When to say goodbye

This past week saw two losses. A close friend made the decision to put her senior dog down, and the other was the loss of a puppy by a fellow blogger. My heart is broken for both of them; I can’t imagine what the loss feels like not having gone through it yet myself.

Reggie will be seven next month and I would be lying if I said I haven’t thought about his end of life decisions. He is not a senior dog yet, but he is definitely middle-aged and graying around the muzzle. Every person that has a pet soulmate, a pet family member, will agonize over the decision of is this the right time? I will, oh how I will. What if I wait just a few more weeks and he gets better…

So for the science minded but emotionally pet tortured among us here is a way to make end of life decisions for our pets a little less painful.

Ask Why

Why do you think now is the right time? What are you afraid of about euthanizing? I am afraid Reggie will actually hurt or suffer in the actual process. For some reason I think the process is like suffocation. Discuss it with your vet. If you believe that it is the right time, what are the thoughts/concerns of the people around you and how can they be addressed? Are you taking their concerns into account? Above all are you making the decision that is best for your pet? Sometimes actually writing everything down helps.

Five Good Things

List the top five things that your dog loves to do and list them. When they can no longer do three or more of them, their quality of life has been impacted to a degree that warrants review. I could list “playing catch with tennis ball” as all top five. Maybe four, and “cuddling on the couch” as number five.

HHHHHMM

From vetstreet.com, the HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale is a tool to measure, as it indicates, quality of life. It stands for Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Happiness, Hygiene (the ability to keep the pet clean from bodily waste), Mobility, and More (more good days than bad). Each category gets graded on a scale of 1-10. If the majority of categories are 5 or above, supportive care is acceptable.

Journal

If you received a diagnosis of an illness it would help to keep a pet journal to chart progress (or not) of your dog’s condition. This way you can make rational comparisons over time and not feel forced into a quick decision.

It’s About Your Dog

It’s not about you. Dogs live in the moment and aren’t thinking about that totally awesome day three years ago when you took them to the park and played catch for like two hours and then gave them tons of treats and let them sleep on the couch…and then played again…and went in the pool…and more treats! It’s not about your grief, or your guilt, or your inability to let go. What matters is your dog and what’s best for her. And that might be letting go now, a few months from now, or not now because continuing care and treatment is the right option.

Making the decision to euthanize a pet is possibly the worst decision you’ll ever have to make as a pet parent. There’s nothing anyone can say to make the grief not as heartbreaking, the guilt not as traumatic, or the decision not as heavy. But with a few concrete ways to look at it, maybe the decision can be a little easier.

Reggie’s birthday!

This past week was Reggie’s birthday; it fell on Thanksgiving actually and he is six years old now. This got me to thinking about age and aging and the progression of life for our furry companions, and particularly mine. So please forgive me for being indulgent for a moment, I would like to tell Reggie’s story.

Reggie’s adoption day

We decided that we wanted a black lab-ish dog and started looking at the local rescues lists of available dogs. We found two black labs that we chose to go see, both happened to be from the same shelter. By some weird coincidence they were both named Charlie. One of the Charlie’s was just under a year old and looked to be a solid lab- no papers, but physically looked labrador all the way. And had the puppy attitude to match. The other Charlie was just over a year old, an obvious cross, and was calm but inquisitive. We ultimately chose that one. On the car ride home we started calling him Reggie (it just fit- he was Reggie, not Charlie).

I’ve written already about the ensuing weeks and the immediate realization of his health problems (allergies– food and environmental), but there was also an immediate realization of just what a gem of a dog we rescued and what his fate would have been had we not. And that was only the beginning- about a year and a half later was when Reggie had his first seizure and we learned he also had epilepsy.

Reggie is attentive, responsive to training, affectionate, and has generally obeyed corrections on the first go. When I reflect on others pets, I marvel at just how remarkable he is. We spend the time and effort training him, yes, but I see how much time and effort others put in to their animals and I feel lucky to have this dog as mine.

That being said, he is now six. This past year I have noticed some changes in him. He is starting to gray around his muzzle and when he plays really hard at the park or has an active day he has trouble getting in and out of the car. He takes glucosamine daily due to a previous ACL injury and still has the playful attitude and desire he did the day he came home.

Dog age; credit: Wikipedia

So what is aging for dogs? How would I know what to change in his routine, if anything? I always remember that calculation that one human year equals seven dog years (so Reggie is 42…). This chart more accurately represents current belief for dog vs. human age. According to this, Reggie is 45-47 years. The idea is that dogs reach sexual maturity in the first year, so 10-15 human years.  In the dog’s second year, it is about 3-8 human years in terms of physical and mental maturity. After that, each year can be about 10 human years depending on breed.

Of course life expectancy varies by breed, and therefore aging and geriatrics varies by breed. A Great Dane can be experiencing health problems attributed to age at seven, whereas a chihuahua might not experience the same issues until the age of 12. Generally, the first markers are graying around the muzzle and face, reduced hearing, muscle weakness or loss, and slowing down- sleeping more, playing less or for less time. These things probably won’t happen all at once or all things at once, but when they do it is a sign to talk to your vet about a senior program. Senior dogs require less calories and are at higher risk for obesity, are more sensitive to temperature changes, and even can develop cognitive dysfunction- the canine version of Alzheimer’s. Refer to this list for more changes that occur in senior dogs.

Reggie is not there yet- he is only displaying a couple of the first markers. But it is definitely a conversation I will have with the vet at his yearly checkup. How have you handled your dog’s senior care?