Pet euthanasia -- "a little early" vs. "way too early"
October 27, 2018 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm familiar with the adage that when it comes to pet euthanasia, "better a week too early than a day too late." As my own old man dog starts to decline, I am having a super hard time deciding on the right time. Snowflakes inside.

For a 14.5yo lab, Dinsford is still in pretty good shape. Many days, he is basically his normal self, if a slower/achier version. But on some days, he doesn't want to eat (!!!) and just lays around looking very unhappy. I'd say we're at 5-6 good days per week and 1-2 bad days per week. I'd put him at a 48 or so on the HHHHHMM scale.

We have been to the vet for an exam and extensive labwork, all of which were normal. He is on pain meds but I'm not finding them very helpful. Low doses don't appear to affect his pain levels. Higher doses knock him out and upset his tummy (depending on the drug).

Also, about a month ago he bit my bf (who provides about half of his day-to-day care) when bf tried to take a piece of aluminum foil away from him. This was very out of character for him and our vet chalked it up to a combination of pain (and therefore being grouchy) and/or early dementia (and therefore being confused). It hasn't happened since and we're being extremely careful to keep him away from the kitchen when food (and things that have recently touched food) are out.

Here's where my head is now:

* I adore this dog, and if I could keep him around forever (without him suffering) I would do that. He brings me SO MUCH comfort and joy.

* However, his comfort is my top priority. Even though he still has mostly good days, I feel like his bad days are (a) only going to increase in frequency from here and (b) causing him to suffer. I also suspect he is suffering a little bit even on his good days, and is just hiding it well as dogs are wont to do.

* Safety (of me and bf) is another priority. We both feel like another bite is extremely unlikely due to the precautions we're now taking, but it was a bad bite and it occurred without warning (no growl/snap/nip) which makes us nervous.

* On his last bad day (Tuesday) I made a home euthanasia appointment for Sunday (tomorrow) morning. Of course, he's only had good days since then, so now I'm second-guessing myself.

* He has been getting SPOILED recently, particularly this week in light of the above. He's getting loads of belly rubs, pets, and people food.

My question: Letting him go now feels right (but obviously very sad). He's a dog, and he lives in the moment (i.e., I know he isn't thinking, "Gee, I hope I make it to Thanksgiving this year!"), and now some of those moments involve suffering. But it also seems like I'm doing this much earlier than most other pet owners do, which makes me wonder if I'm making a mistake. What do you think?
posted by schroedingersgirl to Pets & Animals (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Seems a little early to me, but it's really your call. I don't have a strong sense of how good or bad the good and bad days are, especially since it doesn't sound like Dinsford has a diagnosed medical condition. I also don't have a sense of what you mean by "a bad bite." Do you mean it was bad behavior, or that your boyfriend had to go to the ER for surgery, or what?

Anyway, a dog that is having mostly good days and some days where he just kind of lays there looking mournful is not a dog that I would normally put down, personally. I would just try to be extra nice to him on the bad days. It's not clear to me how bad the bad is though, and anyway it sounds like you're in the grey area where it's hard to make a call.

When you're in that grey area, whatever you do is OK. There are good arguments on both sides. You can wait a little longer, or you can do it now. Neither choice is wrong, it's just up to you. I know it's hard.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:08 AM on October 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I also don't have a sense of what you mean by "a bad bite."

It was a Level 4 based on this scale. Bf needed a trip to the ER, and because the bite then got infected, to spend 24 hours in the hospital getting IV antibiotics. He was out of work for over a week.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:23 AM on October 27, 2018

Well, I'd probably keep that appointment then. The bite aside it seems a little early but not that early, but you can't risk another event like that. And if the dog bit because he was in pain and/or confused, that would seem to suggest that his bad days are actually pretty bad. So that takes it over the line, for me.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:33 AM on October 27, 2018 [13 favorites]

It would be time if it were my dog. I am really sorry.
posted by procrastination at 6:34 AM on October 27, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is such a hard call to make, and you have my sympathies. It really sounds like you are being thoughtful and rational about your options. I've done this now five times, and for all but one the deciding factor was either a loss of bladder/bowel control or a more subjective sense that they were giving up on living - "the light going out in their eyes."

