If you follow me on Twitter then you probably saw my tweet about my god-dog recently being diagnosed with cancer.
I will refer to this beautiful 9-year old dog as “Lucy”.
I call Lucy my god-dog because her sweet mother asked me one day if I would take her two beautiful dogs if anything were to happen to her. Of course, I agreed.
Well, now Lucy’s mom is facing a heart-wrenching situation. Lucy has come home to spend her last days in the place that she is most comfortable, with the people and fur-brother she loves.
As reassuring as it may sound to have Lucy at home with her family, it presents a very difficult situation for her mom.
Knowing that Lucy is facing the end of her days, how does her mom know when it’s “time”?
A lot of people ask the same question – how will I know when it’s time?
Unfortunately, around 90% of dog parents have to make the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize their dog.
Yes, you read that correctly. Only 10% of dogs pass away naturally.
So, how do dog parents know when it’s time to make that decision?
“You’ll Just Know…”
There are a lot of dog moms and dads out there who say that “you’ll just know.”
I happen to be a believer in this school of thought…to a degree.
Many of us have such a close bond with our fur kids that we can anticipate their every move.
Jet’s dad often asks me how I know what Jet needs and when he needs it. My answer to him is always “moms just know these things!” But what I actually mean is that as Jet’s primary caretaker I can read his body language and anticipate his schedule.
Likewise, Jet can read me like a book.
Over time, dog parents develop this closeness with their dogs and so when precious life starts to slip away, there is a change that can be felt.
I explained this to my friend – “You know her,” I said, “you will feel the change, you will see it in her eyes.”
But do you always know? Do you always see it or feel it?
I have lost three dogs, all had to be euthanized due to cancer. Two of them let us know.
The first, an 8-year-old chocolate Lab with nasal cancer, the change was severe. It wasn’t so much knowing that death was approaching, it was knowing that we had to invite him in. The cancer had spread quickly into Elwood’s brain that the moment of diagnosis was also the moment that the decision was made to put him to sleep. His temperament had changed, he was unpredictable, in obvious pain, and uncurable. There really was no choice, no decision to be made, it was made for us.
The second, a 14-year-old great Dane-pit bull mix, had osteosarcoma. She acted like any senior dog and a previous CCL tear had left her limping. She managed with a limp for 3 years. Over time, though, she became weaker in her backend and then even getting to her feet was hard. A few weeks before she was put to sleep, Millie began having accidents in the house. It was always urinary accidents until one day, just a day or two before her passing, she had a bowel movement inside the house. A vet visit confirmed a diagnosis of osteosarcoma. She came home. Two days later she let us know. It was a look that did it. It was a look that said, very matter-of-factly, “I’ve had enough”. She was euthanized that day.
The third, a 9-year-old yellow Lab with unknown metastasized cancer. Sam was a stubborn dog, he didn’t let on that anything was wrong until around a month before his passing. At that time, he began showing signs that he wasn’t quite himself. At first, he was being a picky eater. This wasn’t too unusual for Sam so he was fed a more appealing diet. This worked for a while. Then, this last Christmas, Sam wouldn’t take fresh meat. He showed no interest in playing. He didn’t want to be near the family, he just wanted to lie on the cold tile floor away from everyone else. He had that look in his eyes. He knew it was time, we were all just a little slow to catch on. Just after Christmas Sam saw his vet and was diagnosed with metastasized cancer. He was riddled with tumors. He was euthanized that day.
How would I describe that look to someone who is anxious that they might miss it?
Have you ever looked in to the eyes of someone who is coming around from anesthesia? Someone who is quite obviously “somewhere else”. They are listening to you, looking at you, but at the same time they are somewhere other than “here”? That is how I would describe “the look.”
But What If You Do Miss It?
Worrying that you might miss “the look” is a common concern for pet owners.
Lucy’s mom, in fact, is exceptionally worried that she will miss it.
