Last month, we had to make the toughest decision a pet owner makes for our Sammy. This post is about how we made the decision that it was time.
The last year has consisted of many ups and downs for Sammy. Her sight and hearing had diminished, her anxiety had increased, and she has had a hard time keeping weight on. But, she had still always been up for a walk, a game of ball, or a car ride. She still loved life despite the hardships that old age had caused.
A week or so before we had to say goodbye, she took a turn for the worse. But it wasn’t in any of the ways people said it would happen. I’ve been expecting this for months now, and have been trying to understand what to look for. Every book out there that discusses pet euthanasia focuses on very observable, physical problems. Many stories I have read online describe a horrible last few days of vomiting, diarrhea or a dog who cannot stand up. Or a dog whose mind is so far gone that they are aggressive. Or a dog who no longer wants to play, walk, or eat.
Sammy never experienced any of these things. And so I feel I need to share her story because she cannot be the only dog who left the world the way she did. And I want to let other pet owners know that you might never see these physical outcomes when it is time for you pet to leave this world.
Over the last year, Sammy has had more and more trouble sleeping through the night. This is common for older pets (and people!). She often got thirsty at 3 AM or needed to go potty. These were easy needs to meet and, like a newborn baby, you could tell you found what she needed because she stopped barking and was able to calm down and go back to sleep. Even though I was often getting up several times a night with her and I was often so so tired, I felt happy to have the honor of taking care of my old girl.
In the last few months though, there started to be nights where it seemed impossible to figure out what she needed. She would wake up and bark endlessly despite offers of water, food, potty breaks, petting, playing, night lights, complete darkness, thundershirts, sweaters, heated beds, elevated beds, extra meds, and so on. After several hours of barking she would sometimes calm down and go to sleep. These nights were brutal for me because I often got just a few hours of good sleep and even when Sam slept through the night I was always worried about her and never slept that well. But they were few and far between – maybe this happened twice a month. We would go to the vet for her regular acupuncture appointments and they seemed to help – she would be her normal self again for a few weeks before we started over. And remember, during all of this time she still loved to play, walk, and cuddle. She could get through a whole day with no incontinence most of the time and was mobile enough that she could do almost everything on her own (except our slippery inside steps – we’ve been carrying her for two years now after some scary slipping incidents).
But the night-time barking episodes became more frequent. We reached a point where she couldn’t sleep at all in our bedroom so Justin and I took turns sleeping on the couch with her downstairs. And then we reached a point where she stopped sleeping at night. She would bark almost all night long. She would sleep a few hours in the early morning and then I would try to keep her awake the rest of the day. I took her everywhere with me, I walked her extra, played with her extra trying to be sure she would be tired at night. Sometimes she would sleep for a few hours but she was always awake from about midnight until 4 or 5 AM.
Sammy never seemed relaxed – even though she still got plenty of joy from her daily activities. She was already on several anxiety meds and has been for 2 years or so. I have been reading about doggy dementia as much as possible and she never showed many of the signs – no walking in circles, no getting stuck behind furniture, no confusion about who me or Justin were. She often would get stuck on a rug, barking because she was afraid of the wooden floor. But this is something that has been going on for years and we’ve been able to work through it by purchasing tons of rugs!
One week, we encountered 4 nights in a row of her night-time barking episodes. Justin and I were both zombies from lack of sleep. Our anxiety was extremely high because we felt we couldn’t console or comfort her. The other pets in the house were just trying to stay out of the way, but were clearly stressed by the whole situation. Our cat, Cecil, would spend all night going from the couch with me to the bed with Justin and back – he hated the change in our routine. Dan spent most of his time in the front living room, avoiding Sammy’s space in the den. Our other cat, Ida, became glued to our laps, looking for comfort. We basically stopped eating dinner at home so that Justin and I could have an hour each day to talk with each other without Sammy barking in the background.
We had reached our capacity and came to the very difficult decision that it was time for Sammy. The quality of life for our whole household was not good. The amount of stress and anxiety that all of use were experiencing was not healthy. And despite Sammy’s eagerness to engage in life, she just couldn’t ever relax! Everyone had told me that I would know when it was time. I have to say, I never did know for sure. Sammy never reached the point where she couldn’t stand up. She never had terrible incontinence or endless vomiting. She never stopped getting excited to go for a walk. But Justin and I decided together that we didn’t want to wait for that to happen. If we could prevent Sammy from experiencing any of that, it was a gift we wanted to give her.
And so, we made the appointment with our beloved vet to let Sammy go.
Again, I want to share this in the hopes that it will provide courage to other pet owners who might be in this situation. For us, we reached a point where we could not provide Sammy with the care or quality of life that we wanted to. We reached a point of emotional fatigue. Caring for an elderly pet is stressful, and it is okay if that is a contributing factor in your decision to put your pet to sleep. For some reason in our society, it is harder to let go due to the mental health decline we experienced than it is when there is physical decline. But for Sammy, her mental health decline was probably just as stressful and unpleasant as a physical limitation.
She was the kind of dog that never stopped doing what she thought she should be doing unless you made her stop. When we lived in Texas and went to the dog park I would throw the Frisbee once or twice and then make her rest because it was HOT! She would take the Frisbee to every other person in the park to keep playing fetch. I would have to go get her and leash her to get her to leave. That was her attitude toward life – keep working until she was made to stop. She never quit doing anything on her own. And I believe that her enthusiasm for fetch and walks and car rides in those last weeks of her life was exactly the same thing. She wanted to keep doing it because she felt that she was supposed to. And she would never have stopped on her own. We had to help her by letting her go.