How Do You Know When It’s Time?

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My friend Charisse and I had planned a rather last-minute day out. I’d gotten an email from an artist whose pottery we both admired, informing me of sale of her wares in a village 30 minutes up the road, and I looked forward to the trip with keen anticipation, given that I might score a usually-pricey piece of majolica at a more affordable price, and because Charisse is terrific fun. Her opening gambit, though, as I settled into her car, caught me by surprise.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether it’s time to put Olivia down.” Olivia is her 16-year old Poodle/Pomeranian mix. I knew that the dog had some dementia issues – Charisse had mentioned them after reading my TSN article on feline dementia a few months back – but I’d no idea things had progressed this far. I turned her comment over in my mind and gave the matter some thought.

“Well,” I began, “my usual criteria is suffering. If there’s so much as a hint of it, that’s it. I don’t want any animal of mine suffering at all. Do you think Olivia is suffering?” Charisse shrugged in that way that said that she wasn’t entirely sure; that whatever suffering there might be was of a negligible degree.

“I’m not sure,” she replied, “I mean, she’s half blind, mostly deaf, and thoroughly incontinent. Does that constitute suffering?”

I shrugged in turn. “It’s entirely likely that her symptoms have come on so slowly that they’re simply normal to her. Is she eating?” Eating is also one of my criteria. If an animal stops eating, it’s a good indicator that he’s ready to go.

Charisse nodded vigorously. “Yes! She eats, she wees, she poos. Granted, she wees and poos in the house, but I don’t mind cleaning it up.”

“Well, as long as you don’t mind, then it’s not really a problem, I suppose.”

“There was the time she tried to jump up on the ottoman and missed…” she said, her voice trailing away.

“Did she get hurt?” I asked. Charisse shook her head.

“It didn’t seem like it,” she answered. Our pet euthanasia conversation continued for the better part of the rest of the drive.

“A long time ago,” I mused, “I was caring for a terminally ill cat. There was no question but that he would die – although he surprised everyone by holding out for over a year. The only question in my mind was whether he would die in his sleep, or whether I would have to put him down. And I certainly didn’t want to put him down too soon. I asked the veterinarian’s staff – many times – how I would know when it was ‘that time.’ They just kept telling me, ‘you’ll know,’ and I kept asking them, ‘yes, but how will I know?’ Their answer being, obviously, quite vague.” Charisse nodded. “Finally, they told me, ‘he’ll go off his food.’ Right, then, that’s something concrete to go on.”

“Several times, in that year, he refused his food. I rang and arranged to take him in later in the day [to put him down], and several times, in that year, I rang again and canceled. I needed to be sure, you see. And I wasn’t, entirely, because I was always able to coax him to eat something. You have to be sure, in your own mind, before you put Olivia down. Otherwise, you’ll spend the rest of your life asking, ‘What if I did it too soon?’” Charisse bobbed her head in understanding.

Our discussion had me thinking, though. As The Critter Lady, I’ve had to euthanize any number of animals, over the decades. And given that there are 4 elderly cats in my home, I will have to confront the issue 4 times in the next few years. One always hopes that their pet dies peacefully in its sleep, sparing us the agony of having to make such a difficult decision. But in my experience, it rarely happens that way. Of the countless animals I’ve cared for, only one – an aged duck named Ethel – actually went to sleep and never woke up. The rest all required me to put their well being first, and my own wants and needs last. It’s never easy.

It was that terminally ill cat I mentioned earlier that really brought the euthanasia issue home to me. I had put down exactly one animal before then, and there was never any question that I’d made the right decision: the cat was elderly, diagnosed with diabetes, and I knew that her temperament would never allow for all the treatments required. Mind you, that made the decision no easier; I cried my heart out over her death. But I never questioned whether it was the right thing to do, or the right time for it.

Since then, the situations presented to me have been fairly cloudy – grey areas where you could just as easily decide to wait a bit longer. Not out of selfishness, mind, but because the animal in question seemed to rally somewhat, and I didn’t want to short-change them, rob them of whatever time they might still have left. I image that some of you have found yourselves in similar circumstances.

So how do you know when it’s ‘that time’?

As I mentioned previously, suffering is my number one criteria. If there is any suffering at all – pain, no quality of life – then it’s off to the vet’s office. But what about when the suffering might be alleviated somewhat? Or the time for dying deferred somewhat? It is perhaps the word ‘somewhat’ that must be considered.

I had another cat – I’ve always got at least one on hand – who was 14 when she started breathing heavily. I noticed it when she would lie on the sofa next to me. It was as though her lungs were having difficulty drawing in air. She’d been doing it for a few weeks before it dawned on me that I should take her in and have her looked at. I don’t know about you, but I always go into these examinations with the naive expectation that the problem can be solved. Imagine my distress in those situations where that is not the case.

The doctor told me that Muffin had fluid around her heart, and that the kind thing to do would be to put her down. I asked whether there were any alternatives to hand. The doctor said that she could extract the fluid with a needle, but that it would only buy Muff a short amount of time, and the fluid would keep coming back. Clearly, it was time to do the one thing that hadn’t even crossed my mind. And while the decision itself was an easy one to make, the actual doing of the thing was not.

The veterinarian gave Muff a shot of something that would, in the doctor’s own words, ‘make her see purple butterflies’ – the idea being to calm Muff before the second injection. After the first shot was given, the doctor withdrew, allowing me time to say good-by. But how much time does one need? Is there ever a good time, a time after, say, 15 minutes (or whatever) in which you are completely ready for that final injection to happen? Of course not. I sent the doctor away twice before allowing her to give Muffin that shot.

If I had a formula for making the euthanasia decision easier, believe me, I would have given it to you (and Charisse) in the first paragraph of this article. But I don’t. I can only tell you my own personal belief, which is this: my animal companions give me so much love, and joy, that I owe it to them to ensure that their entire lives be happy, safe, and comfortable. That includes dying time, as well as living time.

Too often, in all my years spent ferrying critters to doctors’ clinics, I have witnessed those who couldn’t bring themselves to make the decision, or couldn’t stand the idea of being in the room when it happened. To prolong an animal’s pain simply because I find it difficult to make the final decision is unthinkable to me, and not being there, holding my pet, comforting him in that place that is frightening to him, is equally unthinkable. There is no doubt in my mind that any one of my pets would lie on my bed until my last breath; why wouldn’t I do the same for them? Of course, everyone is different.

But consider this: A woman whom I know only via social media, a woman who considers herself a rescuer of birds, and believes her home to be a sanctuary for them, once had a meltdown on Facebook because, not knowing what the precise procedure for euthanasia was, and having gone to YouTube to find out, she watched a deeply troubling video of someone euthanizing an animal. “It took 11 minutes for that bird to die!” she exclaimed. It was then that I knew the video was not legitimate. In the first place, doctors don’t give your animal an IV of green liquid, and in the second, that animal is NOT going to convulse for 11 minutes. I can only assume that the poster of that video was torturing the bird.

If you have any questions about the procedure your veterinarian uses, by all means, ring them and ask! In all my experiences, I’ve never once seen an animal convulsing, or any other unpleasantness of that sort. The doctor will give an injection to calm the animal, withdraw so that you may say your good-byes, then give a second injection that relaxes and stops the heart. The animal simply, quietly “goes.” The toughest part of the entire equation is you and your devastation. I wish I could help you with that but I can’t.

If there were a way to end this piece on a cheerful note, I would do just that. Unfortunately, euthanasia is a tough subject to address, and there’s no easy transition to another topic. So until next time, please make extra time for the special critters in your life; you never know how briefly they’ll be with you.

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