The death of our beloved pets is often sudden. They die unexpectedly at home, or their death involves a frantic race to a veterinary office, where we make a decision to end their suffering. Once the decision regarding euthanizing your dog is made, we wait in a cold exam room.
The harried veterinarian checks in to see if all the family members have arrived. They understand the passing of a beloved pet is a family affair.
As we wait, we tell our dog they are the best dog in the whole world. And they are. But they are stressed, their system flooded with adrenaline, as is yours. Why? The veterinarian’s office isn’t anyone’s happy place.
As a lifelong dog owner, I’ve had countless vet visits with my furry bundles. Even if the staff and the vet are some of the nicest people you have ever met, the veterinary office is not fun.
And here you are again, but now your pet is to be euthanized and leave you forever. If you are lucky, they pass with one well placed shot. If not, you may witness the veterinarian struggle to find a viable vein, your pet wide eyed with fear. Those images stay with you forever.
Once your pet is euthanized, the vet will leave you to grieve for a little while, alone with your now dead pet. But they have a schedule. Though they say, “Take your time” you know they need the room. You can hear the staff trying to juggle available exam rooms for incoming appointments.
So, even if you are not ready, you decide to leave. Sobs wrench from your soul, your face a wet and twisted picture of grief. Only to come out into a waiting room gone silent. Everyone knows what just happened. Your grief is on display for all to see and what should be a private moment, isn’t. You don’t know any of these people staring at you in that waiting room. Your deepest emotions naked and exposed to strangers.
Then you go home, trying to cope with the fact you just euthanized your dog. You didn’t think anything could be worse than the vet’s office. Wrong. As your hand touches the doorknob, you realize there is something far worse. You are about to walk into your home and your beloved dog is not there. And never will be again.
Over the years, this story repeated itself with the euthanizing of each of past my dogs .
Until we euthanized our dog Sonagh at home.
Sonagh was a fierce, bold, never-in-doubt, Chesapeake Bay Retriever mix. 95 pounds of intimidating muscle. She was my fierce protector during a long, near deadly illness and a sweet, gentle mush who loved belly rubs. Her presence let me work from home without fear and sleep when my husband traveled.
We often said, “God bless the person stupid enough to break in when she’s here”. Even politicians didn’t want me to open the door when she was snarling at them. They didn’t need to know a simple word from me could back her off.
In 2014, my husband Ernie and I jumped at the opportunity to transfer from frigid Minnesota to the warmth of Texas. We put the house on the market and began the ‘fun’ of driving the dogs around during showings and open houses. It was on one of these drives, out in rural Minnesota, Sonagh had her first freak out. At 60mph, on a country highway, she tried to climb in the front seat with me, frantic and whale-eyed.
The dog who adored car rides was suddenly terrified and it was dangerous.
Our vet, Dr. Ingrid, and I worked together and concluded she had developed Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Doggy Alzheimer’s. Not my first trip to the CCD rodeo. It took a while, but we found the right medication and she was okay for short drives. But we had a 1,000 mile, three day journey ahead of us.
So I made Sonagh a promise. If she didn’t have any major freak outs on the trip to Texas, I promised she would never, ever have to get in a car again.
She was fantastic on the drive from Minnesota to Texas.
Caring For Your Dog At Home
And that is how we met Miss Nancy and Dr. Jim. Two angels who helped me keep my promise to Sonagh.
Miss Nancy is a groomer and kept Sonagh’s feet in good order by coming to the house to trim her nails every few months. She always stayed a little longer to love on our beautiful girl.
Dr. Jim is a retired veterinarian who sold his large veterinary practice, and became a three day a week mobile vet. We share the same philosophy when it came to aging dogs. Give them the best life possible, but as their time gets close, it is better to be a week too early, than one second too late when deciding to euthanize a dog. A shared commitment to never let a dog suffer.
He first came to the house to look at an inoperable bump Sonagh had on her back end. She’d had it for a while before we moved to Texas, but now it was growing and changing fast. Dr. Jim confirmed our suspicions – it was cancer.
When your dog has cancer, you know the decision to euthanize is in your future. But she was fine for the moment. Every few months Dr. Jim would come out to the house to her check progress and love on her.
Then, just before Labor Day weekend, the skin on the now huge cancer bump began to leak lymph and blood. Dr. Jim was out of town, but kept in touch via email. When he returned home Monday night he called and said he’d be out the next day.
The Euthanasia Decision
It took him about 45 seconds to look at me and say, “It’s her time”. I choked back a sob. I wasn’t surprised, just jarred at hearing it said outloud. She was 14 years and 8 months. Well beyond old. And she was jaundice.
As he felt her belly he shook his head. There were tumors on her spleen. The rate the cancer had spread since his last visit, 3-4 weeks prior, astonished both of us.
I wrestled with whether I should have Dr. Jim euthanize her right then and there, but it didn’t feel right. “Will she be okay until Friday?” “Yes. She should be.”
He explain how he handled home euthanasia and we set a date for three days out, Friday at noon.
Dr. Jim left, telling me to call him if anything changed.
Then I was alone with my beloved girl and an appointment for her death.
That’s a hard thing to wrap one’s brain around. An appointment for death. Death at the time of our choosing. Death with the opportunity to take our time saying goodbye.
I called Dena to break the news to her. You see, Dena gave me Sonagh when my heart was broken. My dog Kayleigh had died, with all the awfulness I described above. I saw an advertisement for puppies and called. I told Dena I didn’t think I was ready for another dog. She said come see the puppies anyway, they would make me smile. So, I did.
