How to Give an Old Dog the Time of His Life

Maria has been an online writer for over four years. Her articles often focus on pet care and gardening.

After the age of ten or so, an older dog is never fully healthy. Aging creatures need frequent check-ups and attention paid to certain behaviors. My Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, Wilbur, was refusing to eat (and showed some other health issues), so we took a trip to the veterinarian.

The doctor looked him over and suggested some tests. The results came back with a high bilirubin count from a soon to be liver failure. The best we could do is feed him a bland diet and give him a medicine that would help remove free radicals from his system. The rest of the time he had left would come quickly and that scared me.

This beloved companion of mine was just delivered a death sentence and there was no way to predict when that end would come. I was not going to let this dog just sit and rot away. It was decided that he needed to spend the rest of his days on comfortable adventures. These are his stories.

A Fishing Trip to the Park

I knew I had to do something for my old friend that involved fresh air, some sunshine, and my presence. Our first adventure happened fairly close to home. August 16th, 2015 we skipped on over to Sunset Park and did some browsing around and a little fishing. Well, I fished, the dog sought out new smells, did what dogs do, and enjoyed a patch of cool grass under his belly.

I relished the conversation. He only listened which suited us both just fine. He was a great companion. He never complained to me, never whined. He just sat there with his smiley face happy to be by my side. The views of the park and wildlife were lovely and the afternoon of leisure did us both a world of good. I caught no fish that day, but those moments with Wilbur were a pivot point on what was to happen next.

This was only the beginning.

Activities for Dogs

Wilbur Is My Superhero

Wilbur arrived in my life when I needed comfort and a companion that would help me heal during a dark period in my life. He brought joy to my heart when I was going through some deep-rooted, emotional turmoil.

Dogs are good that way. They are so cheerful and radiant when they see you. The energy level of a happy dog can't help but make one feel better and that is exactly what this canine did for me. Along with laying at my feet when all I wanted to do is stay in my darkness, he brought cheer and hope back into my world. He let the sun in and that alone made him my hero.

His physical challenge made him a superhero. You see, Wilbur travels his domain on three legs. He is missing the left front leg. How he ended up that way will be the subject of a fictional story because I do not know how he was injured.

I often called him my brave little guy. His handicap did not stop him. He bounced on the rear legs and pawed along with the lone front one. He made his way quite well, considering his short comings. The courage this little furbaby showed in spite of the missing limb showed me I could do anything I wanted if I worked up to it and tried hard enough. This fearless, little soul snapped me back to life and I felt I owed him in so many ways.

Adventure at 11,000 Feet

That fishing trip triggered a six-weekend travel string for Wilbur and me. We had to wait for my days off to go anywhere and it was fun thinking about where we might end up next. We needed to visit the mountains, I thought. And so we did.

On September 12, 2015, we road tripped it to the nearby mountain range and set up at the last campsite available. I realized I had camping equipment just sitting and it had been two years since I had done so.

Wilbur was ripe for the outing and jumped into his doggie bed seat and away we went. The road up to Mt. Charleston in Nevada is a sloping, scenic tour of small mountains and beautiful trees. It's hard to imagine this area is near the Mojave Desert. It is a breathtaking ride and a perfect spot for a small dog and his faithful owner to spend quality time.

We set up camp and proceeded to make breakfast. Well, Wilbur supervised while I did all the work. He's a good boss. He never said a cross word to me and he didn't fire me for the varied language I used while setting up my tent frame. I, in turn, paid him in treats from the camp menu. He'd wander occasionally, but kept pretty close to home base. He was on a leash that wouldn't allow him to get far. Park rules.

The park was filled with beautiful views and sights. The mountain air so fresh and full of sunshine soothed both our senses and we enjoyed the roughing it weekend considerably.

When we broke camp, Wilbur went over and sat where the tent had been. It was like he was defying me and telling me he didn't want to leave. I didn't blame him one bit and we were eager for another trip the following weekend, but where to go?

Weather forecasts predicted that Mt. Charlie was going to dip into temperatures around freezing the next weekend so a return trip was out of the question. I thought about where we could go and mentioned it to my immediate friends on Facebook. My gal pal had a great suggestion when I offered Duck Creek, Utah for an idea. She said there was someplace close to her that was just as nice and the same distance. I didn't even think twice about the next destination.

