When one reads the word “debate” many things pop into mind. Often times it would be thought about in a political sense. This particular debate of which I refer takes place in my own mind, and I feel safe in saying it has likely taken place in the mind of many others.
This debate is over the life of my senior pet – my “pup”.
And it is also over that statement that everyone has heard over and over – “you’ll know when it’s time”. Easy to say, NOT always so easy to determine.
My old girl, Shelby, is approximately 14+ years old. I have personally had her for just shy of 13 years and they believe she was just over a year old at that time, after being in rescue for 5 months before I adopted her. A shout out to For Our Friends Rescue Group on Long Island for saving her all those years ago. They are a small but very caring group of people devoted to helping as many animals as they can!
Shelby has always been “different”. She has never been a cuddly dog, even to me personally, in spite of all our years together. She has shown me love, her particular version of affection. But you could never squeeze her and petting her had its limits before she felt it necessary to squirm away. Almost as if she didn’t want to get too comfortable with getting affection, nor overstep her welcome by showing too much enjoyment. She had to be cage trapped when she was rescued from running the streets. I assume she didn’t get much affection at all as a pup and therefore was very uncertain how to respond.
In all of our years together, the most I have gotten was a lick or two on the arm, and a small nudge of affection now and then, but never a kiss of any other sort. She has thought about doing so I believe, but could never give me that special lick. But when I would come home she would do her happy dance, and make me follow her out the door to do a small game of play bow dance and chase. We definitely have had our special connection.
She has also caused me angst over the years by just being the dog she is. Growing up on the streets I assume she had to learn to hunt for food. She has lain in wait, for hours, for various animals hiding in our yard, and yes, killed them. One Thanksgiving I looked out the window to see her having hasenpfeffer. And sadly, many a ground hog lost its life in our yard along with even mice. She also taught me that opossum really do “play dead”….. Apparently that trick saved the life of a few of them until I went to move them and realized they were coming out of their comas. And there has been her continual habit of trying to go after a skunk on the other side of the fence. The one small problem with that…..we have a CHAIN LINK FENCE. She, and I, have smelled with skunk more times than I can count. Seriously, I actually have lost count with how many times she has been sprayed. I started calling her stinky over the years. Her prey drive, for animals, was always strong, but for some dogs that is something that just can’t be helped.
Fortunately that prey drive was never something against people. She could bark from the other side of the gate, or while looking out the window, but if someone came near her she would run in the opposite direction. Since she wasn’t a cuddler she also had no desire to interact with people and would always be happier keeping to herself. She was always a loner in general.
As such a loner, she also didn’t like “toys”. She was never one for fetch or playing by herself. She didn’t even care too much for chewing on bones and never chewed anything off limits inside the house. She could eat certain types of things, but even a nice big ham bone would get buried instead of gnawed on all day. Outside, she might very rarely play with a toy. I caught her doing so every blue moon. In the house however she would just lay down and essentially not do anything except eat what you gave her….IF… she felt like it. Yes, even food has not been a motivator for her – one of the reasons I have said she has been “different”. I could put a plate of roast beef in front of her and she could actually walk away from it, maybe going back and eating it later.
All in all though, she has been the perfect dog and well traveled too without issue. No excessive barking, loved to howl along with sirens. Never got underfoot or bugged you in any way. Loved laying outside all day long. So much so I bought heated beds so she could lay on the deck in cooler weather to go along with the regular beds for warmer days just because she just enjoyed keeping watch over her domain. We even built our deck with a ramp instead of stairs because she doesn’t like big staircases. (it works well for us too) We call her the queen, as that yard was indeed her territory and she has loved and known every inch of it. With the dog door she has had 24/7 access and could come and go as she pleased.
But Shelby isn’t the Shelby of old anymore. Months back she even stopped being able to use the dog door. She has much trouble walking most days and it is clear there is a dementia aspect to her life now. She has wandered and paced during the day and during the overnight. I discovered some supplementation which improved her situation greatly over this past year, both physically and mentally, but it seems it was short lived.
