I had to put my dog down and I feel guilty

Being faced with the decision to put your dog or cat down (or “put to sleep”) is one of the most impossible decisions you will make. You may feel your pet is very sad and wished you didn’t end their life. You’ll find yourself bargaining with the vet, as if they have some secret power to stop death. All of a sudden, spending money is not an issue. You may find yourself easily spending money you don’t have to buy more time. If you decide to put your pet down / to sleep, feelings of guilt will haunt you. It’s hard for me to say this, but, don’t feel that way. I know it’s impossible to think otherwise. I was there.

In 2002 I came home to my dog-less apartment to a thought. “What if I got a dog?” I always had a dog growing up in my parents’ house. I wanted a dog and knew the responsibility was huge, especially since I worked, as most people do. Later that week I found myself driving to the local pet store. I wanted a smaller dog but not too small. The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies and I loved the look and personality of cairn terriers.

roxanne
Roxy, my baby, cairn terrier at 2 years old. Also known as Roxanne or Foxanne by daddy.

Entering the pet store, my eyes locked with a cute little light brown and tan baby. Her ears perked up, as if she was waiting for me. I knew before I held her, she was the one. She was a cairn terrier of about 10 weeks old. I took her home that night and named her Roxy. This girl was such a sweet little babe and we did everything together. She slept in the bed with me on the 3rd night. Her first trip to the vet was a memorable one. As we sat in the waiting room, I heard a woman crying. Minutes passed and she left the vet clinic without her animal. I knew what happened…her dog had passed. Holding Roxy on my lap, I whispered in her ear, “I’m glad that’s not us.” I knew that day would dismissed it immediately. It feels as if it was yesterday.

A couple years later I added a 2nd cairn terrier, Jack, to our home. Roxy and Jack got along great. Roxy maintained the lead of the pack, next to me. Jack was 2 years younger than her. Having two dogs in the house is amazing and very loving, in case you are thinking about it….if you can afford the vet bills. I certainly don’t have the money but I made it work. It’s really not that bad and having two dogs is really something great.

Roxy loved laying by me, curling up right next to me on the couch most days. It was especially great when Jack curled up on the other side. You can’t buy happiness like that. As years went on, she stood with her front paws on the couch, unable to jump, with just a short little bark to say “daddy pick me up.”

I had to put my dog down and I feel guilty
Roxy and Jack

Fast forward to 14 years of age, Roxy is slower. The evening of October 4th 2016, she went to bed and all was well. The next morning, before leaving for work, I let both dogs out, as I always do. Roxy stumbled and couldn’t keep her balanced. She fell on her side in the grass as if she was dizzy. I picked her up and she felt different to me. Her muscles seemed a bit tighter and she was clearly uncomfortable. Holding her up, she started to slouch backwards, as if she was asleep. I gave her mouth to nose and that woke her up a bit. I knew I wasn’t going to work that day. My wife said she doesn’t look good at all and is probably dying. I shot that down right away with “are you nuts? She’s just sick or something.” The vet said they needed to do an x ray and would like to do blood work and some other scan as well. I thought maybe it was some sugar crash diabetic thing? The x ray showed an enlarged mass. It wasn’t weight she was gaining, it was her pancreas. Surgery would be $2,000 with no guarantees. We took her home and I laid with her for the remainder of the day in her bed. I was in denial. She started to vomit and couldn’t hold food or water down, but was hungry. She wasn’t walking or responding, just laying and breathing fast and shallow. I took her to the vet again later than evening since she declined fast. My wife said her body is shutting down and that really upset me to hear. The vet said she didn’t look good and if we went with surgery, there is a very good chance she could die on the table. If she survived, (maybe 20% chance) she may live another 9 months at best.

I’m a fighter and I NEVER give up. I wanted her with me always and asked if there were meds to ease her pain or make it better. I was trying to buy time to research and make things right. Bargaining for her life, even though I knew the vet couldn’t do anything, was silly, but made sense at the time. My wife said it’s time to let her go. I told her there is no way that’s going to happen. Roxy couldn’t move or stand. At that moment I felt it was time but I couldn’t say it.