Highway Companions

September 18, 2015, sent me further on my own than I had ever been outside of my work life and I doubt Wilbur had ever been out of the county in his travels. We headed north on the The Great Basin Highway along the Nevada I-93. This route is a collection of desert, rolling hills, and range land. The vast skies and natural landmarks are a stark contrast to the city we were leaving. Out of a modern metropolis of neon, glamour, and entertainment, we drove, and into the wilder areas along the Nevada-Utah state line. We would visit Eagle Valley, three hours from Las Vegas.

About an hour and half into our journey, we parked for a few minutes in the Pahranagat Valley area and stretched our legs. Pahranagat is a wildlife refuge and holds several water areas that can be fished. Wilbur loved the opportunity to nuzzle around in the weeds and gravel. This half-way point was bookmarked for a later jaunt and we took to the road and on with our journey. This was the first of two stops we would make on the way to our chosen locale.

The music on the car stereo was Led Zeppelin's Song Remains the Same. As I drove the miles, No Quarter came on and I thought it was a very appropriate soundtrack for what my eyes were witnessing. I wished and wondered if my dog was seeing what I saw. I'd glance carefully his way and surely he was sightseeing, too. He could see the tops of the hills from his viewpoint.

The drive was pleasant and visually - delightful. Wilbur seemed to enjoy the sounds of the music and I chatted with him as the territory and scenery changed from desert roam to hilly, decorative rock formations. I wished he could stand and look out the window like other dogs, but I appreciated his smiley face looking back at me while we traveled.

Visiting Dear Friends and Making New Ones

My dearest friend in the whole world lives in a small town north of Las Vegas tucked deep in the hills. The distance across it wouldn't touch two miles. It is an old railroad village and a roadside stop on the way to northern locations. She and her husband retired there and we had not seen each other in over 9 years. I knew Wilbur would love her home as she has a couple of dogs just his size to buddy up to. She likes dachshunds.

Their yard cozies up to the town park and she sits on her patio during time outs and watches the slow roll of a small town. Deer wander through the streets on a regular basis. Their front area is a large neat lawn with plenty of space for small legs.

She was to be my guide to the destination at hand. She introduced me to Eagle Valley. I followed my friend as she drove up and around the countryside past another small mining town, The road branched off in between farm and rancher's fields. We spied horses and cattle along the route and as I drove I knew we were in for a great weekend.

The drive was a good 45 minutes from my friend's home and I was in jaw-dropping awe when we arrived. The Eagle Valley Reservoir revealed itself in a collection of colorful cliffs and amazing foliage. Fall had touched most of the shrubbery with a gold tint that was rather elegant. The trees and other delightful details meant a lot of great photo ops and a few hours of nature watching pleasure. Wilbur and I were out for a fantastic adventure.

The Spring Valley National Park - Eagle Valley Reservoir Gallery

Camping Out and Real Fishing

This was the first of three outings we would make to Eagle Valley. The campsite was clean, well organized, and attractive. By now, I understood how to pitch the spacious tent swiftly so the dog would not hear my colorful metaphors today. Well, not as many this time. I could set up our home away from home and catch a much-needed nap. Later, we would have dinner by campfire and enjoy star gazing. The skies are very clear at night and the view was a dynamic of stellar lights I had not been able to see in quite some time. The Milky Way could be seen thick as a scarf draped on the sky.

After I rose and torched the coals I needed for cooking dinner, I placed my Dutch oven and set out the ingredients for the meal would need to be prepared to completion. We ate our supper at the camp table and settled in by the firepit for the night to creep in. Wilbur enjoyed some time with me wrapped up in a blanket and being held while I whispered what I saw. I would receive thoughts of this tender moment for the next few months whenever I would sit with him. It is perhaps my favorite memory of our time together.

Early the next morning, it was time to go fishing, but we needed to eat first. I cooked us a fresh batch of bacon and eggs with a side of home-fried potatoes and, after the clean up, carted us both down to the dock for some time by the water.

Wilbur sat by my side on the platform and kept me company. I opened an umbrella up and set it over him for shade so that he would not get too much exposure. I kept a bottle of water close for him and his drinking dish and gave him a cool drink now and then. He was really good about just hanging out.

The fishing proved to be semi-successful. I caught one rainbow trout and gave up after a couple of hours. That fish was enough for dinner and I was happy about that. We went back to the campsite and just enjoyed being outdoors. Wilbur and I walked around a bit and he inspected everything.