Now my house is covered with disposable and washable pee pads since at times it seems she can’t remember to go out, or might actually fear struggling to go outside as her legs slide on the deck or she gets caught by surprise at how quickly she needs to go. Since she has always been skittish using a doggy diaper isn’t the best mode for her. For some people, that might be enough to make the decision to euthanize. But it is harder for me.
A month before I got Shelby in 2004 I made the decision to euthanize my dog Barney – also 14 at the time. He had been having problems and getting weaker and was peeing blood and tests could not pinpoint anything except that they said he did appear to have a prostate tumor which they assumed was now causing the issues. I relented to end his suffering. Immediately after doing so I found a tick burrowed under the skin in his ear. I had seen him rub his ear a few times but never saw anything on the surface. And now it was too late. In the past he had a tick or two that caused issue with his urinary tract, and once removed, the issues stopped. But I never found anything this time, I missed the signs he was giving me. So that was my regret and it hurt worse than the decision I tried to be strong to make.
And now I am struggling once again. It is the one thing every pet owner knows will happen, but yet we get ourselves into this over and over because we know the joy outweighs that pain. I still have another dog, but it doesn’t diminish the history I have with Shelby. I clean up poop and pee every single day, and I am exhausted at catering to her abnormal schedule, and depressed at times not being able to go places or concentrate on projects because I need to account for her, but I can’t just let go.
I read many an article discussing dog dementia and how the dog is no longer happy since they are not the animal they once were so it is humane to make the decision. But if we compare that to people – are we not the same in old age? We get depressed because we can’t do things the same way anymore due to illness or injury or simply that common sense has set in. Does that mean life should be over? Animals can be content just to “be”. Be in your presence, be accepted, be loved, be petted and be pampered.
I am also of the thought that we learn from our experiences. That God brings things before us for certain lessons. Have I learned things from watching her deterioration? Yes. I have learned things about myself, and about her care and adaptations I have made. How it can be applied to other areas of my life or even that of others to whom I can give advice. We learn from the dying process – especially as we watch others. If the aging or dying of a loved one is just an inconvenience, then it can be more about you than them. Resilience can be learned, perseverance, tolerance, patience, love, thankfulness. The list is endless if you understand what to look for WITHIN the process – how it affects you and them.
There is also one small thing that I owe to this connection I have shared with Shelby. I believe she saved my life. Now many people have said this sort of thing when referring to an animal, as they know they have helped them mentally cross many hurdles in life. But I think she actually brought me back from that “edge” between life and death.
There was a point in time where I was dealing with an unusual amount of stress. A loved one had just died suddenly and other forces were at play that were causing me GREAT angst. I went to sleep one particular night and my dream seemed to be that of a crossing over. It is hard to describe, but I knew my loved ones were just beyond this point in my dream and I was reaching for this gate, for this “light”. There was an amazing peace in this decision to go beyond this dividing line, even though I knew what I would be leaving behind. As I made the decision to reach, a shaking collar awoke me. Shelby had woken up and come to the side of my bed and shook her collar so that her tags caused enough noise to wake me up. She had the ability to go out on her own if she needed, just leave the room and go out the dog door as she had done many times before. There was no reason to wake me to take her out or do anything for her, but yet she woke me up. As soon as she did I remembered my dream. As hard as it is to believe, it is as if she did what she did to bring me back from that edge. Much like dogs are trained to alert an owner of an impending seizure or diabetic emergency – perhaps that is what she sensed. Is it true? No way for me to prove that one. But to know my state of mind, to know vividly what I was dreaming at that moment and what it could have meant to me physically, is the only proof I can offer. I have even wondered if God used her to say “not now, it’s not your time yet”.