When the vet returned to the room I asked through tears what anesthesia is all about and what the process is. I asked if he would recommend it, given her state. A vet will rarely give their opinion but I couldn’t make the call. He said it is up to me but given the circumstances, it doesn’t look good for her. I agreed. I couldn’t let my best friend go forever. Animals, in my book, are so much better than most people. They love you unconditionally and are perfect gifts from God. I couldn’t make this choice. Luckily, her state of being helped me with the decision. She couldn’t go to the washroom, couldn’t eat and nothing was going to save her. Looking back now, it was the correct choice. She was very sick and was obviously not going to be her normal self.

Some people have decided to put their dog to sleep when the dog is still pretty much coherent. I couldn’t do that. I would be saying…see, she’s fine…she sees and hears me. Sometimes though, be it cancer, or something else, the decision must be made.

The vet returned to take her to a back room to prep her, which is putting a cathedar in her leg. He said it was really difficult to get that going since her veins were very narrow. That comforted me a bit; another sign it was time. I would rather her pass away with me holding her than to get news that she did it alone while I was at work, or, alone on the operating table.

When I was ready, the vet injected her with a mild anesthetic to put her to sleep, as if she was going to have surgery. They don’t do it all in one shot. Once she was relaxed and in a sleep state, he asked me if I was ready and I said “no. I will never be ready.” A few minutes later I said ok and he injected the dose of anesthetic to stop her heart. A few seconds later he said quietly, “she’s gone.”

I miss my dog
Roxy / Roxanne in her bed

Typing this makes me tear up and it’s been 9 months already. She was gone and out of pain, but her body was still warm. A part of me, for an instant, felt ok, knowing she was out of pain until I would never see her again for as long as I walk this earth. Maybe I sound a little dramatic but this pain hurts. As my vet said later on, “I’ve seen some of most muscle-headed tough guys cry like a baby over the death of their dog.” A dog’s love is amazing.

I stayed with her as she laid on the table, for about 90 minutes, petting her and talking to her, crying as I did. The hardest part was making the unreal decision to do it. My wife was home with the kids since she didn’t want them seeing the act. They were there before the act, saying their goodbyes. I wore my sunglasses so they wouldn’t see me cry, which was useless, as I was pretty bad. I didn’t care who saw me. My kids, 4 and 8, were very good about it. My 4 year old gave out kleenex and my 8 year old cried much less than me.

When she became stiff and cool to the touch I decided it was time to leave. I was there for almost 3 hours. Arriving home, my youngest asked where Roxy was. A knife through the chest. I said, in heaven. My 2nd dog, Jack, greeted me, and looked for his sister, who wasn’t there. The next day, Jack continued to look for her.

I went to work the next day and cried the entire way to work and back. Arriving home, I couldn’t stay in the house. I found myself looking for her, hoping she would be in her favorite spots. I know how death works but when you’re involved, it doesn’t make sense. She wasn’t in her normal spot and that drove me mad. I had to leave that house. I couldn’t be there so I went for a walk, alone.

Mourning the loss of a loved one is really difficult because you can’t physically do anything to make it better. Only time will make it better. I understand that makes no sense, because you don’t want it better, you just want your dog / cat back.

The first few days were impossible to get through. A week felt like a month. A week later my wife brought the box home with her ashes. I have yet to open the box and see the urn I purchased that terrible night. I chose to have her cremated alone. Did you know that by default, animals are cremated together? If you choose to have ashes back, you’re getting all the ashes from all animals. Maybe to some it wouldn’t matter but it matters to me. I wanted only Roxy, so I paid the extra $75 for that. If the crematory was crooked, I could still very well have other dogs, but it’s peace of mind.

9 months later and I still have no idea what the urn looks like. I keep her favorite small stuff animal squirrel toy on my night stand. That was her baby and she loved it from the day I brought her home as a puppy.

I tell you this long story so you know you aren’t alone. It also helps me to purge some sadness. I was bargaining with no one, to bring her back. I felt bad for ending her life and the guilt was too much at times. The only thing that made me feel “ok” with the process was her final state of living. She was in no condition to do anything and her body was shutting down fast.

