Geriatric dog biting & growling
January 25, 2009 6:34 PM   Subscribe

My geriatric dog falls a lot and always needs help getting up from uncarpeted floors. But now he barks, growls, bares teeth and (twice last night) bites when I try to help him up.

My 16-year-old-mutt (border collie/lab/spaniel mix), Chaplin, has severe arthritis of the hips, as well as some spinal stenosis. He's gong blind and deaf as well, and is on meds for the athritis (right now, steroids & painkillers) and also for incontinence (a problem that began in early December).

He's unable to climb stairs any more and is very unsteady on his feet for the first two minutes or so after rising. Carpets and area rugs have been strewn strategically about the house on wooden or tiled floors to help him get traction if he lays down or falls.

He used to allow me to help him up on the occasions he couldn't do it himself; but in the past two days, he's gotten very irritated with me helping him -- to the point of the aforementioned biting.

Yes, it kills me to see him like this (I've had him since he was 8 weeks old); and, of late, he seems to be just going through the motions ... he eats some, sleeps a lot, and goes no further than a few feet from the back door to relieve himself. (and sometimes, needs me to keep him from tottering over when he's doing his business).

My question is, I guess, how do I know when it's time to part with him? My brother's dog had similar symptoms right before Christmas, with one big exception: His doggie stopped eating and drinking altogether a few days before Christmas, and was put down on Dec. 26.

Chaplin's appetite is still pretty healthy. Otherwise, though, his quality of life seems pretty dismal.
posted by jrchaplin to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry. Caring for a sick or elderly pet is really difficult, partially because of the questions you're asking here. In my own experience, I've never seen a pet lover decide to put their pet down too early.

You're obviously a wonderful and loving caretaker, and you so clearly have Chaplin's best interests at heart. My guess is that he's nipping at you because he's getting to be in more pain and emotionally out-of-sorts. That might be just as strong of a sign as ceasing to eat; sometimes eating is so ingrained as habit and instinct that pets that are otherwise incredibly ill will still eat some food. I'm never sure how to determine timing or just waiting for nature to take its course, but one good barometer is pain, and the biting might be a sign of that. For the pets that I've had to put down, I've personally never felt that it was "too early" - if anything, I waited too long. Again, I'm so sorry; it sounds like you and Chaplin have an amazing friendship so be gentle with yourself both now and while you're grieving. Best to you both.
posted by barnone at 6:56 PM on January 25, 2009

I'm sorry, man,'s time. If your dog is no longer enjoying life or your company, it's time. I know it's really tough for you, but think about his suffering.

(I let my childhood dog go until she didn't even bother to go outside to shit, and afterwards, I really regretted my selfishness of keeping her around, suffering, for my sake.)
posted by notsnot at 6:59 PM on January 25, 2009

I'm so sorry for you and Chaplin.
With the pets I have had to put down, I have always regretted not doing it sooner. If you're asking the question now, then now is the time.
posted by meerkatty at 7:05 PM on January 25, 2009

Otherwise, though, his quality of life seems pretty dismal.

I'm sorry to hear this. It sounds like he's in increasing pain, and may be starting to become disoriented. So the healthy appetite could very well be a red herring.

It's so difficult when our animals are coming to the end of their lives. Just to echo the other comments, in the cases of a couple of the pets in my family that had to be put down, I also felt afterwards that we'd waited too long -- that we'd let them suffer with their pain and confusion more than we should have out of the fear of not having done enough and, yes, the selfishness of not wanting to say goodbye once and for all, and the desire to put off the terrible grief it would bring.

It's obvious that you have been as loving and dedicated a caretaker as Chaplin could ever have had.
My best to you.
posted by scody at 7:09 PM on January 25, 2009

I'm so sorry. It sounds like he's in quite a bit of pain. My mom's rule of thumb with her dogs was that she'd let them go when their pain outweighed the enjoyment they got out of life. It sounds like Chaplin has reached that point.

Again, I'm sorry. Letting a pet go is difficult.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:11 PM on January 25, 2009

Please contact your vet and ask for advice on this. My heart goes out to you. I'm looking at my little husky and trying to imagine how I would deal with this. Ask your vet... and know that we're thinking about you.
posted by HuronBob at 7:11 PM on January 25, 2009

My vet gave me an amazing barometer for figuring this out when I was struggling with the same decision for my first dog. Her suggestion was to make a list of a few (5-7) things that my pup still seemed to be able to enjoy. These could be simple things -- resting comfortably, going outside to pee, and eating were all on the list I made. When more than half of those things had been crossed off the list, it was time. And as hard as it was to put her down when that time came, I don't have remorse now about having done it too early, or waited too late.

