Knowing when itís time to say good-bye

May 22, 2012 10:52 am
How do you know when it’s time to put a pet to sleep? I mean how do you really know?

I believe Oregon acted bravely and with great humanity when it decided several years ago to allow terminally ill people to determine when they have suffered enough.

The law is very specific about the protection against anyone using the law blithely to call it quits with medical help. You need to be very ill, in pain, in sound mind when you make the decision, seek a second opinion, involve family, etc. Why there’s enough red tape to make any dilettante just give up and live.

But what about when Fido’s time comes? Or in my case last week when Sally’s time came?

Sally was my 18-year-old Lhaso Apso whom I got at the Albuquerque Animal Humane Association when she was 6. The card attached to her cage when I picked her out from all the other pups said her previous owners needed to give her up because she was “nervous around little children.”

I looked into the unruly bangs behind which I would later uncover actual eyes and said, “Sally, we’re meant for each other. I get nervous around little children too!”

And we really were meant for each other. We had between us what you could call a mutual admiration society. So when recently she lost a lot of pep, occasionally vomited from car sickness, and then had severe trachea problems that made it impossible to wear a collar or be tied up by a groomer for grooming, I started wondering how much longer she might have.

I have had pets euthanized before, and I always knew when it was time even if I was never sure they knew when it was time.

But Sally thought I could fix everything and trusted I would not even want to go on without her. So when recent problems drew us before Dr. Jeff Henry, DVM, I assured the doctor that Sally’s hoarseness and breathing difficulties were just passing shortcomings that she’d had before but would surely go away. He kindly suggested she might be near the end. In fact, he thought her time had come.

I gathered her up, took her home, and waited ten days before I brought her back and had her put to sleep. Under Oregon law, humans can make end of life decisions for themselves, but pets have to rely on us to make them for them.

And when Dr. Henry put that final needle into Sally’s paw, she ever-so-feebly tried to bite him. I am still not sure she was ready to go, though she was not breathing very comfortably and couldn’t do much. In every one of those final 10 days, she had at least a few good moments standing in the sun in the yard or sleeping as close to me as she possibly could.

When people die, well-meaning folks deliver lots of platitudes.

With the death of a loved one, the most common platitude is, “She’s gone to a better place.” Few people use this consolation with those of us grieving a lost pet because the idea of pets in heaven remains a theological hot potato despite Mark

Twain’s famous assertion: “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

I have no reason to think Sally would have preferred the classical depiction of heaven to being right beside me, and I’m quite certain she would have preferred to be by my side rather than buried behind the garage, no matter how high the pile of proffered lilacs and dog toys the grave might gather.

And as to that other generously-offered platitude, “at least she’s not suffering,” I feel fairly confident she was willing to keep suffering as long I was suffering with her. Or at least that she was willing to suffer a little while longer just to be with me.

But I’m not sure. Maybe I was projecting my needs on her. Maybe life for pets, as with people, should come with a little misery, maybe a lot, but there needs to be a limit.

I remain very glad Dr. Henry was there though with that long needle. I’m still glad I waited an extra 10 days. I’ll never know if I’d have been glad if had I waited longer.

If I had waited long enough, perhaps weeks or even months, I would have been able to thank Dr. Henry and his wonderful staff, or at least to say goodbye, instead of rushing out the door with my sad bundle before anyone saw real tears.


Mike Shearer can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it