get a small bowl, and she drank some. When she seemed finished, I took it back in the kitchen, and she jumped down, came into the kitchen, and drank for awhile from the real water bowl. I remembered Honeycomb fortifying herself with the entire bowl of water immediately before she died. Cherry then nudged toward the back door, and I let her out.
She took the initial steps on her own, walked out onto the deck, and gazed into the middle distance. I lifted her down to ground level. More gazing, and then she lay down, half on the grass, half on the sidewalk.
I went inside and got the pillows for my chair, and my jacket, and sat down to watch with her. After awhile, she raised her head, opened one eye, and looked at me quizzically as if to say, What are you still doing here?
We agreed on the timing, but she clearly had a strong instinct to die outside. I had difficulty getting on board with what I took to be the way of the wolf, especially given the weather. I went back inside, pulled a warm fleece out of the dryer, and put it on my bedroom floor at the foot of my bed. I brought her back inside and lay her on it. Cherry accepted the compromise and settled in. I put a TV pillow on the floor next to her, and sat down. The other dogs came in and joined us. This was more like it, as far as I was concerned. Soon Cherry was on her way.
The phone rang; now the vet was on her way. I felt relieved.
Cherry’s breathing was increasingly labored. When the vet arrived with the vet tech, she could clearly see that Cherry was already very close. When she lifted her and looked in her eyes, Cherry seemed almost no longer present in her body–which she may well not have been. Cherry still had her IV catheter, and the vet began administering the injections, while I stroked Cherry’s head, telling her she was a good girl. Very quickly, the labored breathing stopped. She had been so ready to go. The vet finished the injections, and listened as her heartbeat faded. The vet hugged me, and told me she thought I’d done the right thing. We all wrapped Cherry’s body, so different now, in the quilt.
When they left, I returned the landscaper’s call, and it so happened that Tuesday and Wednesday, they were working in the neighborhood next to mine. They would come by on their way home. I went out to the backyard to identify a good spot. An hour later, the phone rang–they were here.
The ground had been dug before, so three men made quick work of the burial. At mid-afternoon, it was finished. Events from start to finish had spanned only a day and a half. I felt stunned.
Since then, I have felt a quiet peace.
Here are a few suggestions based on my own experience that have helped me give my companion animals a good death when that time arrives.
1. Have a great vet before you need a great vet. When your animals are healthy, it can be more difficult to see whether a vet will still meet your needs when they are not. You want a vet who’s knowledgeable, competent, ethical, and has good judgment. You also want a vet who, like mine, truly listens to you. I really appreciate people who give it to me straight, and she will do that.
2. I also recommend establishing a relationship with a good animal communicator prior to any health crisis. Mine was a recommendation from the adopter of my first foster dog. Animal communicators can be quite helpful in solving everyday problems, as well as for discussions of end-of-life issues. Although Cherry’s situation moved too fast for me to do this, I was able to do so with my dog Honeycomb, who had congestive heart failure and kidney failure. My vet had stabilized her, but it was clear we were close to the end, and I wanted to understand what her wishes were. Our animal communicator told me that Honeycomb was enjoying the extra attention and closeness, and wasn’t ready yet, but would let me know when she was. A couple weeks later, in the middle of a very difficult night when she’d had an adverse reaction to her anti-nausea medication, I heard a silent “NOW NOW NOW” in my head. We were in perfect agreement that it was time. I told her I would call the vet, but they weren’t open yet. She was a bit on edge till I actually made the call, and then she relaxed.
3. Remember that your companion animal’s health crisis is more important than work. Your animal has probably been a faithful companion to you during good times and bad, while work is, in reality, a series of hair-on-fire, yet ultimately pretty unimportant, emergencies. I have yet to have a manager who was an animal person during any of my animals’ health crises. That’s OK. Your manager may set your priorities at work, but you set your priorities for your life.
When I knew Cherry was sick last Monday, during the hours I was at work, I really cranked it out. The project didn’t suffer from my not being at work on Tuesday, and I made sure my manager had complete information about my status so he wouldn’t worry about it either.
4. Don’t worry about the money, and don’t delay getting medical treatment when it’s needed. I’ve been in the situation of having a critically ill dog and not knowing where the money was going to come from, as well as being in the same situation, and pretty sure the money in my checking and savings accounts would cover the bill. What’s important in this situation is not the money, but your own sincere belief that you did the best and right thing for your animal. The very last thing you want is guilt piled on top of grief. All vets are familiar with this situation; you just need to tell them upfront that you’re going to need a payment arrangement.
5. That said, know when to stop treatment. Briefly, the time to stop treatment is when it isn’t doing any good, and there’s no reasonable expectation that that will change.
6. Respect your animal’s agency in knowing when it’s time. My animals’ instincts have been spot on. In Cherry’s case, she understood that it was time, but I needed to understand what kind of health crisis she was having, and whether it could be averted or not.
7. I recommend asking your vet to make a house call. Now that I have experienced this, willingness to do this is an absolute requirement for me. Home is clearly a much better place to die than any clinical environment. When Honeycomb died at home, I was just coming out of a very difficult period of my life. She lit up the room where she died like the sun coming out with just a beautiful, beautiful presence that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. It’s not always possible for an animal to die at home, but when it is, I have always found it to be a blessing.
8. Afterwards, allow yourself to grieve–and to be comforted. A companion animal who dies is just as concerned about your wellbeing as a human companion in the same situation is. It’s so important to allow yourself to feel your grief–rather than resisting it–which allows it to pass through you, and not get stuck. It’s also important to be present to the comfort being offered you.
There are two kinds of people in the world–those who know what it is to have lost an animal they truly loved, and those who don’t. I recommend discussing your loss only with those who understand, and not with those who will unintentionally invalidate your loss.
I think it’s fair to say that many people fear and dread the deaths of their companion animals. Admittedly, it really sucks to be left behind with a hole in your household and life that cannot truly be filled. But it is a journey all of us with animals must take, and it’s far better to join the dance with grace than resist it.
Ultimately I see it as a tremendous and very intimate privilege to ease a companion animal’s journey to the other side.
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