If the good days are still outweighing the bad and you would to spend some more time with your dog, and you get a sense that he would enjoy those days, I would postpone. If waiting just leaves you with a feeling of dread over the inevitability of saying goodbye, no one would judge you for going ahead on Sunday.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:39 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would lean toward keeping the appointment, too. I was one who waited until “too late” and one thing I realized after I’d had time to process was how much I’d over estimated his good days. When decline is slow, you sort of keep redefining what good means. Is a good day now really equivalent to a good day two years ago?
posted by Kriesa at 6:41 AM on October 27, 2018 [48 favorites]

My general feeling on this subject is that if a pet owner is loving and thoughtful enough about this issue to look up decision-making scales and put genuine effort into trying to do the right thing, then whatever decision they make is going to be in the realm of reasonable and appropriate responses.

There is no single "correct" answer to this question. There are wrong answers -- people who have their pets put down at the first sign of trouble because they didn't really want them anymore anyway, for example -- but the range of reasonable choices is broad and encompasses a lot of factors.

Because you are the type of person to agonize over this decision, you are certain to make a reasonable choice. Because you are the type of person to agonize over this decision, you are going to agonize over it anyway.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:43 AM on October 27, 2018 [45 favorites]

it also seems like I'm doing this much earlier than most other pet owners do, which makes me wonder if I'm making a mistake. What do you think?

I think you know Dinsford way better than any of us do, and you've already made the call that his life has deteriorated to the point where having him put down is the right thing to do, and that makes what other people do beside the point. That said, I also think 14+ years is a long, long life for a lab.

Having recently been through the same thing myself, I know how hard this is. But as long as you're clear about keeping Dinsford's welfare uppermost in your decision making process, you can trust yourself to be doing the right thing.

Internet hugs to both of you.
posted by flabdablet at 6:44 AM on October 27, 2018 [16 favorites]

I would not wait until bad days outnumber good ones. I recently faced the same awful question, and decided to give my beloved cat a peaceful end before she was suffering so much that she had no more happy times. I miss her terribly, but I know I made the right decision for her.
posted by Dolley at 6:51 AM on October 27, 2018 [15 favorites]

We are almost there right now too (got an unexpected real bad diagnosis and then surprise excellent recovery (for now) during the last "is it time?" event), and my one takeaway from this last bad spell was that I'd a million times rather spend my last day with a relatively comfortable mobile engaged dog having a good time eating hamburgers than trying to hold him up while he pisses himself/me and cries and has the thousand-yard stare.

And there comes a point where you're playing Good Day Roulette but you realize later you were really stretching the definition of "good", and not taking into consideration how absolutely fucking exhausting it is on the bad days, but also on the good days, because of the hypervigilance and trauma and lost sleep. You already know you're doing this, even as you know you'll know later it's worse than you're letting yourself believe, which I think is as reliable a formula for low later regret as is possible.

If mine was at the "2 bad days a week" point, I would go ahead and do it even as I agonized over whether it was too soon and mourned the unknown number of good days still in the bank. Especially in our cases with a not-small dog, because things get so dramatic so fast when they lose mobility - something you can work around for a long time with a 10lb dog, less so at 40-50-60+. I think that's too many bad days for me, when it's weekly at all.

I certainly think you are well beyond the line of frivolous euthanasia, for sure, and this is clearly not a revenge thing for the bite. He's suffering routinely if intermittently, the two of you are probably also suffering, and I think that a good death tomorrow that relieves all of that and gives you the least amount of trauma is going to leave you (eventually, of course) with a better feeling than any other outcome will.

