When Love Leaves it Too Late
This week I went on a visit to euthanase a much loved family pet. The scene was idillic, if such a word can be used. My patient was lying on the father’s lap. His daughter, for whom the dog had been bought as a puppy, was there with her two young children. The motherly matriarch comforted them all as their beloved pet, now 18 years old, slipped away without pain or fuss; falling asleep on her master’s lap as she had done hundreds of times before.
If I have a choice in the way I die, this is how I would chose; peacefully, gently and surrounded by my family. However, I hope when I do go, I am not as sick, or have suffered as much, as this little doggy did.
Although she was clearly, hugely, loved, this poor old lady had been in a great deal of pain and distress before she died and this could have been prevented. I didn’t need to examine her closely. It was clear to me, as an unattached professional, simply from stroking her tiny, exhausted, body.
She was indeed lying quietly but this was because she was collapsed, not because she was peaceful. She was so weak and dehydrated, that even if she had wanted to move, she probably was only able to raise her head. Her eyes were closed but she was not asleep, the lids were thick with mucous and showed signs of chronic, painful infections. She didn’t smell but this was only because her family were regularly bathing her; she had lost control of her bowels and bladder several days previously.
So why had her owners left her so long before deciding to let her go?
The answer is because they loved her too much. They hadn’t realised how she was struggling and couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
Despite what I found at this house, I cannot blame this family. They had sought veterinary care in the preceding weeks but felt the treatment she had ‘didn’t help’ and, as they thought she ‘wasn’t suffering’ let it lapse. What they and many others don’t realise, is that our pets are very good at hiding signs of illness. Especially dogs, who, even when in extreme suffering, are desperate to please us. Their tail may wag, they may lift their head, they may have a mouthful of the fresh chicken cooked especially for them; but this does not mean they are not struggling. Devoted owners become blind, seeing these tiny flickers as evidence their pets are still happy and they genuinely don’t understand how much they are suffering.
These dogs are not uncared for, quite the opposite. I have seen owners carry pets unable to walk themselves out into the garden for their toilet or some sunshine, wash them when they lose control, dribble water drop by drop into their mouths and hand feed them tiny morsels of their favourite foods. These are all acts of a deep, abiding love, but all that is achieved is a prolonging of the pain.
Eventually there comes the point, as it did for this dog that day, when they give up. They can’t pretend or hide anymore and it becomes clear the end has arrived. This is when dedicated, adoring owners call on me to perform the final act, not realising that actually, it should have been carried out days, or even weeks, before.
It is very, very hard to say goodbye to a beloved pet and the, thankfully few, I see in these states are not uncared for, they are cared for too much. Euthanasia is one of the greatest gifts of veterinary medicine and the final, and purest, act of love for your pet.
It is easy to leave them too long and it can be difficult to ask for help but, please, your vet is always there to speak to. If we can ease suffering, make them comfortable, give a few days, or longer, of a pain-free life we will but we are also the voice for those who cannot speak and, sometimes, we are the only ones who can hear them saying “Let me go”.