More Travels

We would eventually go several other Southwest locations over the next few weeks. The following weekend was a trip to the Tecopa Springs area and the China Ranch Date Farm. We went back to Eagle Valley and stayed in the Echo Canyon area. The next trip was to Lake Mead, but it was so hot and muggy out there that the trip ended late Saturday and we spent the rest of the weekend at home. The lake's air temperatures were still in the nineties in late October. I could see Wilbur begging me with his eyes to let us go home on that venture.

A trip to Utah took us to the northern area just shy of Salt Lake where my sister lived. Her little girl was to be baptized and I thought it would be nice to be present so the plans were drawn up, the dates set, reservations made.

Wilbur and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast and soaked up the Utah views. Beautiful place, Utah is, everywhere. I'm glad we drove up at night or we would have never made the ceremony for my niece. Wilbur and I would have stopped every place along the highway.

We wrapped up our travel episodes by touring to the Phoenix area and seeing my dear friend there. It was lovely observing the Arizona deserts in November. The air was crisp and the land packed with Joshua Trees and Saguaro cactus. The cacti forest was fascinating.

Our Last Adventure

And this brings us to the last adventure Wilbur and I shared together. Like I said in the beginning, it was very important for me to share special moments with this dog, because he was aging fast and the decline of his health was encroaching daily. I'm guessing that he was around 14 years old or more. The month before our last adventure, Wilbur had fully developed cataracts over both eyes and was essentially blind. His hearing was gone and the activity levels now were threatened by these changes in his life. He no longer played or jumped up to greet me nor did he leap up on my bed or the couch. Those days were gone.

When I came home at night he didn't hear me at the door. His signal now would be to whimper and cry so I could find him and sooth him. I felt terrible my friend was in such a state now, where he was a vibrant animal was now a pile of cute fur with some big troubles.

I wanted this dog to maintain his dignity and decided that he should get one more trip to a park nearby where we would share a few hours in the beautiful surroundings and bond a little more. By this time in our storyline, Wilbur had lived just over a year from that doctor's visit.

Get your kleenex box because this story is going to get really emotional...

I was getting that ominous feeling that I might come home soon and find my dear dog already expired and it worried me to tears. The nights I worked were long and this thought hovered over me like a specter as I left for home. I could see it in him.

I started to take the time to create a memorial page for him on my personal blog and in the middle of crafting it, I decided that I would call and ask about the surgery needed for his eyes. I was really upset with this. The operation would be a fortune, I just knew it. I knew what my other option was and my heart just choked my breath when I thought about it. I hung up on the vet's attendant when she wouldn't give me a ballpark figure.

The more I pondered this situation and the more I thought about how bad Wilbur's health was getting the more the last option was pulling at me. The next morning, I made the appointment and apologized for cutting the last phone call short. I asked for the 8 am slot on their schedule.

That Friday morning, August 12, 2016, I took care of a few things around the home after work, washed Wilbur's face, brushed his hair pretty, and sat with him for a bit. I wrapped him in a fleece blanket and let the fear slide off of me. I held him and thought about the next steps I was to be taking over the next couple of hours. I packed a bag for a picnic for us and I headed to the park. There was one directly across the street from the Vets office and it would be here that our final adventure would play out.

Our Walk in the Park

I pulled into the park and turned off my car, took Wilbur out and set his leash hook into the collar loop. He didn't want to walk or stand. I was hoping to get a little time with him in the morning sunrise. I instead laid him in the cool grass and sat by him. I had to move us quickly because the dang sprinklers came on and almost drenched the both of us. I managed to find another spot dry enough to spend some time talking to my buddy.

I took pictures of him. I took pictures of him drinking water. I took pictures of him looking side to side and around. I did a full photo shoot of him and then moved him back to the car. I captured his morning in images so that I could remember it as a good moment because what would follow that next hour was a sting I will not get over for quite a while.

In the bag I packed was a small roast beef sub from a popular sandwich place in town. I opened it up and he became alert. Piece by piece I fed the dog small chunks of the savory meat. He ate from my fingers and I talked to him about how special he was to me. I poured a high end bottle of water in his drinking dish to lap up. He had a fine meal that hour.

I watched the minutes tick off the digital clock on my car's dashboard. One by one the minutes pacing the appointment time melted away and I took a deep breath, started the car, and drove across the street to the veterinarian's office. The tears had not stopped falling from the moment I got home that morning.