From reading your description, it sounds like you've almost been doing this, and watching Chaplin lose his pleasures one by one. It sounds as though Chaplin is no longer resting comfortably, or moving comfortably, or enjoying the outdoors. Perhaps it's time to give yourself permission to let him go?

And I'm so sorry for your loss. Chaplin sounds like he was a great friend.
posted by amelioration at 7:21 PM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

My dog got like this after he had a stroke -- it was time for him to go.
posted by maxpower at 7:22 PM on January 25, 2009

My family's old dog was like this. Appetite OK, but in every other way things were tough. She also started getting confused and going inside the house. My parents probably let her go longer than they should have, it's such a tough decision.

If the dog isn't even able to enjoy your help any more, it's definitely time.
posted by schroedinger at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2009

My vet gave me an amazing barometer for figuring this out when I was struggling with the same decision for my first dog. Her suggestion was to make a list of a few (5-7) things that my pup still seemed to be able to enjoy. These could be simple things -- resting comfortably, going outside to pee, and eating were all on the list I made. When more than half of those things had been crossed off the list, it was time. And as hard as it was to put her down when that time came, I don't have remorse now about having done it too early, or waited too late.

I want to repeat this, because I wish it was advice I had earlier this month, when I had to put my dear little cat down. She'd completely lost use of her hind legs over the course of a couple days. Every time she saw me coming, it was because I was going to move her (and cause her pain), or pet her (and cause her pain), shove a pill down her throat (and cause her stress), or stick her with a needle (and cause her pain and confusion). She couldn't eat. She couldn't walk. There was absolutely no joy in her life. At all. It was all misery.

The worst part of it is that there's always this hope that it might be better tomorrow. But man, waiting until tomorrow and going through all of the above (and forcing her to go through it), that ends up being the harder part. And when I got home from the vet, and for the next few days, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd done it too soon, too quickly.

Looking back on it, I absolutely know that it was the right thing to do, and that she didn't suffer more than was necessary.

I think the checklist of enjoyment is an excellent tool for you to use.

I'm really sorry your pup is in pain. I hope it all works out for the best.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:40 PM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's lots of good advice here. You've already marked a couple answers as best, but for anyone else who might find this thread in the future, here is an article that I think is really helpful in thinking about our pets as they age: Defining "Quality of Life" by Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed.

Hugs for you and Chaplin.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:56 PM on January 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

When this happened to me I just kind of knew. I know that probably sounds like an empty platitude, but it's true - you just have to trust your gut feeling. I know it doesn't make the decision any easier. I've been down this road more than once, and it's a hard one no matter what. You have my sympathies.
posted by O9scar at 8:27 PM on January 25, 2009

amelioration's list is a great idea. Good luck with this difficult time. My thoughts go out to you and Chaplin.
posted by lilac girl at 8:32 PM on January 25, 2009

Yeah, I thought appetite would be the key with my childhood dog. Was wrong. Am sorry.

What's your relationship with your vet like?

Your gut may be way off. Way way way off. And according to my beloved vet, it can be way off either way. Folks who dread making Bootsie suffer call too early, not realizing there are some cheap meds that will make life lovely for another three or four years. Folks who can't bear to part with their beloved Whiskers hold off.

You really need a good medical opinion. If your vet is not so great, perhaps your local SPCA has a grief group who can help you understand what you are seeing, what it means, and what you need to do.

Also, my sympathy - bales of it. Being able to make decisions not so great sometimes.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:51 PM on January 25, 2009

how do I know when it's time to part with him?

Well, question: do you think you trust yourself to know, and more importantly follow through? (Not to suggest you don't, but just consider the question.) Someone I know realized a while back that he'd probably never willingly make this decision. I can't imagine how much money he's spent on his dog, including hip replacements, various other surgeries, on-going care, etc.

So, back to knowing he wouldn't make the call, he has a standing deal with the vets that when they think it's time, they'll tell him, and he doesn't really have much voting power once it comes to that. This option would obviously be contingent on what sort of relationship you have with yours; he's been with these people for a long time, and has actually moved to be closer to them at one point.
posted by Su at 9:51 PM on January 25, 2009

My dog (a fifteen year old mix that I put down in November) ate, drank and went outside to the bathroom (although I had to carry her out and hold her in my arms to steady her) up to the very last day despite the fact that she was in obvious pain. She had also lost interest in pretty much everything else. She didn't play anymore, didn't do anything but sleep, but I was so desperate to hold on to her that I latched on to the fact that she was still eating and drinking as sign that she wasn't ready to go. She was. I was the one who wasn't ready.

