Euthanizing Dobby was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. While the support from friends, family, and the online community was absolutely amazing (and, to be honest, a bit overwhelming), I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a hole in my life that Dobby used to fill. There are still moments when I’m taken by surprise at his absence, times when I expect to turn around and see him lying on my bed or wriggling with joy in his crate with his ever-present squeaky ball in his mouth.
I’ve written before about coping with the loss of a friend. Obviously, I process best by writing, and others grieve in other ways. There’s no wrong way to grieve for your dog, and whatever you feel when you lose a beloved companion is entirely normal and okay. I’ve had to remind myself of this at times when something silly, like a song or an unexpected memory hits me like a punch in the gut and I feel tears well up once again. Grief is a healing process, and just like healing from a physical injury, it takes time for the wound to stop hurting.
There’s a distinct lack of information online about what to expect if you, like me, are put in the heartbreaking position of euthanizing a young dog for health or behavioral concerns. Personally, knowing what to expect during the euthanasia itself was incredibly helpful. Having assisted with and performed multiple euthanasias during my time as a veterinary technician and the head trainer at an animal shelter, I knew what the process would look like and what options were available to me. My hope is that by writing about my experiences, I can help others who are in similar situations. If you are considering euthanasia for your dog, whether your dog is sixteen years or sixteen months, whether your dog is physically healthy but emotionally hurting or simply ready to leave a body that can no longer keep up with his mind, my heart goes out to you.
Over the next month, we’ll discuss several aspects of euthanasia, including how to know when it’s time, scheduling the appointment, what to expect during the procedure itself, special considerations for if you have multiple pets, and thoughts for after it’s done. Today we’ll discuss how to know when it’s time to say goodbye.
One of the hardest questions I dealt with in Dobby’s final months was knowing when it was time. Logically, I knew that I had exhausted every option and that Dobby wasn’t going to suddenly get better. I knew that he was frequently scared, that I was exhausted from managing his environment to keep him and those around him safe, and that my other dogs were sometimes frightened of him. Emotionally, however, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I talked with him about it, and got a strong sense from him that he did not want to die.
The turning point for me happened one night when Dobby had a seizure. I had tried to trim his nails earlier that evening, something that he used to behave very well for. He would lie upside down, loose as a noodle, ball in his mouth, while I trimmed his toenails. About six months ago, this changed after a series of seizures left him touch sensitive and defensive. Toenail trims became very difficult, and even when I went very patiently and slowly, feeding him after each nail, Dobby would act frightened as soon as I touched his foot. He had never been quicked or had a bad nail-trim experience, but the way he processed tactile stimulation changed due to his seizures.
This particular evening, Dobby screamed and snapped at me with the first nail I trimmed, urinating in fear. I immediately stopped trying to trim his nails, but half an hour later he had a seizure. After his seizure he was scared and confused, and attacked my youngest dog when she bumped him as she jumped up next to him on the couch. When I intervened, he went after me, and it took all of my extensive handling experience to safely move him to a crate where he could sleep off the effects of the seizure in peace.
As I looked at him, curled up in a protective, frightened ball in his crate, I got a very strong sense that he was ready to go. I got the feeling that it was too hard for him to continue living in a body where small stresses could cause so much pain, and that he was exhausted from living this way. I made his euthanasia appointment the next day.
Your story will likely be different. In many cases, veterinarians tell owners that they will just know when it’s time, and sometimes, like with Dobby, that’s true. However, you may also not know. It’s okay if you feel doubtful or unsure. It’s a big decision to make, and I think doubt is an entirely normal response to making such a huge choice for your dog and your family.
Many of my clients who euthanize their dogs for behavioral reasons do so when they do not feel that they can keep others safe from their dog or when they feel that their dog’s quality of life is so poor that it is not fair to ask them to continue living. In Dobby’s case, I kept a journal where I tracked his good days, his bad days, and his seizures with the thought that when his bad days outnumbered his good days it might be time, but the journal was ultimately not the deciding factor. When I reviewed his final month, he had an equal number of good and bad days, and had an average of one seizure very 5-6 days.
Sometimes it can be helpful to think of factors that will help you make the decision ahead of time, way before you’re faced with the decision. Some people advise making a list of five of your dog’s favorite activities. When your dog is no longer interested in three of those five activities, that might be the appropriate time. I’ve decided that with Layla, it will be time to consider euthanasia when she’s no longer interested in eating, chewing on bones, going on walks, going places with me, or chasing critters.
Regardless of how you come to the decision, I can say that I have never heard anyone say that they wish they had waited. I have, however, heard many, many people say that they wish they had said goodbye sooner. If your dog is in pain (whether physical or emotional) and you cannot help them manage that pain, it may be a great kindness to say goodbye.
As hard as it was to euthanize Dobby, I regret waiting so long. Looking back, I feel like I made exactly the right decision – I personally needed to feel like I’d tried everything, and until the night of his seizure I got a strong sense from Dobby that he wasn’t ready to give up either. However, his final months were certainly much harder than the previous years, and he was often confused or disoriented due to the brain damage from his seizures. My other dogs also had a difficult few months, as Dobby could be unpredictable and aggressive. Making the decision sooner could have saved all of us from a lot of stress, but I find a lot of comfort in having exhausted all available options. There are no “what ifs” in my situation – they were all explored completely.
Regardless of your situation, knowing when to say goodbye is a very personal decision. If you’ve made this choice for a dog you cared for, how did you come to your conclusion? What did you consider, or did you just know when the time was right? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.