A Last Kiss Goodbye

The vet's waiting room staff welcomed me in and I stiffly walked through the front door, Wilbur in clutched arms. I signed the registry and they told me that a room would be ready for me soon. I sat until they waved me back and I slowly followed them. My brain was screaming, but I kept as reverent as I could. Our final farewell lay in that room.

I hugged and hovered over that dog and kissed the top of his head repeatedly. I whispered what a privilege it was to know him. I was hoping that I had comforted him and not scared him. He was very calm. Perhaps, he willed it. He let go a long time before I did. Special friends are like that. They help a tough situation go easier.

The doctor came in and asked if I had ever been through a pet euthanasia before. I had requested to be present for it. He explained the two separate injections. The first would put Wilbur in a deep sleep and the second would stop his heart. The procedure would be merciful and it was the most responsible thing I could do for my aging dog. The pain he was in and the loss of mobility had marked the way and this would end his suffering. I loved this dog so very much and it was about time to help him the rest of the way to his next journey.

After a few minutes they asked if they could take him to the back to put the device in his leg that would carry the liquids the doctor would serve. They had him for a few minutes and brought him back to me wrapped in one of their blankets. The front desk gal came in and I finalized the paperwork. I dreaded what was about to happen next. My mind was having trouble wrapping around the procedure I had just signed consent for.

I spent a little while longer in the private room saying goodbyes and I was about to ask the vet to come in and start the shut down, when he came through the door. I placed Wilbur on my left shoulder and looked him in the eyes and told him I loved him one last time. A kiss on his forehead was given and I nodded to begin. This was the saddest moment of our time together, but probably the reason he became a part of my life for the past two years.

The sleep drug was given and the dog went limp. The doctor assured me he was unconscious. I didn't say anything, I just held him tight to my chest and prayed he would go peacefully and he did. The second injection finished the life that brought so much joy to my heart. The lifesigns were checked and he was now just a furry shell. I offered him over to the vet and they took him away. The bench caught my hand as I kneeled my head and knees and thanked God for that small creature. I know he is in a better place and state than he was. The best I could have done for him was now finalized. He could go to his heaven in peace and happiness.

In Closing

The legacy of this dog and the short time we shared will forever be etched on my mind and cataloged in my photo album. The adventures had and memories built with this furry companion showed me how to venture out of my comfort zone and discover a world I could immerse myself in. Travel is a great way to break away and regroup. It taught me a new way to prioritize my time and cherish the things in my life that I held most precious. Time with those we care for are priceless moments.

He taught me to break free of co-dependency on others and to forge my own path. Together we conquered the small portion of the west that we visited. I will forever be grateful to this tiny being for charming me back to health. He will forever lay on my left shoulder as I reflect back on life and the experiences I hold dear. In time, I will figure out where to lay his ashes. I may decide to hold them in my arms as I am laid to rest sometime in the future.

If you are the owner of an older dog, please, take them places. Make sure they can be comfortable when doing so. Talk sweet to them, they do not have much time left. Take lots of pictures and feed them small goodies now and then. Give them great water and clean blankets. Make the tough, right decisions for them and care for them closely. Most of all, treat them with dignity and observe their grace. They are spirit angels in earthly bodies.

Delia on August 28, 2019:

Oh Maria, my heart is filled with pain and the tears will not stop reading this beautifully written story. I’m sorry for your loss...and I pray your heart has healed...As for mine, I go through the pain again reading what you and Wilbur experienced in the latter part of his life. One of my grand dogs passed this year. What my daughter and her husband did for the dog in the last two years of her life was amazing, none the less the pain and tears were still there. My cat Kitty that I’ve written about is almost 13 and I know what’s coming and can’t even bare the thought. Animals give you such unconditional love and this makes it harder to let go.

Thank You for your special heartfelt story about you and Wilbur...

Alobeda from The Global Village on September 12, 2016:

I started to cry, even after the 2nd paragraph because I already had an idea of what was to come.

The heart wrenching pain one gets from losing a pet to ill-health or age related issues can live with one for a long time.

I have been there and even 10 years after. I still weep profusely. I don't know if I'll ever get over it.

