How do you know when it’s time to release your animal friends from their bodies?
by Ardeth De Vries
Some of our old dogs leave their bodies without assistance from us. Their deaths are “natural” and require no intervention. However, one of the most difficult, yet very necessary, aspects of our work here at Old Dog Haven is making the decision to allow dogs to move on to their next expressions of spirit when their bodies fail them and their quality of life becomes seriously compromised. These dogs depend on us to help them make their transition, and we perform that final service for them with love and respect.
We know that many people who find their way to our website share their homes with old dogs, and it is our hope that the following thoughts may be of help to those people who are agonizing over the end-of-life decisions that often must be made with regard to an animal friend: (Note: We’ve used the generic “him” to refer to individual dogs rather than the awkward “him/her” references.)
If your animal friend is unable to function in a way that assures you that he is still enjoying a good quality of life, then it’s time to seriously consider releasing him from his body. Severe incontinence caused by kidney failure, inability to eat, impaired mobility, lack of interest in surroundings, restless movement during sleep often caused by pain, disorientation and confusion, severe vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, failed vision and hearing loss are all symptoms which indicate that your friend’s body is failing. If you haven’t already done so, make an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the seriousness of the symptoms. Ask for a blood analysis, have x-rays taken if necessary, and in short, have your veterinarian perform whatever diagnostic tests might be helpful. If there is no treatment available to radically alter the symptoms you are seeing, then it’s time to release your friend. Within this context, be very careful about having painful treatments or heroic surgery performed on an old dog that is suffering. He doesn’t deserve to endure more pain just because you don’t want him to die. We don’t ever want our animal friends to die, but that wanting is unreasonably self indulgent, and allowing them to waste away and suffer isn’t fulfilling your promise to care for them in all phases of their lives.
Don’t procrastinate just because the decision you face is a difficult one
Have the strength to do the right thing because you love and respect your animal friend. Indulging in “Maybe he’ll be better tomorrow” thoughts only prolongs the inevitable, and will surely invite you to revisit those thoughts with strong feelings of guilt at a later date because you waited too long. Trust your intuition and rely on your connection with your animal companion. Put aside your own unwillingness to let your friend go because you will miss him. This time in your animal friend’s life is not about you. It’s about showing him that you love him enough to let him go.
Talk to your dog about your concerns
You’ve established a pattern of communication with your dog that works for both of you. Let your friend know that you think it may be time to let him go. Trust that he will hear you and understand that you’re ready to release him. Dogs are very loyal and intuitive companions, and if your friend understands that you’re ready, he will rest easier knowing that peace will soon come to him. Don’t even doubt for one minute that your friend will hear you. Dogs know what we’re thinking and feeling — often far better than we do — and your thoughts and feelings will be heard.
If you are able to draw on your reserve of strength to make the decision necessary to release your friend from his body, reach inside of yourself one more time and stay with your dog after you bring him to the veterinarian to have the injection administered that will send your friend on his way. (Some veterinarians will come to your home if you’d prefer to have your friend leave in a familiar setting, and if you are able to arrange this, that’s the best possible way of saying good-bye.) Regardless of location, your presence is very important at this most difficult time. Being able to hold your dog and feel all of the pain and discomfort slip away is a necessary conclusion to your physical friendship. Ask the veterinarian to sedate your friend so there is absolutely no discomfort involved for either of you.
Understand that death is just change
Certainly you will grieve for the loss of your animal friend’s physical presence, but know that you will always carry the love you shared with you. That permanence of spirit never changes.
We hope that these thoughts are of some help to you as you face end-of-life decisions involving your animal friends. If you feel a need to talk with someone about this topic, please contact our pet loss counselor, Ardeth De Vries, at firstname.lastname@example.org
about the author
Ardeth De Vries, author of Old Dog Haven: Every Old Dog Has a Story to Tell, First Light: Animal Voices in Concert, and A Space Between, is Executive Director of Old Dog Haven, and has lived with special needs senior dogs for over 50 years. Ardeth also writes articles for the Old Dog Haven website, blog, and counsels people about end-of-life decisions, grieving and the care of senior dogs.