In January, we put down Charlie, our eleven year old cocker spaniel mix. Although my husband and I had put down a dog before, and although we were both raised on farms and were well-versed in animal suffering and death, our backgrounds did very little to help me make peace with Charlie’s decline and death.
Charlie had been with our family since 2015, when we rescued him and his bonded pal, Sam the Schnauzer, after their original owner died. Sam’s death in 2017 of cancer was devastating for us, because he was a young dog and the diagnosis was very sudden. However, we knew his death was imminent, and that knowledge made the decision to put him down easier. Charlie’s decline was more gradual, and the decision about when to let him go was harder. In the last two years of his life, Charlie developed dementia, on top of his significant hip dysplasia pain. This left him deteriorating mentally and physically.
Last summer, the strain of daily caregiving for Charlie was starting to take a toll on my husband and I. Charlie had his days and nights mixed up, and would pace the house for hours. Eventually we found a medication regimen that worked, but if we missed a dosage, everyone in the house suffered. We got to a point where only a few select adults could care for Charlie, because he required so many medications and so much monitoring. For many months prior to Charlie’s death, I put myself through an emotional cycle of “is it time NOW?” Looking back, I regret this because it didn’t help Charlie or me.
Ultimately, in January, we decided Charlie needed to be euthanized. He was struggling, and the icy winter sidewalks made his hip problems worse. Once the decision was made, the worst was over for me, emotionally. We had put a dog down before, and I was confident that the process was not going to be scary or painful for Charlie. My husband and I (and Charlie’s new Schnauzer pal, Shilo) were with him as he died. I challenge anyone who looks down on euthanasia, or who is afraid of being there for a pet as they die, to ask your vet or other trusted animal lovers in your life about the process. In my humble opinion, it is a wonderful honor to be with the ones we love, human or animal, as they leave this life behind. It is also a huge relief to have a humane way to end a pet’s suffering. Both times we have put our dogs down, I felt proud of us afterward for facing death and finishing our heavy responsibility as pet owners.
I am so grateful for the loving support of our longtime veterinarian, Dr. Cheryl Zimmerman at Tender Care Animal Hospital in Coralville (the clinic on the strip with the pun-filled jokes on the sign). If I could give one piece of advice to new pet owners, it would be to get picky about choosing your vet. For my family, having a solid relationship with a provider who understood our family’s values and boundaries has made the sad loss of two pets much easier to bear.
If you are dealing with an ailing or aging pet, here are few things I’ve learned which I hope make it easier for you:
Start a conversation with your veterinarian about an end of life care plan at your pet’s annual checkup.
If your pet is aging, start talking to your vet about end of life care options before there is a crisis. I asked our vet about the prognosis for Charlie’s ailments: what to expect, when to expect it, how the dementia/hip dysplasia usually plays out for similar dogs. I asked her when we would know that we were nearing the end. Her advice was always clear and kind. She assured us that Charlie did not want to make us unhappy, ever, and that he did not want to live a life of suffering. She helped me chart a course forward of tracking “bad days” and knowing to call her when those days outweighed the good ones.
For me, having this conversation made it easier to make the much scarier call to Dr. Cheryl to schedule our Charlie’s euthanasia. I would get so choked up talking about his death, that it was hard to have a productive conversation. I’m glad we had those earlier, calmer appointments for me to ask questions.
Talk to your partner or kids (if the pet is primarily theirs) about your values and expectations surrounding your pet’s death.
My children are young (5 and 1), so they were not part of our decision-making about our pets’ deaths. However, between my husband and I, there were a lot of heavy conversations about what our expectations and boundaries were in caring for a dying pet. It isn’t fun or easy to talk about, but everyone has limits to the amount of money, time, and energy they can put into end-of-life care for their pet. These limits do not mean that you don’t love your pet or that you are not a good pet owner. Once you know your values and limits, tell your vet.
For us, with our dog Sam, we knew that we wanted to care for him only at home. We knew we did not want to try chemo (it was painful, expensive, and would only prolong his life a few months, maximum), or have him go back to the hospital. When I told our vet our care plan, she was very supportive. She taught us some dog first aid to ease his pain and help him enjoy his last days.