Maria Burgess (author) from Las Vegas, Nevada on September 04, 2016:

Thank you for your kind words @btravewarrior and sharing your experience with similar circumstances. Once I made this decision, I went into a state I relate to autopilot and went through the motions to help him. I could not deny this decision any longer. Every day I would come home and expect to find him already gone. With this release, I could be certain he went painlessly and with love and care. He was in so much turmoil and I could feel that. It was like I was being spiritually led by the hand to take him home. I am so glad he was my friend over this past year. He was a true blessing from the heavens and to there he will return as they all do.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 03, 2016:

Maria, giving Wilbur the adventures of a lifetime at the end of his is the most humane, caring thing you could have done. Our pets give us so much - and unconditionally so. They deserve the best from us because they bring out the best in us. They are loyal companions who free our spirits and soothe our souls.

I know how hard it was for you to ease his pain in the end. I've had to put a cat to sleep and I did what you did - I stayed with him and said my final goodbyes. So did he. He looked up at me and gave me a final meow just as the needle entered his body. Onyx is now in peace and so is Wilbur.

SlackerDad on August 19, 2016:

I am so sorry. I lost my best friend this year, too.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on August 19, 2016:

A beautiful story. I could not stop the tears. This is a well written tribune to your furry friend. So sorry for your loss. Dogs are a blessing. I could not imagine life without one. Please don't let Wilbur be your last.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on August 19, 2016:

please accept my condolence.

when my doggie was weak, rot due to a disease, my mom had to call the spca to give him a jab too, i was crying bucket.

better than letting him suffer, right

Lorelei Cohen on August 18, 2016:

It is indeed so very difficult to let go of our fur friends. Their love and loyalty is deep and you did provide the best that you could in return. A loving home is what so many creatures need yet only the select few manage to receive. Thank you for giving.

Euthanasia: Making the Decision

While some pets die of old age in the comfort of their own home, many others become seriously ill, get injured in some way or experience a significantly diminished quality of life as they grow very old. In these situations, it may be necessary for you to consider having your pet euthanized in order to spare it from pain and suffering. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this difficult decision, as well as some information about the euthanasia procedure itself.

Knowing when it’s time

Talk to your veterinarian. He or she is the best-qualified person to help guide you through this difficult process. In some cases, your veterinarian may be able to tell you definitively that it is time to euthanize your pet, but in other cases, you may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude. Here are some signs that may indicate your pet is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life:

  • He is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication (your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is in pain).
  • He has frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
  • He has stopped eating or will only eat if you force feed him.
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself.
  • He has lost interest in all or most of his favorite activities, such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats or soliciting attention and petting from family members.
  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk.
  • He has chronic labored breathing or coughing.

Saying goodbye

Once you have made this very difficult decision, you will also need to decide how and where you and your family will say the final goodbye.

  • Before the procedure is scheduled to take place, make sure that all members of your family have time with the pet to say a private goodbye.
  • If you have children, make sure that you explain the decision to them and prepare them for the loss of the pet in advance. This may be your child’s first experience with death, and it is very important for you to help her or him through the grieving process. Books that address the subject, such as When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers or Remembering My Pet by Machama Liss-Levinson and Molly Phinney Baskette, may be very beneficial in helping your child to deal with this loss.
  • It is an individual decision whether or not you and your family want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming, but for many, it is a comfort to be with their pet during the final moments. It may be inappropriate for young children to witness the procedure since they are not yet able to understand death and may also not understand that they need to remain still and quiet.
  • Some veterinarians will come to your house, which allows both the pet and the family to share their last moments together in the comfort of their own home.

What to expect

Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is stressful, and your anxiety can often be exacerbated if you do not know what to expect during the euthanasia procedure.

  • Your veterinarian will generally explain the procedure to you before he or she begins. Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for further explanation or clarification if needed.
  • Small to medium-size pets are usually placed on a table for the procedure, but larger dogs may be more easily handled on the floor. Regardless of the location, make sure that your pet has a comfortable blanket or bed to lie on.
  • In most cases, a trained veterinary technician will hold your pet for the procedure. The veterinary technician has the skill needed to properly hold your pet so that the process goes quickly and smoothly. If you plan to be present during the entire procedure, it is important that you allow enough space for the veterinarian and technician to work. Your veterinarian will probably show you where to stand so that your pet can see you and hear your voice.
  • Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either the front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet.
  • Often, veterinarians will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the pet’s vein before giving the injection. The catheter will reduce the risk that the vein will rupture as the drug is injected. If the vein ruptures, then some of the drug may leak out into the leg, and it will not work as quickly.
  • Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbitol. This is most often done in pets that are not likely to hold still for the IV injection. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take effect in about five to 10 minutes. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection.
  • Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbitol is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less.
  • Your veterinarian will use a stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped.
  • Your pet may experience some muscle twitching and intermittent breathing for several minutes after death has occurred. Your pet may also release his bladder or bowels. These events are normal and should not be cause for alarm.
  • After your veterinarian has confirmed that your pet has passed, he or she will usually ask if you would like to have a few final minutes alone with your pet.

