Living with an elderly pet is like playing a game of Jenga. As each player removes a block from the tower and stacks it on top, the entire structure starts to sway. Each move makes the tower more unsteady. After enough turns, the tower collapses and the game is over. Similarly, every day with an elderly pet, in my case, our elderly dog, felt that same stressful anticipation as near the end of a Jenga game. The blocks were going to fall any moment. It was only a matter of time.
The changes happen slowly. Eventually, they stop doing the things they used to love to do. It is easy to blame a lot on their elderly age and to provide them excuse after excuse for why they aren’t as active as they were before.
But the reality is that at some point, they stop living. I mean, the pet is still alive but they are a shell of their former selves. Of course, nobody expects a 12-year-old dog to have the energy of a puppy, but at some point, they drift toward the background of your life. A breathing, panting presence who follows you around from room to room but doesn’t do much else.
It took me a long time to accept that it was time to let our dog go. She entered my life when I was 19 years old—too young to appreciate the work required with a puppy. She was a gift from my college boyfriend and came from the streets of Monterrey, Mexico. I smuggled her squeaky puppy self in and out of the no-dogs-allowed-dorms and she stayed at my boyfriend’s off-campus apartment when she discovered the volume of her bark.
Since then, in her 14 years of life, she had 13 home addresses in three different countries which are impressive feats of mobility for anyone, let alone a dog.
She was also a great running partner, and she helped me train for 5Ks, 10Ks, and eventually, two half-marathons. Despite moving around so frequently—we lived a gypsy life for a while—she somehow always knew her way home.
It was a running joke (hah! A run pun…) because, at the beginning of all of our runs, she would drag her feet and slowly head out with us. Trailing behind like an anchor.
However, as soon as we started to head back in the direction of home, even if it were a long loop route, her ears would perk up, and she’d zoom homeward.
Years later, when our son was walking and exploring the forest with us, we’d tell him, “If you ever get lost, just follow Bessie. She knows the way home.” Her inner compass never failed.
More than a breathing compass, running partner, and dedicated moving buddy, she became a nanny. After we had kids, she followed them around the house, always checking on them. While reading books in their room before bedtime, she’d wander in and scratch up the carpet to make a cozy spot for herself. Sometimes, she’d end up sleeping on the foot of their mattress, keeping watch over them.
This child-protective behavior extended to other children as well. Our friends watched Bessie while we were out of town and my friend reported back to me, “It was like she knew who needed her the most. She would check in on the boys before bed and she spent one night with each of us while you were away. She was always with the person who needed the emotional support.”
She was eternally patient with our daughter and never showed frustration from the million things toddlers do to soft animals who live at their eye-level.
Bessie was a sweetheart.
Per usual, when my veterinarian friend told me it was time to think about saying goodbye to her, I started researching other stories.
I wanted to learn more about the dying process. What was I going to feel as I held her one last time? Would I miss the moment when her eyes closed and she was gone? I didn’t want to miss anything. After years of living together, I didn’t want to miss her final moments.
I talked to numerous people about their pets and their stories. Not one of them said they felt they had put their dog down too soon. In fact, they all said that looking back on it, they had waited too long.
That’s the thing. You’re never going to want to do this. It’s not about that. It’s that your beloved pet deserves as painless a death as possible. Nobody wants to see their pet suffering and in pain at the end.
I started to accept the inevitable after I tried to find some nice pictures of her and I started scrolling through my phone. I noticed that she was in the background of all our recent pictures—no longer interacting with us.
Compared to pictures taken earlier in the year or late last year, where she was out on walks with us, in the recent pictures, she was sleeping on the floor of whatever room we were in at that time.
She was no longer actively engaging with the kids in play. My heart sank. She was telling me without saying a word. She was done.
Her coughing, which used to be limited to only nights, was now all of the time. Her heart disease was progressing quickly. We were already in her final week of life, but it would be painful and slow for her.
The internet says that pet owners will know when their elderly animals are too sick for life.
