Pets: Not for the Faint-Hearted

I’ve held a lot of this in for a year, and this is NOT a pleasant or easy read. It is not funny, and there is detail I’m not sorry about sharing but isn’t fun. This is your warning.

Today is the one year anniversary of Chewy’s death.

That’s a kind way of saying it: a euphemism, really, because Chewy didn’t die naturally or in an accident. Chewy died because I made the decision to kill him, and I think I’ll carry guilt for the rest of my life.

The time came for Thor in December 2016, and with him I waited too long. He’d been declining with cancer for a while, and by the time we brought him in there really was no choice. He was so ready to go the last few days he just slept with his head on my lap, asking for help. When the vet came in he sighed heavily with obvious relief, licked my hand to say goodbye, and relaxed. He was asleep in seconds and gone in less than a minute. I promised myself I wouldn’t make any other pets suffer on my selfish behalf when it’s time, because his last couple of weeks were miserable for him, and it was purely due to my inability to say goodbye.

A year later, in 2017, Chewy wasn’t ready. His back legs mostly didn’t work anymore (I had to use a towel-sling to get him outside to go potty), his voice had mostly given out, but overall he was pretty alert and perky, if immobile. As fall set in, though, he was starting to falter and his joints hurt some. He fell down the stairs almost daily: he’d try his damnedest to climb up to sleep in my office while I worked: it usually took a couple of tries and sometimes my help. I’d hear him thump his way back down, his back legs having failed him again, his poor belly and chin smacking each step down to the landing. It hurt: he’d lie there and pant for a long time before trying again. And he’d still try again EVERY GODDAMNED TIME. I tried to work from the living room as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough.

Still, on his last day the weather was gorgeous (much like today…thanks dude) and he spent a long while standing or lying in the grass barking at things in the neighborhood. Just randomly joyfully barking, as though not a damn thing was wrong at all. He had cheeseburgers for lunch, as much puppy ice cream as he wanted, and napped in the sun with the kitten for a while before I took him in. The whole day I second guessed myself, because this was my dog again. he had a great day. He wasn’t ready to go.

I made the decision to put him down before the deep cold hit his joints, before the trips down the stairs broke his neck, before he got stuck in the snow or ice just trying to go potty in the winter. I made the decision to kill my dog before he was emotionally ready to go, because I didn’t want him to experience the decline I saw in Thor and have a miserable ending. I wanted him to go out when he’d had a good day. I’ll never be sure that was the right thing to do. I played god and killed my pet before Death came for him.

He was 130lbs at the end: I couldn’t pick him up. The day I brought him to the vet, I had to have help lifting him in and use a sling to bring him into the office. And he was so goddamned happy and cheerful, saying hi to everyone like normal.

When we took Thor in, my vet gave me the reality of faces of euthanasia. In Thor’s case, we were lucky: everything went quietly and easily because he was so ready to go, but there are many variations of death, and luckily he’d told me other possible outcomes.

When the techs put Chewy’s IV in, he wiggled and they’d missed the vein, so the sedative didn’t work. He struggled to get up. They had to re-do the IV and the sedative. He watched me as it finally kicked in, obviously wondering what the fuck was going on here, and struggled more until his eyes half closed and his tongue stuck out of his mouth on the exam room’s floor. He was too big for the blanket they put down, you see, and he couldn’t relax enough to lay his head in my lap. I petted and talked to him without stopping, reassuring him and staying calm as my vet administered Pepto-pink death through a hypodermic into my dog’s front leg.

I’ll never use Pepto again.

Chewy struggled, flailed, drooled, twitched, and desperately tried to lift his head even mostly sedated as the drug reached his heart. He didn’t go easily: he fought like a goddamned warrior right up until the end.

He wasn’t ready. And even though a cold analytical view of his status and the immediate future of suffering still has me falling on the side that i did what was best for him, it doesn’t FEEL like I did what was best for him.

And that’s why pet stewardship is both awesome and fucking awful. You are their god. They are a part of your universe, but you are ALL of theirs, and it’s the human’s responsibility not only to do what’s right and necessary no matter how awful it is (even when it sticks with you forever), but also to BE THERE for it.

There’s an article going around in social media about a vet’s take on owners who leave their pets alone to die. I get that it’s awful and hard: I’ve seen both sides of the process and it’s not always easy. I get that if you have a backup or truly can’t control your grief, it’s better to leave than stress them out more. But ultimately, I firmly believe you are the adult. You are the human, and taking on that life means you are responsible for it through to the end.

You suck it up and stay with them (and stay calm) because it’s not about YOU. Comforting a loved one as they die is an act of compassion and love, and pets deserve that honor after dedicating their lives to you. It sucks. It’s terrible, and exhausting, and it’s really fucking hard to not start bawling when they’re going, whether Death comes easy or not. It’s also part of the gig. I get there by remembering advice I’d been given years ago, when I struggled with a different situation that threatened to overwhelm my ability to be present for someone else’s crisis: stay in the love.

Focus on THEM: focus all your love and energy and comfort and petting and gratitude for their time with you on them.

Leaving this world showered in affection and reassurance and comfort from the person/people at the center of your universe can’t be a bad thing: if that’s all you can give your pets that’s enough, even when their end comes before they’re ready. After they’re gone, by all means fall apart. I did.

I did today as I wrote this, because October is a time of endings and I’ll remember his last day until I see him again. Han asked me recently where dogs go when they die, and can we visit them, and will we see them again (Evil piped in and said Heaven is another planet). Nothing like a 6 year old’s perfectly reasonable questions (WHY DO I GET THEM? I’m the AUNT!) to get a girl thinking about what my boys are doing in their afterlives. I presume bunny-chasing and barking are high on the list.

I miss Thor and Chewy as horrendously as I am eternally grateful for my current furry monsters.
And someday I’ll do this dance again. A long, long time from now.

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