So how do I just send her off, when she pulled me back? I can rationalize both sides of this issue till the cows come home – but it doesn’t make it easier. Is it for my convenience or her supposed comfort? Are the lessons she can teach me over? Even in her current state of being I get joy from her. But I know she is weak and tired and achy most of the time and I do know that when she poops unexpectedly sometimes that she feels bad about it.
In the past few months, in her weakened state, I have had the opportunity to snuggle her more than I have over the first 12 years together. No squirming, well at least hardly any. I have even been able to pick her up and hold her on my lap, having her even fall asleep on me. In those moments, as I stroked her weakened body, I might have been able to let go easier. Does that make sense? The idea of picking her up and taking her to a place to say good bye makes it harder. Now I do understand I could ask or seek a vet to do it in my own home, but it still is like picking a date and time for the finality. An appointment for death. Perhaps that is the hurdle my mind can’t get past. And I am certain many know that feeling too.
I have prayed over the months that God would take her in her sleep. I want her to be in the middle of a great dream, running and chasing something, or maybe even dreaming about greeting me when I came home, anything that makes her happy, and then leave this realm. If only I could make that peacefully happen.
In the middle of writing this I just cleaned up more pee and poop. And had to wipe paws from stepping in it too. And yet, it doesn’t bother me.
I was with my dad essentially every day during the last months of his life. He battled complications from bleeding ulcer surgery including c-diff and other infections at the age of 86. I watched the daily dying process that takes place in the mind and spirit as the body prepares itself. It was not easy, but I understood. I learned many things during that time, and I can say I am thankful for that special experience including watching him take his last breath. I had also witnessed my mom take her last breath 3.5 years before.
It is not that I cannot handle death. It is simply that it is gut-wrenching to plan to end life.
That being said however, if I truly knew there was disease and pain, as I was told was the case with Barney, I could rationalize easier the decision. I know cancer can cause extreme pain that meds can’t alleviate. I look at Shelby limp sometimes and I try to tell myself that she is perhaps in some pain in addition to weakness, as the vet could not detect anything else except symptoms of old age. And then, she spends some time walking out the kinks of a long night of sleep and regaining some strength with some food, and goes and runs across the yard in a burst of energy and I am right back to indecision. On the bad days, the bad moments, you can justify. And then those good moments, when you see some kind of perkiness in her eyes, it rips your heart out. A continuous roller coaster ride of emotion.
I began writing this piece a few days ago and never finished – almost certain I would be making an appointment with the vet by now due to how weak she seemed to become – the reason I started writing my feelings down. The next day I decided to try just “one more thing”. Over the months, after the vet seemed to have no significant answers, I am forever researching things that could help her condition. And with that “one more thing” came another resurgence for her. I was absolutely miserable the one night and my husband saw her deterioration also, and then…… I gave her a stronger dose of a supplement and a few hours later she was outside running across the top of the iced over snow we had received a few days earlier. This dog who was limping and could barely stand was now maneuvering over the ice like she had no issues. And my husband said – nope, not yet I guess. And the roller coaster continues.
But what is odd, or rather neat – is that apparently my lessons from her were still not over. As I researched the supplements I gave her I learned much about B-12 and its various bioavailable forms. How it can not only help with energy and with nerve conditions (the original reason I was giving her B-complex), but with sleep also, as it can correct circadian rhythms in the body. One of her issues has been poor sleep at night, pacing the floor and walking into things, which has caused me to have poor sleep. Now, understanding more about B-12 and the better forms of it, has helped me regain better sleep, might help another friend and her dog, and maybe it helped Shelby a bit too. And maybe a few of you reading this will benefit also…… Shelby has actually had some better sleep the last few days which helps my household.
My roller coaster will continue for a little while longer. I will see if an adjustment in her supplements will improve her longer term instead of just mildly improving these past few days. And I will continue the debate inside me when I see her weaker moments. If she can no longer walk one day, or stops eating, can no longer get herself up to drink or wander around – that is when “I will know it’s time”. It could be tomorrow, or a week or month from now. Maybe some say I am promoting suffering. There are days I too try to get up and ache or my old herniated discs remind me I abused my body, but it doesn’t mean it’s time to go. Even a limp doesn’t mean it’s over. I still see “Shelby” in her eyes sometimes – even when we go near the treat closet.