Burial and cremation options

Your veterinarian can offer you a variety of options for your pet’s final resting place.

  • Cremation is the most popular choice, and you can choose whether or not you would like to have your pet’s ashes returned to you. Most cremation services offer a choice of urns and personalized memorials.
  • Burial is another option. You may want to bury your pet in your own yard, but before doing so, be sure to check your local ordinances for any restrictions. There are also many pet cemeteries throughout the United States. To locate a pet cemetery near you, check with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries.

As the body slows down, it uses less energy, so the tendency to deposit fat is increased. It is the time of life when those little treats start to catch up! Some dogs lose weight due to poor digestion or illness (always consult your vet if your dog is losing weight). Other changes make your dog’s mouth drier and swallowing may become difficult.

The skin becomes less elastic, the coat loses its shine and white hairs may start to appear. Hearing and sight deteriorate, and your pet may become less efficient at remembering things. Sleep patterns often change, with some older pets becoming restless at night. The muscles and bones become weaker, and the immune system may not work as well, so your pet becomes less able to fight off infections, and there can be deterioration of the internal organs such as the heart, liver and kidney.

However, it is not all bad news. Improvements in medicine mean there are drugs available to help reduce some of the effects of old age. Age is not a reason to accept ill health, and even old dogs can lead happy, active lives.

Saying Hello to Your Dog

You can’t replace a family member, but that doesn’t mean your family can never grow again. My personal philosophy is this: The reason dogs don’t live as long as we do is so we can help more dogs. Take your time to do your grieving, but not too much. As devastating as it was (and still is) to lose Rex, the one thing that brought me comfort was adopting another dog who needed me. After Rex’s passing, I ran across Big Duke’s picture on a shelter website and his resemblance to Rex was uncanny.

Saying goodbye to your dog creates the beginning of space in your life for another dog. Letting go of Rex allowed me to save Big Duke from a high-kill shelter. I felt like it was Rex’s way of letting me know that it was time to turn my grief into something positive. Saying goodbye to Rex allowed me to say hello to Big Duke, and saving a life has helped me to heal.

Saying goodbye to your dog is a process, and it can take a long time. But at some point the healing can begin, and this is when many people begin to start thinking about opening their home and heart to another dog.

You can learn more about the grieving process and how to move on after the death of a pet here . It’s also important to know what would happen to your pets should you pass away or become too ill to care for them. You can read about creating a pet estate plan here .

By Michelson Found Animals Foundation

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When To Euthanize a Senior Dog - Quality of Life Considerations

Pain management is crucial to a pet's quality of life. Lots of dogs, like people, live with various aches and pains and are still being able to be active and enjoy life. When pain interferes with your pet's ability to enjoy himself, though, it becomes a serious consideration when thinking about the "right" time to euthanize.

    When getting up is agony, so your pet prefers to stay lying down all day. This can result in even more pain if pressure sores develop from staying in one position.

When lying down is too difficult, so your pet prefers to remain standing. When he is finally forced to lie down because he's too tired to keep standing, it's clear that doing so is painful - for example, he simply "collapses" instead of a lying down in a controlled way, or he inches down little by little, groaning in pain.

When walking becomes so painful that your dog just hangs around all day, doing nothing.

When they're in such pain, they don't want to be touched and may snap if you try.

Note that not all dogs will cry or whine when they're in pain. Many will hide signs of pain. If, however, you see that they're reluctant to move or engage in their usual activities, that's a pretty good indicator that pain may be the culprit.

It's important to discuss pain management with your veterinarian. It can take time to find the right combination of drugs, supplements, or therapies that work for your individual pet. Discuss complementary therapies with your vet, including acupuncture, physical therapy, laser therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic, and Bowen therapy are some options available to pet owners. There may come a time when nothing appears to work to adequately control your dog's pain. You will need to think about how long you want to try various pain management methods before you set your dog free.


Mobility plays such a huge role in quality of life. Many dogs in particular love to explore and to play, whether it's on walks or out and about in the yard. Mobility goes beyond that, though:

    Compromised mobility may mean that your pet cannot do simple things for himself. This can include getting a drink of water when he wants one, or changing positions when he's lying down - which in turn can lead to pressure sores and sore joints.