Talk to your vet first. There may still be some pain management options that could restore some quality of life. But be prepared to let go if that's not the case. It sounds like you've given him a great life. You've done a wonderful thing, loving him so much. I'm so sorry you have to go through this.
posted by lysistrata at 5:19 AM on January 26, 2009

I am so sorry. I agree that it's probably time.

The worst part of it is that there's always this hope that it might be better tomorrow.

For the human, yes. For the pet, unfortunately, no -- all they know is that it hurts today.

Scritches to Chaplin, and hugs to you.
posted by shiny blue object at 9:52 AM on January 26, 2009

Oh, it's so hard. It's so hard to know when it's time. Our 14-year-old dog was...ok in that she could still walk and eat and do her business and she was still as sweet and smart as ever, but she was almost deaf and close to blind, she would stumble and fall a lot (she'd forget she wasn't a young'un anymore and would try to scale snowbanks), she was clearly having trouble getting upstairs (my dad would carry her up sometimes), etc. There was nothing pressing, but it was clear she was unhappy and frustrated with not being able to do all the things she used to, and so we just waited for a moment. One day her back half just stopped working and we knew it was time. I've told my mom many times that I'm so glad we did it then and didn't keep her going; it was the right time for her and we can remember her as she was, rather than as a shell of herself (probably what she would have been if we kept her going).

In contrast, my mom babysat another dog recently who was old as well and in bad shape -- this dog was skin and bones, couldn't stand straight and was unsteady, and was also pretty deaf and blind. It was utterly painful; I had to leave the room a couple of times because I just couldn't watch. The owners just weren't ready to let the dog go then -- they finally did a few months later.

It's really difficult to find the balance between functioning well enough and functioning just barely. Waiting for a moment or an excuse to put him may be a viable option for you, but please don't let it get as far as this other dog. See what the vet says; be prepared for the worst and try to be ready to let him go. If you do have to put him down, just know you're doing the best for him and stopping any suffering he'd have to endure. I'm so sorry. All the best to you and Chaplin.
posted by pised at 10:31 AM on January 26, 2009

So sorry, jrchaplin. I hope you will find comfort in the years you had with Chaplin. Caring for an animal for his or her lifetime is an amazing and wonderful gift, for both animal and human. After 16 years with your old boy, you are not the person you would have been had he not been in your life. What a wonderful legacy for him.
posted by isogloss at 12:31 PM on January 26, 2009

I've done this twice. One dog had a fairly rapid decline, but was still herself until one day she wasn't; the other had years of gentle aging and senility until our vet said "I am ethically okay with whatever decision you make, whenever you make it" and we went maybe another 3 months doing much as amelioration describes. If you're at the point where you're asking "when will I know," you're probably already there.

It is so hard to be the human sometimes, to make these choices against our own desire and love and interest, and to say goodbye to our friends. My thoughts are with you and Chaplin both.
posted by catlet at 12:39 PM on January 26, 2009

They love us totally.

They give us all they have, all the time -- dogs are 24/7/365 love machines. "Wanna go for a ride?" It's two am, or four am, doesn't matter to them -- your pooch is always ready if and when you are.

I didn't want to help Rusty, The Wonder Dog in the way that they depend upon us to help them. But it was in fact past time; my vet, who knew and loved the both of us asked me "What is her quality of life? Where is her dignity?" This after a few weeks of trying everything, money no object nor was anything else.

It broke my heart. I haven't had another dog since, though I love dogs; I miss that dog terribly.

She was the best.

They've entrusted us their care. Honor that trust. Help him.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:34 PM on January 26, 2009

Glucosamine sulfide tablets are what we've given our old dogs to help with arthritis and ache-y joints. It's not a drug, it's a natural supplement -- helps make/repair cartilage and thus may reduce the pain and slow the arthritis as a result. But this was what we started giving them when they were just showing the onset of arthritis -- helped them have a few more good years, I'm sure of it.

Years ago my mother-in-law's beloved black lab lived past the point where your pooch is at, and the poor boy started to lose bowel control in the house because it was too hard to get outside -- and he was so obviously ashamed when it happened. It was then that she finally started to accept that he wasn't going to get better, that he wasn't her happy-go-lucky puppy anymore. You have my sympathies.

posted by lizbunny at 8:37 PM on January 26, 2009

Thanks, everyone.

Your comments helped me greatly in making my decision.

On Friday, Feb. 13, Chaplin passed on peacefully, aided by my very capable and compassionate vet.

The toughest decision I've ever made, but one I now know was the right one.
posted by jrchaplin at 3:51 PM on February 25, 2009

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