They often include but are not limited to:
– a notable change in behavior
– not eager to go for walks
– not eating
– loss of control of bowels
– excessive panting
Bessie wasn’t showing those signs for a while—or at least, that was my perspective. She could still go up and down the stairs. She still went out to go to the bathroom but she wasn’t going on walks anymore. About a month before we put her down, I noticed that she wasn’t eating her food like she used to. I bought a new brand of dog food, and then she ate even less.
A Slow Fade
The changes were insidious. It happened slowly over time. Bessie used to walk 1K with me to pick up the kids from preschool, but over time, she’s start to turn around at the halfway mark. Her perimeter around the house got tighter and tighter until she wouldn’t leave the front yard.
Well, she still likes car rides, right? I mean, if a dog doesn’t enjoy eating, walking, and car rides, there isn’t much left in a dog life, is there?
I took her on one last car ride the day before the end. I took her to the sea so she could breathe in the half-salty air and hear some new sounds. She didn’t have the patience for it and asked to go home after only a few minutes.
The morning of December 29th, we piled in the car to head for the veterinarian’s house. Bessie tried to squeeze in between the kids’ car seats, and she gave me a panicked look. She couldn’t turn around, and couldn’t sit down. She couldn’t get comfortable. I knew then that we had waited too long.
As much as I had been dreading the 29th and the emptiness I would feel when we said goodbye, I wish more that she didn’t have to experience that panic. We were already too late, which is ironic because when we first set the date, I thought we were taking her too soon.
The signs came down like an avalanche upon us, and that’s something that no website ever stated. If you’re checking off any (or many) of the signs they mention, you’re already too late.
We all have a blind spot when it comes to our elderly pets. They’ve been with us for so long that we can’t imagine life without them. Except we forget that they’ve already given us their best years. They’ve already made us laugh and smile and licked our tears. They’ve already given us the warmest cuddles. They don’t have any more to give us.
As morally wrong as it felt to set a superficial date of death, it felt worse to keep a best friend alive who was slowly dying and in extreme pain.
Bessie’s specific signs were:
- No longer eating whatever the kids dropped. They dropped a bowl of Cheerios around her and she didn’t move.
- No longer wanting to be touched.
- No longer wanting to go for a car ride.
- Coughing/hacking whenever lying down or walking.
- No longer eating her dog food.
A Beautiful Death
I knew that I couldn’t make her comfortable anymore, but I knew that I could make her death as pleasant as possible.
My veterinarian friend graciously offered her cozy kitchen instead of a cold, sterile clinic as a place for our final goodbye. She told us to bring high-value meats with us to feed her.
Armed with two packages of roast beef and a container of hot dog lovingly sliced into bite-size pieces, we brought her over to the warm blanket beside the wood-burning fireplace in her kitchen.
The veterinarian explained the process to the kids and said that they could be there if they wanted or they could watch a movie in the other room. They knew what we were there to do and didn’t have any questions. They floated in between the kitchen and watching the movie in the other room throughout the process.
“Are you ready to start? Feed her the meat while I give her the injection in her hind leg. She won’t feel anything because she’ll be busy eating. After a few minutes, she’ll get a little wobbly on her feet so help her lie down.”
We started feeding her slice after slice of roast beef, and she wolfed it down with gusto. This was the best day of her life.
The first injection relieved all pain, and she moved toward us. We kept feeding her slice after slice. She lied down and looked at the fire. We told her the entire time what a good girl she was and how much we loved her.
I offered her a slice of hot dog, and she didn’t take it. She wasn’t there anymore. Despite her eyes open and her head up, she was anesthetized and relaxed. We helped her lie down fully, and she started snoring loudly.
I thought about how wonderful it would be to eat your favorite foods—foods that were designated as special treats—and fall into a deep sleep on a cozy blanket next to a warm fire.
I kept petting her soft tiny head, and the vet let us have a few more minutes with her. We grabbed the kids and told them to say goodbye one more time to Bessie.
After five minutes or so, the vet placed the line in a vein in her front leg. She flushed it twice with saline to be sure that it would hold. She explained everything that she was doing while she did it, which helped me tremendously. She asked again if we were ready.
