The article you don't want to read (but need to)
“How do I know when it’s time?” is a question Dr. Mary Craig gets asked regularly. Craig, of Gentle Goodbyes, a mobile end-of-life veterinary practice, helps pet owners make a tough decision by asking them a sobering question in return: “Would you rather be a day too soon or a day too late?”
A day too late could mean a frantic trip to an Animal Emergency Hospital in the middle of the night, and spell a traumatic end to your beloved pet’s life. Even taking your family dog or cat to your personal vet to be euthanized can be distressing for everyone involved. First, there’s that awful last car ride, followed by a barrage of unfamiliar smells, overly-exuberant animals in the waiting room, bright lights, and cold stainless steel—less than ideal circumstances for making your pet’s final exit as intimate and comfortable as it deserves.
So how do you know? Two years ago I was the
one making that tearful phone call to Dr. Craig when the life of our 13-year-old yellow Lab, Arthur was noticeably winding down. And yes, I asked that very question.
Dr. Craig was knowledgeable and soothing. She asked me direct questions. Was Arthur still eating and drinking water? Was he in visible pain? What about his mobility? Were there more good days than bad? Through sobs, I answered as honestly as I could, but I was still torn. I asked her to do an in-home evaluation. By the time she arrived a day later, Arthur had visibly rallied. That morning he retrieved the newspaper, ate a good breakfast, and then greeted Dr. Craig like a long-lost friend. What to do?
Dr. Craig suggested hospice care, a process I was well acquainted with for human beings, but had not realized was available for animals. Arthur would receive medication to ease his arthritis pain. Over the long term, these drugs can cause liver toxicity, but administered for the short term and exclusively for end-of-life care, they provide significant relief. Our job was to monitor Arthur’s daily quality of life.
Often we postpone the “inevitable” because we can’t imagine our lives without our adored animal companion, and ultimately make it even harder on the pet we love so dearly. “Animals instinctively don’t want to show weakness because in a pack or a pride, that can make it vulnerable,” explains Dr. Craig. “Pets may also conceal chronic pain. For animals pain doesn’t always mean crying out. If your pet is pacing, listless or lying on its side with its eyes open, it’s a good indication they are uncomfortable and pain issues need to be addressed.”
With Dr. Craig’s oversight, hospice care miraculously gave Arthur an additional five months with us, and we cherished that extra time. When the end finally came, it came quickly. One day, his hindquarters collapsed and we had to carry him outside to relieve himself. He looked at me with mournful eyes, and I just knew. I made the call. As the November sun streamed in on us through the window, Arthur lay on his favorite dog bed with his head in my lap. There was no rush, no sense that Dr. Craig had anyplace else she needed to be.
Afterwards, she made a soft clay impression of Arthur’s paw print that now sits next to a favorite photo of him on a shelf in our son’s room. Yes, the end was heart-rending and terribly sad but it was also a peaceful, beautiful, and gentle way to say goodbye.
I asked Dr. Craig how she could stand being cloaked in such sorrow day in and day out. She smiled and said, “The gratitude that I feel is just unbelievable. I’m helping at a very difficult time in people’s lives. I’m also able to relieve animal suffering in a profound way–those two dynamics create something very rewarding. I consider this a calling as well as a job.”
After Arthur’s death, our family experienced a collective emptiness. We cried and moped about the house and kept thinking we saw or heard our old friend. It was decided we’d wait for at least six months before even considering adding another canine companion to our family. But three weeks later I spied Duncan—a yellow Lab mix puppy—on a rescue web site, and my heart lurched. I knew without a doubt he was going to be ours. And I knew that Arthur would have approved.
(gentlegoodbye.org: services available in Westchester and Fairfield)