In the end, we all know that everything that lives, will die. That’s how life is. That’s how life works. It’s funny though, when we’re in that situation, it feels like we’re the only one ever in that situation. Right now there are millions of people at their jobs, going out for lunch, planning a party, doing whatever, while someone is in the hospital with their pet or spouse or mother or father, wondering what they should do given the terrible situation they face. Time seems to stop for those of us in terrible situations and the world becomes a very dark place. We may hate seeing people happy…I know I did. I wanted to be alone and didn’t want anyone to talk to me. Death is never easy to deal with. It is a part of life but I know it doesn’t seem like it while you are going through it. I’ve also had to deal with the loss of family and close friends. It really takes its toll on you.

Weeks later my phone rang at 2am. My brother was in the vet ER with his 16 year old maltese, who he has had since a puppy. He found himself bargaining as well, with the vet, as I listened in on speakerphone. He put his best friend to sleep that night as well. It was hard to hear him going through that pain.

At the time of writing this, Jack is still with us and is now 13. He has diabetes and has lost his vision because of it. He is on a strict diet and gets insulin shots twice a day. Jack also has cushings disease, which came about a few months before diabetes. That’s a monthly medication he needs to be on. All in all, he is doing great and romps like a puppy….but his blindness hurts me. I hate that he can’t see me and will never see me again. He gets extra love. I hold him and talk to him a lot. My dogs are my life and the only bad thing about living with them is facing that unfortunate day when everything comes crashing down at the end.

Time will heal, I promise.

Check out my blog for more posts on art, photography, technology and random thoughts.

Steve

There are books that can help with the loss of a pet. Check these out on Amazon.

 

Bereavement

The loss of a significant other; The Oxford English Dictionary

Grief

The personal reaction to a loss; this includes our feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

Mourning

The outward, public expression of grief and may involve ceremonies and rituals of remembrances e.g. funerals. Pet death is particularly complicated as there are no traditional socially accepted ways of mourning the death of a pet. Pet funerals may be viewed by some people as pathological, “odd” or even amusing, but rituals enabling celebration of the relationship shared, acknowledging the importance of the life and death of a pet, can be powerful in the healing process.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a unique aspect of pet bereavement. One of the most significant differences between human and pet bereavement is the existence of the option of euthanasia in veterinary practice. The term euthanasia literally means ‘good death’ or ‘mercy killing’. Despite on-going intense ethical debate, human euthanasia is illegal throughout most of the world, with a few exceptions (e.g. in The Netherlands). Although we hope our pets will die naturally, in reality this is rarely the case, particularly for dogs.

Euthanasia related grief is distinct because it involves making an active choice to end a pet’s life and accepting personal responsibility for this decision. This can feel very awkward and often people talk about feeling guilty about having their pet euthanased to describe the discomfort involved in accepting this responsibility. It is essential to understand these feelings are normal and do not mean that the decision was wrong.

Euthanasia in veterinary medicine is sometimes referred to as “putting to sleep” – a gentle euphemism to describe an injection a veterinary surgeon administers to bring about a painless, quick death where an animal has incurable disease or injury or is suffering in old age. Euthanasia prevents suffering and distress; it is a final act of kindness. To prevent natural feelings of doubt regarding the appropriateness of euthanasia it can helpful to map out on a piece of paper all of the reasons why your vet advised euthanasia as the most humane option for your pet and then map out your own reasons for accepting this based on your lived knowledge of your pet – for example a pet having poor quality of life as a result chronic pain; not being able to go for walks, unable to play, losing interest in food and losing weight, becoming weak, being incontinent.

Assessing quality of life is very difficult as a pet may be happy and content in older age or illness not doing things they previously enjoyed, this is why it is important where possible to have a pre-euthanasia discussion with your vet and assess from different perspectives your pet’s quality of life and prognosis. Sometimes this may not be possible (such as a road traffic accident) and decisions will need to be made more quickly to prevent a pet from suffering.

Euthanasia decisions are never easy, but it may help to remember that this is a shared decision: your veterinary surgeon has professional responsibility for advising you from a medical perspective and you have personal responsibility for the decision as the pet’s owner.

 

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