Though I have touched on euthanasia a few times in the blog, I think this is an important topic that warrants visiting it again. As a veterinarian, I honestly feel that one of the most important things I can do is to help my clients know when it is time to say goodbye. I think knowing when it is time is just as important as the actual act of helping people say goodbye. Today, I had a few tough and sad euthanasias, that made me want to revisit this difficult part of being a pet owner.
Early in my day, we added in an appointment for Olivia (name changed). Her parents were worried it was time. She was only 9 years old, but had been diagnosed with metastatic lung disease a few months ago, that was clearly progressing. She was at the point where she was having trouble breathing, especially at night and had stopped eating in the past 2 days. Her owners loved her deeply, and didn’t want her to suffer.
Over lunch, another wonderful client rushed in with their baby, Danny (name changed). I say baby because he was a baby – only 3 years old, poor Danny was diagnosed with suspected osteosarcoma (a bony tumor) 4 months before, and his family rushed him in today because it had spread to this skin and he had multiple skin tumors, one of which was now profusely bleeding. We talking for a few moments about our options, which were unfortunately very limited. We could try to remove the bleeding tumor – but what about all the other skin tumors that were oozing? What about the known tumor in his leg that was causing him to not be able to use his hind leg? What was the right choice for this very young dog, in a terrible situation?
“Doc, how will I know when it is time?” I have been asked this question so many times, more than I can count. This answer is different for every client, but I can tell you, that you will KNOW. The day they stop eating, the day they don’t want to be a part of family activities, the day they won’t get up for a treat. You will know. It is hard – so hard, to say goodbye to our best friends. But I always like to say that this is the last kind act – the last thing we can do for our friends, is to give them the gift of peace. Give them the gift of a deserved rest so they don’t have to fight any more, they don’t have to be in pain any more. It is hard to be the one to make the decision, but they count on us to do it for them, and it is a blessing that we have the honor of being able to give them this gift.
After I looked at Danny today, with tears in my eyes over how unfair life can be, I slowly made my way out to his parents to have that talk. The one I mentioned above about knowing it is time, and doing what is best for our best friends. His parents totally agreed, but asked me for a final favor. Could I make him comfortable for one last adventure? Of course I could, and would be honored. We loaded him up with some pain medications, and placed a whole-body bandage to control his bleeding tumor, and his parents took him for a final adventure. “I am here the rest of the afternoon,” I told them, “So just come back when you are ready, and we will help you say goodbye.” They went for a walk, they had some ice cream and brownies, and even a hamburger, and when he came back, they were ready to say goodbye.
I think there are a few important points here. There is always a choice – sometimes we want to try heroics, sometimes we just want to keep them comfortable, and sometimes we know it is time and that is that. But there is always a choice, and we are here to help you make it, not make it for you. Two is that we are here to help you say goodbye to your best friend. If that means we do it at your house, we can make that happen. If that means you need a few hours to spend some time and have a last adventure (as long as they can enjoy that), we can make that happen. If that means we need to say goodbye right now, well that’s one of the reasons we are here for you.
I personally have had varied experiences with our final day. With Sawyer, we knew it was coming, so got to plan a cherish session with a photography friend of mine, who took some amazing pictures of us saying goodbye to the very best boy, and laughed through our tears as he tore through a carrot cake made just for him. With Fiona, she ate her very own cookie and cake, and had a final walk, snuffling all her favorite things! With Harley, we went for a hike, and he ate lots of chicken, and snuggled up with us for some love before he drifted away. All of them said goodbye at home, surrounded by those who loved them.
I think it is important in this arena to do what feels right to you – every person and their pet is going to need to say goodbye in their own way, and that’s ok. What is right for one family, is not right for another. Though this part of being a vet is always hard, and always sad, I also mean it when I say that I am always honored to be a part of this journey. From the happy hello, to the heartbreaking goodbye, and everything in between….going on this journey with our clients is one that I am so glad I get to be a part of.