“When I give her the second injection, she’ll slowly stop breathing until her heart stops.”
Given that Bessie was dying of heart disease, I figured that it wouldn’t take much medicine to stop her heart. It didn’t.
Her snoring slowed until it stopped. Even after she stopped breathing, we kept petting her, not because she could feel it but because it was still comforting to us.
Even in death, pets provide their owners comfort. How amazing is that?
We stayed a bit longer and drank some tea. The kids came back in the room, and my daughter realized that Bessie wasn’t snoring anymore. She started to cry. My son sat next to me in silence.
Teaching the Kids About Death
It was essential for me to involve our kids in the process. They deserved to have their chance to say goodbye too. Over the past few months, I’ve been listening to podcasts, videos, and reading about the dying process.
They all said that we can trust one another with grief.
Dying is a part of the life cycle, and kids know that all living things die. My kids understood what was going on and I explained to them that Bessie was dying slowly and painfully. Giving her a peaceful way out was the best thing we could do for her.
They were understandably sad, like we were, and went through all of the stages of grief, like we were.
It helped that we were very clear with the kids. I had to overcome my own discomfort with the topic and not mince words. Hedging around the topic only led to more questions and confusion.
“Bessie is dying and she is in a lot of pain. On Friday, we are going to take her to our friend who will give her one shot to make her sleepy and will take away all of the pain. The next shot will stop her heart.”
Give your kids the space to ask questions, to be sad, and to call you a murderer. They’ll probably do all of that until they come to the realization, like you had, that it’s the best way forward.
We told our kids two days before her final day, which seemed to be enough time for them to process what was going to happen. It might be different for your kids but I encourage you to be honest and upfront with them.
You won’t be able to sneak this past them. You won’t be able to spare them the pain of loss.
For months prior, I had mentioned how old Bessie was and how she was no longer able to do the things she loved. It was all part of setting the stage so there were no surprises.
We all want more of the fun years. We want more of the middle years. The years where they are bouncing around, and their eyes light up when we walk through the front door. The years where they jump into the car for car rides and drag their leashes around the house asking to go for a walk.
The loss of those moments are the ones grieve.
Bessie’s death was better than what many humans experience. She was surrounded by her loving family, eating delicious food, and slowly falling asleep in front of a fire. What more could anyone ask for at the end of their lives?
Say Your Goodbyes Early
If you have an elderly dog who is a shell of their former self, I encourage you to say goodbye as often as possible.
For 10 days, I said goodbye to Bessie every chance I could. I got right in her face with tears streaming, and told her how much I loved her. Saying multiple goodbyes helped me feel closure on the final day.
Make the Environment Cozy
There are agencies who offer in-home veterinary services. I’d encourage you to seek that out even if it comes at an extra cost. The ability to say goodbye in the comfort of a home, without adding stress to your elderly pet is such a gift.
Bring a blanket and treats. Even if you have to head to a vet clinic, try to make it as comfortable as possible.
Ask the vet about the process, especially the length of time. Each vet does things differently. Ask how long the process will take because that will give you a sense of how long you have to say goodbye.
We watched a video on YouTube, which I do not recommend doing, and the first shot took a matter of seconds. It was a real jolt to watch a dog who was looking around and panting to slump suddenly into anesthetized sleep in less than 10 seconds. If the first injection acts quickly, then it is good to know. The injection our vet gave to Bessie was slower and gave us a gradual goodbye.
Be Prepared to Grieve for a Long Time
There’s no deadline on grief. You get to grieve your loss for as long as you want. You will never stop missing that unique and positive presence in your life no matter if it is a pet or a person.
In many ways, we love pets more than we love people (shhh, I know, don’t tell anyone) because pets love us unconditionally. They don’t judge us and the relationship feels pure. There aren’t any failed expectations or guilt trips to side step. Our pets love us without expecting anything in return.
After we got home, without Bessie, we watched old home movies and the kids got to see how much life she had lived. They got to see her play with them when they were babies—memories they didn’t have.
Dealing with the harsh realities of death will never be easy, but if we prepare and say our goodbyes, perhaps we can see some of the beauty in the end.