So why did I write this? Therapy I guess. And maybe to bring some solace to others who are themselves debating and wonder also “how will I know it’s time?” I have gotten looks from people when I describe what I go through with her. As if they are saying to themselves that I am the one who has the issue. But then, some can pretend they can make the decision easier, but if put in the same place, it wouldn’t be as easy. Each case is different because each life is different. I know my life in general will be easier when she is gone, but I am fortunate right now that I can be at home and support her on a daily basis. Many do not have that option and it drives their decisions, as it might mine if I were in that position. But as long as I can continue, and I feel she is not suffering more than general aches and pains, I will support her, try to help ease those aches, and learn from each day what I can.
I also wanted to give some advice to pet owners. I am no expert – just a long time pet owner like many of you, so take it as you will. As your pet ages, I have learned that vitamins are actually important to give to them – not at the end of their lives but rather in their mid years. During early symptoms with Shelby, two years ago, I had given her some treat type vitamins and noticed improvement – I wish I had been more diligent at that time to nip problems in the bud before they blossomed into bigger issues by starting her on more concentrated supplements back then. Unfortunately, I had to be out of the house continuously for a period of time assisting an ill family member and I was distracted from recognizing things sooner and then they seemed to progress faster. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.
For your pet, you can start with the treat kind as they are well balanced for age and can help to supplement their diet without needing to get them to take a pill form. As the body ages, it doesn’t always absorb the nutrients from the food eaten – and some of the claims of nutrition of those processed foods may not be as they say. Just look at all the food recalls for various issues and you might be able to understand. Your pet needs extra help in supporting their immune system to fight off bad food, tainted water in our water systems, improper and insufficient nutrition and illness they may encounter from bugs and other animals. Just like we may take a multi-vitamin, they can benefit too. If you would like to know a great B-Complex vitamin, in pill form – try Thorne Research’s B ComplexVET. It is an excellent product and made a huge impact on Shelby’s nervous system when first introduced. They put the best form of bioavailable B-12 and Folate in the product which can help with mental acuity and overall cell and nerve function in the body. I now also give it to my other dog, Trinity, who has Cushing’s disease, and have noticed some positive improvements in her in a short period. If your pet always seems to be extra stressed, B-Complex is an important supplement for humans and pets. Thorne Research makes other supplements for pets and people too. Another vet recommended line of supplements is RX Vitamins for Pets. Both of these are higher quality supplements and I will admit have a price to go along with them too. I do not have an interest in either company or get any compensation for recommending them – I just have used them with positive results. Though I have also used and still use other brands as well. PLEASE discuss your concerns during your next vet visit and I am sure they will be happy to make some suggestions for you and make certain that any dosage of any supplement is appropriate for your pet’s needs or underlying conditions.
Pet owners, rather pet lovers, are a special breed of people. We know we will have our hearts ripped out at some point when that particular day comes. But yet, we know the journey is worth it – and we will likely beat ourselves up again in the same way over and over. On a daily basis we eat pet hair, we wear pet hair, even on our fancy clothes. We have covers on our couches and chairs, and our houses may just smell a bit from wet dog, or accidents. And we are perfectly content with it all.
Caring for a pet, as is the same with any person who has special needs or is ill, can be all consuming. I am supposed to be finishing up a different writing piece, but with all of this working behind the scenes of my life, my focus is split and it has pushed that project back. And then I wonder, is God at work having Shelby shake her collar again? Is it part of something I need to learn and experience before I can finish that book? Perhaps it was simply needing to write this so it reaches someone else experiencing the same anguish as I. A way of letting you know you are not alone. And if my pain and indecision helps you in some small way – then it is worth it all.
I guess I “will know when it’s time”.
Blessings to you!