I'm so sorry. This sucks and they ought to live exactly as long as we do.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:04 AM on October 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

He's confused, in pain, scared, and I bet he feels like shit about biting your boyfriend. I think that it's time. I can tell you that for me the actual event was much much easier than my trepidation and recrimination about deciding it was time. It was just a real relief for me and I hope for my animal too. I'm sorry for what you're going through right now. I'm gonna go visit Bridget in the backyard.
posted by ftm at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

This is a really hard question to answer. Our cat, who was 15, was having health issues that we could not address via medication and started to rapidly decline. At the time, the vet and I had a wait and see because it really did seem like he was getting better, but ultimately he did not. In hindsight, we waited to long and Sam died naturally, and I really hope he didn't suffer because of my tendency to be optimistic.

If I were in your shoes, I'd feel better knowing what my dog was ailing from and whether there's medication that could improve quality of life. If that's not possible for the vet to determine and/or there's no medication to help here- and in my cat's case, there was an underlying cause but nothing we could medically do anymore - I'd move on to euthanasia.

It's tough. It's exhausting. Seems like you have some time? Do what you need to do so that you don't beat yourself up afterwards regardless of your decision.
posted by vivzan at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry. This is never an easy decision or process. I asked a similar question a few years ago and got some really helpful responses. We ended up taking a few days off to really spoil our pup to the max--beach, hot dogs, bacon, snuggles, etc--and by the end of the day when the home vet was booked to put him to sleep, he was so zonked it seemed like he might just pass on his own. It felt like it was the best thing we could have done for him, and now a few years later, I have absolutely no regret about doing it when and how we did. I always promised him a dignified death and I truly feel we gave that to him.

A couple more things from my head: if your dog is in pain now, it's unlikely that it will get better so you'll continue to wait for him to grow more uncomfortable. I was also told by several people that dogs are much better at soldiering through pain and discomfort than people are, or at least we're not as aware of how they're puttering through. So if you think your dog is having 2/7 pain days, he might be having more.

Finally, I was told by our vet that if you decide that you aren't ready to say goodbye when the vet comes over, you can always, always change your mind and reschedule the visit. I would say to take your time to consider the decision so that you feel settled about it, and if you need to cancel and reschedule don't worry at all. I found that it helped to book a date a week or two in the future so I had time to come to terms with it and plan his end-of-life celebrations.

Sending lots of snuggles to you and your gorgeous boy.
posted by stillmoving at 7:14 AM on October 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: From my experience (with cats) better to do it on a good day (with two) than a bad one (my first one).

Far better.
posted by jgirl at 7:18 AM on October 27, 2018 [14 favorites]

My heart hurts for you—it’s never easy.

When I’ve been in this situation with my cats, I always find that I move from feeling “I love this cat so much that I can’t possibly do this” to “It’s BECAUSE I love this cat so much that I know I NEED to do this”.

And I’ve also realized afterwards how hyper vigilant I’ve been in constantly monitoring behavior and looking for ANY signs of wellness, which in retrospect is exhausting.

Only you can make this decision, but to this internet stranger it sounds like it may be time.Hugs to you if you want them.
posted by bookmammal at 8:01 AM on October 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you think this is the right time, you are the one who will know. I don't think pet lovers tend toward too early even when they think they do. I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by jeather at 8:34 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry. This is always an agonizing choice. In retrospect, I waited too long for my mini poodle. Remember, particularly when you have a vet come to your home, you are causing the least amount of distress and discomfort for your guy and since dogs really do live mostly in the moment, that counts for a lot. You sound like a wonderful pet guardian and I support your decision.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:42 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

You are such a loving pet parent; no matter what you decide you will question yourself and that is okay and normal, but give yourself a break - you are putting his comfort above all else and that is admirable.
We had a 13 year old lab mix who had health issues for years, and I agonized for days over when would be "enough" for her. If she never had to walk, she was her old self, but simply getting up for food took forever as her arthritis was so bad. The morning she didn't want to go down the four steps to go to the bathroom outside, crying, I realized I was holding on to her for my own sake, and not thinking of how she really felt. She was an 80lb dog, so getting her in and out of the house was a horror for both of us (she HATED being picked up). I called the home vet the next day.
You are showing the ultimate love for your beloved dog. I send you many huge hugs.
posted by annieb at 8:44 AM on October 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Can he get in and out to pee and poop outside?
Can he eat, not will he eat?
Can you take him outside, settle him on a cushion and let him watch squirrels or whatever?

