Now I lay Thee down to sleep.
The decision to become a pet owner is a huge responsibility. You adopt, buy them to become a member of your family. Whether for protection, to keep you company, to give your children something to take care of (good luck with that) or just to make a difference in another creature’s life. Mostly, you do it because you have space in your heart and life to take on this responsibility and all that it has to offer. You feed them, bathe them, potty train them, teach them to be social and mind their manners. And while they are a lot of work in the beginning and often test your patience, a bond starts to grow. A new level of trust and pure joy emerges. Wholeheartedly and unconditionally, they love us and trust us as we do them.
I grew up with dogs. Not just dogs but cats, ducks, rabbits and eventually horses and chickens. I am so incredibly thankful that my parents introduced and allowed us to grow up with animals. Not only was it fun, but I realized when I got a D on a test (or tests)… and got in trouble with my parents, the dog didn’t care, the cat certainly didn’t care - they were just there. My friends who would still wag their tail, play with me and love me regardless of a grade or if I was grounded. While I may not be able to see my friends over the weekend, I still had my beloved pets. The unconditional love and therapy they provided was immeasurable and I knew at an early age, I would always have at least one.
I also experienced the responsibility and decision making that goes along with owning a pet. Whether to spay or neuter? Whether or not to breed? Declaw or not to declaw? Allowed on the furniture or not? Do we use a kennel or pet sitter? And don’t even get me started on all the food choices. But the biggest and most painful decision, is whether or not to put a beloved pet to sleep and if that decision is made, then the decision is when.
It is a very powerful decision and right we have as a pet owner. And the ability to end the suffering of something we love, should not be taken lightly. It is a blessing and a curse. As humans, we have to watch someone we love suffer, their quality of life diminish and watch them slowly slip away because we do not have another option. As pet owners, we can watch our pet suffer, their quality of life diminish and ask ourselves if we want to exercise that right. But WHEN is it the right time? Leaving it up to a higher power, as I have done too many times before, can be excruciatingly painful for everyone involved. One of our dogs was terminally ill and we were heading out of town. We opted to wait until we got home to make ‘the decision’. Our pet sitter called us 3 days later to tell us she had taken a turn for the worse. She took our dog to the vet and our veterinarian confirmed her condition. It was in fact time. We made the decision over the phone and we were not there for her. The guilt we had was profound. That we waited. For what? For us? For her? We extended her life because we were not ready to be without her yet as a result, we were not there for her. The other thought, was that she waited for us to go away before finally letting go. She put on a front for us and waited for us to leave to let her illness take over. If you have never owned a pet, you may be rolling your eyes, but trust me when I tell you, they live to please us and make us happy and will most certainly masks what ails them with a wag of the tail. Growing up, we had another dog that was old and terminally ill. We made the decision to put her down. My mom drove her to the vet as I raced from work to get there in time to say my final goodbye. As I rushed in and lay beside her, crying and telling her how much I loved her, she put her paw in my hand and quietly slipped away, naturally, no euthanasia needed. My mom looked at me and said, ‘She waited for you.’ Pets are funny that way. They seem to know. Which makes our job, our decision that much harder. It is never a good time to make that decision. We are never ready to let go, to say goodbye to something we love. And each time we do, it rips out a huge chunk of our hearts.
Unfortunately, we were faced with this big decision again yesterday. And let me tell you, after doing this over a dozen times, it never gets easier. Our 12 ½ year old black lab Buck , was suffering from nasal cancer. While we were able to control some of the symptoms, he eventually was unable to breathe through his nose. Panting became the only way he could breathe. Eating became more difficult, he was starting to lose bowel control, nose bleeds were more frequent and we could see the disease starting to spread up his face. His tail, while it still wagged, wagged a little lower and slower. He used to greet us with a toy in his mouth but since that was his only way to breathe, we were greeted with a grin that masked his pain. Buck was our main ‘family dog’. He grew up with our children, never met a stranger, would sit and watch football with you all day and had mad conversation skills, again often with a toy in his mouth. He was a big boy and a big, gentle personality. Making the decision to put him to sleep has by far been one of the toughest yet. But we made the decision. We cried. We questioned. We executed. And, we hurt. My dad always said, ‘the pain we experience is worth the joy that they bring’ and he is absolutely right. While we miss him terribly, and he would show signs of being ‘better’, he was terminally ill. He was in pain. And we realized continuing to let him suffer would be for us, not for him. And that was wrong. With all that they give us, we cannot let them suffer for our selfish needs.
The decision is always hard. And no matter how many times you have to make it, it is never easy. Each case is different and a new lesson can and will be learned. We also need to know our pets well enough to make the right choice. Sometimes they wait for us to go and sometimes they wait for that final goodbye. But the beauty of being able to make the decision is, we know we can be there, take away their pain, end their suffering and say our goodbyes. The downside, we question if it was too soon, too late, or if it is right. Practicality, convenience, ethics and above all, love play a roll in our decision. And no matter what decision we make, we will always question it, feel the pain, feel the void, cherish the memories and learn from the experience. And isn’t that what life is about? Learning from our experiences, memories, our feelings of love, loss, trust, grief, anger and sadness. We feel them all. And the biggest lesson we learn from saying goodbye to our beloved pet is, while this adventure began because we wanted to give them a good life, in these final moments, we realize, they gave us a great one.
Rest In Peace Buck
February 3, 2007 - September 16, 2019