As I sat on the floor, a tiny five week old puppy, with a funny little fur ridge down her nose, came over and climbed on my lap. She stared right into my eyes, licked my cheek, then curled up and went to sleep. Sonagh chose me and I accepted her choice. She also gave Dena and I each a new, lifelong friend.
The Post Euthanizing Your Dog Decision – The Waiting
The next few days passed in a surreal bubble. I cancelled all my appointments to be with her. Ernie worked shorter days to do the same. Our other dogs, Wally and Murphy, became her satellites, always keeping her in sight, sleeping close.
We shared memories of Sonagh. We let the other people who loved her know she was to be euthanized on Friday at noon. Miss Nancy came on Thursday morning to say goodbye and loved on Sonagh for two hours. Two hours of tender touches and belly rubs for my precious girl.
The Morning of THE Day
I woke up crying on Friday morning. We’d both been crying off and on for the last few days, processing our grief in advance. I cut up the grass fed steak I’d gotten at the butcher the day before and put some in her breakfast bowl. The rest was for later.
Every evening Ernie does game time with the dogs. More often than not, it is simple marrow bones for them to chew. But Sonagh’s favorite was treats hidden a paper egg carton. I saved one last egg carton for her and gave it to her around 9:30.
Every section filled with treats, she ripped into it with gusto. She paused to eat the exposed treats and sniff around for any escapees, then resumed shredding it. She was a happy, happy girl.
As the morning wore on, my anxiety increased. It was all so strange. An appointment for death seemed so counter to the natural order of life. Watching the clock and counting down the minutes. Death as a component of time. Before death. After death. And the time was set by me. I chose it.
10:00 to 11:00 was filled with foreboding and doubt. Was euthanizing my dog the right thing to do? Was this the right choice for my sweet girl? How could I let her go?
As I wrestled with the ethics of wielding my power to decide the time of her death, I almost found the peace I needed. I almost found the reconciliation between my heart and my mind. I laid on the floor with Sonagh and watched the DVR click over to 11:00.
I looked into her beautiful golden eyes and saw the missing piece. Her permission. She was tired. So very, very tired. She was ready.
My soul was at peace. The decision to euthanize my dog was the right decision, at the right time.
Ernie came home and we took turns telling Sonagh what a great dog she was and feeding her treats.
And then it was noon.
We heard Dr. Jim’s converted ambulance pull up in front of the house and put Wally and Murphy into our bedroom.
Dr. Jim came in and sat down next to Sonagh, talking so sweet to her. She loved Dr. Jim and licked his arm and hand as he stroked her.
It Was Time
I went to the kitchen to retrieve the remaining steak, with the addition of a few chocolate chips. In a phone conversation the previous day, Dena insisted I give Sonagh chocolate on her last day.
Why? Because she was a girl and girls need their chocolate. Dr. Jim was quite entertained by the presence of the chocolate chips and gave Sonagh her first ever taste. Her reaction was hilarious and we all had a good laugh, tension broken. It was going to be okay.
Dr. Jim again explained his process to humanely euthanize a dog. He would first tranquilize Sonagh, then we would move her out to his ambulance where he would euthanize her.
Ernie brought over Sonagh’s game time blanket and tucked it behind her as Dr. Jim prepared the tranquilizer. I held onto her and fed her steak, the tiny prick of the needle going into her rear haunch unnoticed.
She decided I was not delivering the steak fast enough. She stretched her head out and I moved the dish closer. She consumed all the remaining chocolate and steak. Ernie brought over the treat jar. Sonagh loved to eat and it was how she would leave us.
It takes the tranquilizer about five minutes to work. Dr. Jim went out to the ambulance to give us some privacy as we said farewell. We let Wally and Murphy out of the bedroom. They sniffed her, then lay down close by.
She slowed down. Her eyes glazed. She stopped eating the treats and put her head between her paws. I rolled her on her side as she slipped into unconscious and Ernie moved the blanket further under her.
Our little family sat silent for a few minutes before Ernie put the boys back in the bedroom. I stayed with Sonagh as he went outside to get Dr. Jim.
Together Ernie and Dr. Jim got Sonagh onto the blanket and carried her out to the ambulance. Dr. Jim would take her to be cremated and bring her home to us afterwards. Another benefit of euthanizing your dog at home – no drive to the veterinary office to pick up your dog’s ashes.
As Dr. Jim prepped the final euthanasia drugs, I told Sonagh who was waiting for her. I told her St. Francis was waiting to take her to Grandpa George (Dena’s father). Then I listed all her favorite dogs and people who were waiting for her on the other side of the bridge.
It took several attempts to administer the final, lethal drugs. When a dog is tranquilized it is harder to find the veins and, in big dogs, the veins are deeper. Dr. Jim apologized, but I was fine with it. Sonagh was unconscious; she didn’t know what was going on.
I just chalked it up to Sonagh being fierce to the end. I still laugh and shake my head when I think about it. That was my girl. A tough, old bitch, right to the last.
Then she was gone. I didn’t shed a tear as her breath stopped and her body passed into death. I was at peace and so was she.
As early as that afternoon, I noticed I was doing much better than I thought I would be. Ernie echoed the sentiment. Yes, we missed her. Yes, our hearts hurt. Yet when I look at Sonagh’s death and those of my other dogs, the contrast was astounding. Euthanizing our dog at home was more humane, and, by orders of magnitude, more peaceful.
We did not euthanize Sonagh in a cold, anxiety ridden, exam room. With the kind and gentle help of Dr. Jim, we eased her into the next life. She was in her own home, surrounded by her pack, eating grass fed steak and chocolate chips.
Quiet. Tender. Dignified.
A promise kept.
And it made all the difference.