With Charlie, our conversations were over the course of two years. We knew we could not handle it if his medication stopped working and he stopped sleeping through the night (this eventually happened in the week prior to his death). We knew we did not want to see Charlie suffer. Even on the day we put him down, we were able to enjoy a short walk together. I was glad we didn’t wait until he was totally incapacitated. It made me feel like we left him with some dignity.
Forgive yourself for any resentment, relief, or stress you have about your pet’s death.
Caring for a dying pet is an enormous responsibility. Many people struggle with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame because they don’t have the time, money, or emotional fortitude to do it “just right.” The beauty of a pet loving us is that we don’t actually need to do it “just right.” Our pets just want to be with us.
At some point in our last months with Charlie, I felt totally hopeless about our situation. I was raising two young children, running a small law firm, and overall living a busy life. My husband was trying to work from home with an aging pet who often was loud or annoying. It didn’t feel loving or light at our house very often. I am relieved that that part of our time with Charlie is over, although I miss his healthier days with us so much.
Think through what the actual day/week of your pet’s death might look like.
I got very granular with what I wanted Charlie’s death to look like. I know I wanted to bring him in on a morning, while my kids were at daycare/school, so I would have the rest of the day to cry, rest, and try to work. I didn’t want it to happen on a heavy work week for my husband or me, so we could support each other and not be totally depleted. I had easy dinners for the night Charlie died, and the next few nights, because I knew I would be sad and want to feed everyone without much work. I canceled plans for several days and allowed us all to just be at home.
These choices will likely look different for your family. However, pre-planning would I could made this sad moment easier for my family. It also gave me some control, in an otherwise sad and uncontrollable time.
If you have never been with a pet as they are euthanized before, the process takes about fifteen minutes and is very gentle. We brought Charlie in to the vet with our other dog (our vet recommends having your other dog there, to understand what has happened). We pre-paid for the procedure and decided how we would like Charlie’s body to be cremated. We sat with our dogs on the floor of the exam room. Dr. Cheryl took Charlie to have a port put in to his leg, and gave him a short exam. She confirmed our decision to put Charlie down. She then gave him a sedative via this port. Then, she administered the euthanasia drug. He was gone very quickly, and died peacefully in my lap.
We chose to have Charlie cremated with Faithful Companions in Coralville. They handled picking him up from our vet, and delivered his remains and some beautiful keepsake paw prints and a lock of his fur, back to Dr. Cheryl’s office.
If you choose to have your dog euthanized at home, there is a wonderful local service that does this called Journey’s End. Both my vet, and a close friend of mine who lost two dogs last year, highly recommend this service, for those who want an in-home option.
Consider how to involve your kids in the process.
My kids are small, and Charlie was very much “mom’s dog,” so we did not choose to include them in Charlie’s death. We told our five-year-old, for many months ahead of Charlie’s death, that he was aging and dying. We did not get into specifics about euthanasia, and decided only to do so if he asked. We only told him of Charlie’s actual death after school on the day it happened.
That said, if my kids had been older, and definitely if the dying pet had been primarily their pet, I would’ve made other choices. Another mom I hugely admire told me about what she did when her family put down their elderly dog a few years ago. Her kids were in middle school, and she and her husband talked to them about the decision-making process they were going through regarding their dog’s death. There were a lot of big feelings and different opinions from her kids, but they worked together and ultimately made a plan. Her kids prepared a special coffin for their dog ahead of his death (they chose to bury him in their yard), with pictures glued onto it and messages written all over. Her kids were also there for their dog’s death, and their family vet answered her kids’ questions and assuaged their fears. She looks back on this with a lot of pride as a parent, as she should. Her kids faced a sad thing head-on, and learned a lot about death and love.
Start whatever “bucket list” of activities you would like to do as soon as possible.
Don’t be in denial about your pet’s life expectancy. If you want “one last” anything with your pet, do it now. There were so many things I wanted to do with Charlie before he died. Ultimately, we did many of those things, but very gradually. We went back to Kent Park for a walk in the fall, and he ate so many “last meals” that he actually gained weight in his final months. I am too much of a cry baby to experience joy in an experience where I know it is my last. If you are like that, too, try to do some of those bucket list things now, before it feels too heavy.
I wish you and your family peace on whatever the rest of the journey holds with your pets.