For "velcro dogs" that love to follow their humans everywhere, decreased mobility can mean that they can no longer do so. It is particularly tough if they need help up or down stairs, especially if the dog is large and it becomes too difficult or impractical to try to allow them to be with you all the time.

Pets can have accidents if they're not able to move quickly or easily. This can be mentally distressing for some. Physically, it can mean that they need to be cleaned more frequently and their bedding changed (or floors cleaned).

That's not to say that dogs need to be able to run and romp around like puppies to enjoy their lives. It all depends on the individual dog's personality. It's true that for some dogs, the ability to go for those exciting walks and adventures is critical to their enjoyment of life. Others are perfectly happy to slowly wander around the yard, enjoying a casual sniff around, before lying down to bask in the sun. Some dogs enjoy playing "games" like using their noses to sniff out treats. Pet owners need to figure out what constitutes an "acceptable mobility" for their pet to have a good quality of life.


Pets may become urine or fecal incontinent, or both. This isn't just about being inconvenient for the owner - there are lots of things you can do to manage accidents and make life easier - you can find some tips in this article on helping a dog with degenerative myelopathy - dogs with DM frequently become incontinent.

Accidents affect your pet, too. No one enjoys lying in their own waste. If your pet has mobility issues, then he or she has to wait for help to get cleaned up and have their bedding changed. Extended periods can result in urine scald of their skin, which is uncomfortable and even painful for the dog. Some dogs also find it mentally distressing when they "mess".

Managing incontinence is possible but requires dedication on the part of the caregiver the time and ability to handle incidents quickly and the physical and financial means to acquire and use the right tools. That said, it's not always practical (ie. when everyone works and cannot be home to manage), nor is it always kind (ie. the dog feels badly for messing himself), to keep your dog around just because it's medically possible.

Mental State

Dogs can become depressed, frustrated, and confused. If they begin to feel this way all the time, or more often than not, their quality of life suffers.

    Depression can result when dogs can no longer do the things they enjoy the most. For example, a severely arthritic dog may not be able to play fetch anymore, or go on fun hikes.

Dogs can get frustrated when they're unable to do things they enjoy, or things that were so easy for them previously. A simple example is a dog who cannot get up to get a drink for himself whenever he wants one . or who is forced to urinate in his bed, and then lay in it until help arrives, because he's incontinent.

It's not uncommon for senior dogs to have some level of senility (called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction). This can cause behaviours like sundowning, confusion, lack of interest in interacting with family, and forgetting behaviors they once knew (like housetraining).

Ask yourself: Is your dog still eager to participate in his favorite activities? Does he willingly interact with his family (and his friends)? Does he seem mentally engaged and interested in life?

Eating and Drinking

    Is your dog eating and drinking a normal amount?

Is he becoming fussier, eating less, eating more slowly, or takes several trips to finish his food? An underlying health issue, both physical and mental, can cause eating changes. A trip to the vet may be in order.

Is he refusing food or water altogether? A dog with a poor appetite will gradually waste away if he can't be persuaded to eat. A slow death by starvation isn't a "good death" in anyone's books nor is force-feeding a sick and unwilling dog over an extended period a kind option.

Does eating or drinking result in vomiting and/or diarrhea? Again, an underlying medical condition may be the cause. Chronic vomiting or diarrhea is hard on the body.


The stress and fear of not being able to breathe easily dramatically affects quality of life. It can cause pets to avoid activity to eat or drink less (or not at all) because they're trying to breathe instead to simply lie around, struggling to get enough air, as sometimes seen when dogs breathe through an open mouth. Difficulty breathing can also result from issues like persistent coughing or wheezing.

A dog experiencing respiratory issues should be immediately taken to the vet. Breathing problems need to be resolved to the point where your dog doesn't have to struggle to breathe, perhaps with the exception of very short bouts of coughing or wheezing (to be discussed with your vet). Otherwise, euthanasia may be the kindest option.

Overall Health

Life can become very difficult when there are multiple health issues. Things to think about include:

    Is your dog's health stable? Even if a dog has more than one medical condition, if the condition(s) are easy to manage then the dog's overall health may not be a concern. You may need to monitor your pet and check in with the vet periodically. Otherwise, you may feel confident about your ability to manage your dog's care, and your dog is still enjoying his life.

