This is a difficult topic and one that no fur parent ever wants to think about. But saying goodbye is a part of life, and there were never truer words about this than the refrain from the eighties Straight Lines® rock ballad: “the hardest part of love is letting go”. When it comes to our fur kids, their time with us is already short in comparison to our lives. When they pass sooner than their life expectancy, it is that much more devastating.
As a fur parent though, it is our responsibility to do what is in their best interest. This sometimes means making the hard decision about when it is their time to go. When they are healthy, this doesn’t cross our minds. When they get injured or sick, we go into “do whatever it takes” mode. But what about when they develop a chronic or terminal condition, or simply when they get old? This is when the struggle between our love for them and what is best for them occurs. Our fur kids are members of our family, part of our hearts. Losing them to natural causes is difficult enough. Watching them struggle is worse. However, for many of us in the situation of an aging and/or deteriorating pet, we are so consumed by our own grief and inability to let go, that we actually let them struggle.
This is the time though that we have to step up and love them selflessly. This means to objectively determine, with the advice of medical professionals, if they still have quality of life. The key word here is “objective”. This does not mean “oh, he still smiles when he sees me”. This means, does their physical being still permit them to do most of the basic activities that constitute daily living- eating, sleeping, moving about, going to the bathroom, etc. Can they still enjoy being alive? This is tough to pinpoint when fur kids have chronic and/or terminal conditions. It is a fine line of, are all the dietary restrictions, medication regimens, &/or movement limitations making for a life worth living? Having been down this road a couple of times, I can tell you it is not easy to be objective.
In the case of my Chow Stelly, he had a condition called gastric torsion, or bloat during the last two and a half years of his life. He had about a dozen trips to emergency in this time, and each episode lasted about three to four hours. In the overall grand scheme of his life though, these trips were only a small part. Stelly slept well; we walked daily; he went to work with me everyday; he cuddled avidly; and he ate with gusto. There were a lot of pills in his daily regimen & he ate his food in multiple small meals, but other than that and the trips to the hospital, he led a normal, happy, active life. In the end, the condition caused irreparable damage to his gastrointestinal system and he passed on his own. Although Stelly wasn’t yet eight when he died, I would have never let him go through his last two years if I thought for a minute he wasn’t having his best life. It was only on his very last day that he ever showed signs of distress and struggle.
With my Staffordshire Acey, it was very different. In a matter of 6 months, he went from being a fur kid who did everything with me to a fur kid too paralyzed with fear to do anything, including leave the house. As a result of likely a brain tumor, six year old Acey suffered almost schizophrenic-like episodes where at times he’d lose touch with reality & lash out, while at other times, he’d have severe panic attacks where he’d be frozen to the spot. He was on a pill regimen that he hated, and worse, they had no beneficial effect on him. His dementia bouts were unpredictable, and so for everyone’s safety, he spent his days in his crate. As much as my heart couldn’t fathom not seeing him every day, seeing the confusion & sadness in his eyes convinced me that this was not the life I promised him. Given the ineffectiveness of the drugs and the escalation of his deterioration, the medical prognosis was that there wasn’t much left to try. Letting him go is still one of hardest things I have ever done.
I have not had the blessing of having a fur kid who has lived for more than a decade, but I would surmise that letting a senior pet go would be even more difficult. Seeing how my fur kids were my emotional rocks during the parts of my life they were in, I can only imagine how much more connected they would be if they bridged multiple milestones in one’s life. This is why I think, fur parents in these situations hang on to aging fur kids longer than they should.
I’ve witnessed over the past few years, many aging pets whose quality of life were greatly diminished by physical ailments and conditions, but whose families’ choice was to not let them go. While I have difficulty with the idea of “playing god”, I am also reminded of two things: one is that animals will go to great lengths to not show pain; and two, in the course of nature, everything lives and then dies. After more than a decade of love and devotion, the minimal repayment an aging, sick fur kid should receive should be pain free, struggle free days. As a wise friend once said, “we’ve had quite a ride, let’s go out on a high note.” Look at your best fur friend with selfless eyes when the time comes, and give them the greatest gift of love- let them go.