When Lucy’s mom expressed this concern to me, I gave her three pieces of advice.
Firstly, trust in your relationship with your dog. You know your dog better than anyone, you know their behavior, their body language, and their needs and you will notice changes in these things. Becoming preoccupied with “missing the look” however, can cause you to become less attuned to your dog, so try (as best as you can) to focus, be present, and remain calm.
Secondly, watch for behavioral cues. When you doubt your ability to read your dog’s unconscious cues, pay attention to the physical ones. Veterinary researchers have found a pattern of behaviors commonly found in dogs prior to their passing. Alone these behaviors can be symptomatic of various things, but in the context of end-of-life care, they can signal that time is drawing to a close.
- Around 3 months to 3 weeks before passing, many pet parents notice their dog beginning to lose weight, show signs of dehydration, have changes in bowel habits, have a duller expression to their eyes, and groom less frequently.
- Around 3 weeks before passing, many pet parents notice their dog beginning to lose even more weight, show respiratory changes, begin eating less, show less interest in activities or items that they once enjoyed, and they may even start to isolate themselves from family.
- In the last few days prior to passing, many pet parents notice their dog has lost an extraordinary amount of weight, has no interest in any activity or previous item of interest, a change in temperament, restlessness, a vacant expression, and even express a different odor.
Other signs to watch for in a pet in hospice care include:
- Loss of coordination
- Extreme or unusual fatigue
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Muscle twitching
- Decrease in respiration
- Loss of consciousness
- A change in proximity – a dog who likes to be clingy may suddenly become isolated and vice versa
Thirdly, if you truly doubt your ability to notice slight differences in your dog’s behavior or personality, use technology to your advantage.
Using your smartphone, take a video of your pet daily. Just a short video that captures your dog. Try to interact with them, offer treats, play with their favorite toy, get a full body shot, just don’t let them lie there doing nothing because this won’t tell you much at all.
Taking short videos like this on a daily basis will give you a solid visual to look back on if you begin to worry that your pup has started to go downhill. Look back to the first video, compare it to today’s and see just how much things have changed.
In the Meantime…
When the time comes for you to make the euthanization decision, you are more than likely going to be overwhelmed.
This is not going to be the time to make decisions in regards to your pet’s final arrangements.
Since this is information that your veterinarian is going to need after your pet’s euthanization, it is best to try and put arrangements in place ahead of time.
During the watchful waiting period hile your dog is in hospice care at home, try to get together everything you need so that you can simply hand it to your vet or call them with it ahead of time.
What do you need to do or know?
- Do you want to have your dog euthanized at home or at the vet?
- Does your vet offer in home services if that is what you want to do? If not, do you have a mobile vet option that you want to use?
- Who do you want present for the euthanization process?
- Do you want your dog to be cremated, buried, or do you want their remains returned to you?
- If you want your pet to be cremated, you will need to decide whether you want a private cremation or a communal cremation where multiple pets are cremated together and their ashes are mingled together.
- If you want your pet to be cremated, you will also need to decide whether you want their ashes returned to you or whether you would like your vet or someone else to spread them for you.
- If you are going to keep your pet’s ashes, have a container picked out to hold them and provide it to your vet.
- If you will be having your pet buried at a pet cemetary, you will need to give your vet the name of the cemetary since they will need to organize pick up of your pet. You will also need to contact the cemetary to arrange for a burial place as well as a final resting container.
- If you want your dog’s remains returned to you, you will need to ensure that personal burial of pets is allowed in the area where you live.
Regardless of which end of life options you select, make sure that you have a financial picture for the process. The last thing that you want to do at the moment that you have to put your dog to sleep, is have to make decisions on a budget.
Now, I know that all of these questions and options are overwhelming. No pet parent wants to have to deal with them at any point in time, but as your pet’s parent, it is your responsibility to ensure that all of the lose ends are tied and that your dog’s memory is appropriately honored.