Are your dog's medical condition(s) all being appropriately managed? If you're having trouble getting one or more conditions under control, it can affect your dog's overall well-being and may even impact how well the other conditions are managed.

For example: let's say your dog has both arthritis and canine cognitive dysfunction (dementia / senility). The arthritis was initially well-managed with a combination of pain meds but once the dementia started to get worse, your dog spends his time pacing endlessly, for hours at a time until he collapses. The endless pacing can make already-sore joints even more sore, and could mean that the meds and dosages previously used to manage the dog's arthritis pain is no longer enough.

Are there questions about your pet's health? Or the possibility of a sudden, traumatic event? Some medical conditions are such that the vet isn't able to accurately predict what course the disease will take. Or in some cases, it may be that the particular disease has a known progression to a traumatic event but the timing is unclear. In these cases, some pet owners choose to spoil their pets rotten and then euthanize, while their dog is still enjoying a reasonable quality of life, in order to spare them that final, inevitable trauma.

Overall Quality of Life

In some ways, it is easier on pet owners when their pet is experiencing an extreme case of one of the factors that contribute to quality of life. It seems to make the decision to go on - or to euthanize - a little more clear. Otherwise, quality of life is going to be made up of a combination of all the factors put together. It's a highly individual decision.

Pet owners should take the dog's personality into consideration. For example: let's say a dog has health issues that can be managed but that requires repeated visits to the vet on an ongoing basis. The dog is timid and not fond of being handled by people outside of the family. Vet visits are extremely stressful to him. Would it be fair to ask him to endure these visits, when it's clear that it has a big impact on his enjoyment of life?

Here's another example: medical treatment may be available for a sick dog. That treatment, though, comes with side effects that make the dog feel unwell. His illness may be managed, but because of the side effects, the dog merely "exists", choosing to lie around or sleep all day, rather than being engaged and interested in life.

Caregiver Burnout and How It Affects Your Pet

Caring for ill or old pets can easily lead to caregiver fatigue or burnout. There's just no way around it constant caregiving is exhausting. Putting aside the issue of how we feel as caregivers, how does caregiver burnout affect our pets?

    The more tired we are, the higher the likelihood that our pets aren't getting the very best care. When we lack enough sleep / rest / down-time, especially over a prolonged period, we can start to make mistakes. This can include forgetting to give medication (or double-dosing), or cutting corners (maybe we can wait until tomorrow to bathe the dog after he soiled himself).

Tempers can flare when we're always exhausted. Yelling at your dog in frustration isn't helping anyone - especially not your dog, who isn't deliberately being "bad". Your dog doesn't want to feel like he's a burden or the cause of your anger.

Caregiver burnout can be even more difficult when there's a question of whether you can financially afford to continue care. It's also not uncommon for family members to disagree on the course of care, or how far they're willing to go (physically, emotionally, and financially).

The "X" Factor

Is your dog still living a life that's meaningful to him?

Veterinary medicine is pretty amazing and there are lots of things that can be done to keep pets alive. That doesn't mean that you should keep them alive just because you can. Ask yourself if your dog is still really and truly living his life doing the things he enjoys. He should be able to do the things that are important to him, rather than merely "existing" or enduring each day.

Making the Decision

It's not unusual to feel guilty about considering euthanasia. or to question yourself about whether or not you're making the right decision. Sometimes it is the anticipation of what's to come that's the hardest thing to manage. Anticipatory grief can feel overwhelming and it's not uncommon for pet owners to feel helpless or paralyzed by the looming decision.

I read something once, on the American Animal Hospital Association website, which I found helpful, in assessing quality of life:

Euthanasia is a very individual choice. The process of making the decision about when it's the "right" time to say goodbye to a pet is agonizing. Trying to sort out what's best for them - rather than what's best for us, the family that will miss them so much - is a difficult and emotional process. Seek out support if you can having someone around, even if just to listen, can be very helpful.

I'm often asked about my personal opinion on euthanasia. I've found it helpful to read other people's viewpoints, so perhaps my opinion may provide some food for thought. I'd rather let my pet go peacefully and with dignity. and if at all possible, I would rather let them go a little early than even an hour too late. I don't want them to die feeling scared, stressed, or feeling extreme pain, or during an emergency or a crisis. Ideally, given the choice, I want their passing to be "just a normal day" -- with some extra treats, loving, playtime, or adventure -- where they feel safe, happy, and loved.

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