By Iris Winston
The sadness and the joy
Watching an old dog or cat grow increasingly frail as he nears the end of his life is so painful. We know we have the ability to end that pet’s suffering by resorting to euthanasia—a good death—so ending his pain and giving him peace. But determining the right time to take that much-loved companion on his last journey to the vet’s office is especially difficult if the animal’s decline is gradual and there is no clear way to determine the degree of pain or just how much of a burden life has become for this devoted companion of 13 years or more. He still drags his way up the stairs to be near you and he still seems to enjoy being outside once in a while on a sunny day.
I have always felt that as long as the good days outnumber the bad and any pain can be controlled with medication, life, however slow the pace, should be preserved for another day, another week, perhaps another month or two or three. Letting go is so difficult after a lifetime of sharing the human-animal bond with a dear pet who loves and trusts you so completely.
Fortunately for the animals, they don’t go through the wrenching thoughts about endings that plague humans. They live in the moment, unburdened by thoughts of imminent death. Some appear to choose an ending by refusing food, retreating to a dark corner and saying in their own way that they have done with life. Others wait for you to decide.
Sometimes, there is no decision to be made. An animal is taken suddenly and does not reach its expected lifespan. It was so for a friend of mine when her still lively12-year-old French Spaniel, Jake, was hit by a Purolator truck in the family’s front yard. Despite rushing the seriously injured dog to the closest veterinarian, he could not be saved and had to be put down. (In that case, it took a while to convince Purolator to attempt to compensate the grieving family.)
My daughter and son-in-law, both vets, just had to euthanize their eight-year-old heeler cross—as they said, the best dog they could have wished for. He had inoperable stomach cancer and there was no hope of recovery. Their extreme sadness at losing Rumble was overlaid by the irony that my daughter is an oncology veterinary surgeon who spends her professional life operating on and saving dogs and cats with cancer.
Another terribly sad situation is the case of an 11-year-old Springer Spaniel whose people can no longer care for him. One of the nonagenarian couple had a lifechanging fall in December 2020 that left her with concussion and seizures followed by surgery for her brain injury. Her husband died just three months after her accident. For a while, the dog was in foster care, but his mobility has declined sharply. Chester now has enormous difficulty with steps or in trying to get into a vehicle. He also has no home, as none of the other members of the family are willing or able to take him in. Currently, expensive medication is dealing with his arthritis and he is in an excellent (but pricy) care facility. The question is whether this is simply a prelude to euthanasia, as there seems little chance that he will regain much mobility or be found a permanent home.
However, the loss of a beloved companion occurs, it is a lasting shadow of sadness balanced against the joy of life with an animal companion who brightened every day with his presence.
The playwright Eugene O’Neill, in preparing for the death of his dearly loved Dalmatian, composed a last will and testament in the dog’s name. The excerpts below are a reminder of why we love our animals as we do.
I, SILVERDENE EMBLEM O’NEILL (familiarly known to my family, friends, and acquaintances as Blemie), because the burden of my years and infirmities is heavy upon me, and I realize the end of my life is near, do hereby bury my last will and testament in the mind of my Master.
I have little in the way of material things to leave. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my faith. These I leave to all those who have loved me.
I ask my Master and Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life, I have tried to be a comfort to them in times of sorrow, and a reason for added joy in their happiness. It is painful for me to think that even in death I should cause them pain. It is time I said good-bye, before I become too sick a burden on myself and on those who love me. It will be sorrow to leave them, but not a sorrow to die.
Peace, at least, is certain. Peace and long rest for weary old heart and head and limbs, and eternal sleep in the earth I have loved so well.
One last request I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, ‘When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.’ Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog.
One last word of farewell, Dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: ‘Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved.’ No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.
Almonte, Ontario writer, Iris Winston, is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. She has been an animal lover all her life. Her pets have always been important members of her family.