I think I would boil up a chicken, pick off meat, chop fine, make gravy, combine with rice, and feed him well. Set up a comfy chair so he can look outside. Play relaxing dog music. Take a couple days off work, and give him love and attention, and then go to vet. And remember that you gave him a great life in return for his love and loyalty. I'm in tears for you; this is hard.

I think you know it's time; I'm suggesting the how, not so much, if.
posted by theora55 at 8:58 AM on October 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

That you mentioned you are spoiling him makes me think that you already know in your heart what to do.

It’s ok. There is no exact answer. Looking back at all the dogs I’ve had, I would have been ok doing it sooner than I did. Because it’s for them, not me. It doesn’t sound too early at all.

I’m so sorry.

(May I suggest as you spoil him, take a little video as well. My videos of my dog have been a surprising comfort.)
posted by MountainDaisy at 9:22 AM on October 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Another thing. People assume that here is some moment where you stop second guessing yourself and just “know”. That does happen sometimes, but it’s mostly a myth.
posted by MountainDaisy at 9:26 AM on October 27, 2018 [22 favorites]

I thought my cat was recovering from pancreatitis. She was still eating until the night before she died. Then one morning I found her collapsed on the kitchen floor and she was dead a few hours later. She died in pain, too fragile at that point to make it to the vet. We had missed the tumor that had been growing out of her side because we hadn't been touching her sides because of the pancreatitis. Her good days weren't as good as we had thought.

I'm so sorry. But I think you should keep the appointment.
posted by Ruki at 10:06 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I called it super early for the love of my life, my sweet kitty cat, last February. She was about where your pal is. I'm really glad I did it when I did it. It was never going to be right. So I did it soon, because it was just... never going to be right.

I'm really sorry. Take care.
posted by sockermom at 10:22 AM on October 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

I am so sorry. I've been where you are with a pet, and it's awful. I would keep the appointment you have: in retrospect, the least awful of all our pet deaths was when we euthanized our terminally ill cat a little early (or so it seemed at the time). We had a few weeks' planned lead up where we stopped her medication that wasn't really working and made her miserable, and spoiled her greatly with cuddles and attention.

I realize now that out of all our pets, she had the best lead up to her last day of life. But it was hard to know at the time if we were doing the right thing. I think by keeping your appointment you'll be doing the right thing for your beloved dog. I'm so sorry. I know it's really heartbreaking.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:13 AM on October 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’ll start by saying I’m a vet. I think it’s the right time. I haven’t had time to read the other responses so I’m so sorry if I’m repeating what others have said.

You don’t want to be in the situation where he all the sudden has a rapid deterioration, it’s the middle of the night and you have to take him to the emergency vet to be put down. That happens more than you’d think (gradual slow decline followed by an acute episode where it is CLEAR they are suffering). That’s an awful thing to have to go through.

Dogs don’t have a concept of time. He isn’t going to be thankful for another week or month. He knows that he isn’t feeling so great RIGHT NOW. And a Labrador that isn’t eating some days is probably feeling a LOT worse than he is showing. I have seen an old Labrador with an abdomen full of urine from a ruptured bladder still eating and drinking and happy. They are stoic and they are always so joyful that they tend to need to be really sick to show the signs you describe, even if it’s only on some days.

I’m so sorry you are going through this. Hugs.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2018 [32 favorites]

On his last bad day (Tuesday) I made a home euthanasia appointment for Sunday (tomorrow) morning. Of course, he's only had good days since then, so now I'm second-guessing myself.

Please don't wait for the dog to have a series of bad, upsetting days to put him to sleep. The days he's just had are the goal days for end of life. Please remember that you are so, so fortunate to be able to do this for your dog, to give him a better ending than you yourself will get, and that he depends on you to do this for him as the last, best act of love you can bestow upon him.

He's 14. It will only get worse from here. I'm sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:49 PM on October 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm familiar with the adage that when it comes to pet euthanasia, "better a week too early than a day too late."

Personally I think these kinds of sentiments are way overstated. I also think people blame themselves too much for "waiting too late". I don't believe our job is not to preemptively eliminate any chance of suffering, rather to relieve suffering when it is too much.

I agree with jacquilynne, and I don't think there is a perfect moment. I think a lot of the agony is trying to find that perfect moment that doesn't exist. You're a reasonable, caring person. You'll make the right decision.

I've had a lot of older animals, I've done this a lot. The best thing to do is to prepare yourself, know who you're going to call, what you're going to do, and start making an estimate of when it might be time. Like peanut butter milkshake said, that time often seems to be Saturday night after midnight and that sucks. So if you're getting to the end of a bad week you might want to think Friday is the day.
posted by bongo_x at 10:24 PM on October 27, 2018

I don't believe our job is not to preemptively eliminate any chance of suffering, rather to relieve suffering when it is too much.

I struggled with that, going back and forth endlessly on who the hell did I think I was, presuming to have the right to dictate to another being when their life should end and/or whether they need to suffer a bit more visibly first? Playing God in that way was not a role I found the slightest bit comfortable.

I kept uselessly trying to imagine myself into Chelsea's place to work out what I would want once I got there. It was all made more blurry and complicated by the fact that I've recently been spending time with an old friend of my late mother's whose recent quality of life has been if anything marginally worse than Chelsea's, and who has repeatedly and emphatically said to me in so many words that she absolutely does not want to die just yet.

What I finally had to get straight inside my own head was that this was really not a issue about rights, and that trying to figure it out via empathy was simply never going to work. What this was about was straight-up knowledge and power.

I knew that Chelsea was on a hiding to nothing, that the antibiotics and anti-inflammatories were no longer really staying on top of her mouth infections, and that her little kidneys had maybe a month left in them at the absolute outside. I knew that if I just left her to get on with it, she'd hang on for days or possibly even weeks in increasing agony once the kidneys finally packed it in completely because she'd always, always had a strong little heart.

And like it or not, I had the power to stop her ever needing to experience that agony while she did not have the power to ask me to do any different or even conceive of the question.

I knew that the life of our little beloved was already but a faint echo of what it used to be, consisting mostly of sleeping punctuated by usually making it almost all the way to the back door before pissing and shitting and staggering back to bed. And I knew that that was never going to get any better, was getting slowly worse, and would at some point quite soon take a rapid turn for the worse.

So even though she still seemed capable of enjoying our company when she was awake, and still appreciated cuddles and head skritches, and would still have a bit of a snoofle around the back yard when I did manage to get her outside quickly enough after she woke: I came to believe that the kindest thing I could do for her was to end her life before the final agony had a chance to set in. I was sure I knew where she was going, it was nowhere good, and it was within my power to stop her needing to go there so I did.

Whether or not that was also the moral thing to do is a consideration that takes a very distant second place, to my way of thinking. When I thought about letting Chelsea stick around until she was in agony, for no better reason than to avoid my own moral culpability for freely choosing her time of death, it just felt like a harsh and unkind path. Feeling forced into action by immediate circumstance would certainly have been easier on me, but it wouldn't have been easier on her, and that's what swung the decision in the end.

The last week between booking the vet's visit and the day the deed was done was weird. I'd see her curled up in her little electric bed, or up and staggering toward the back door, and all I could think was "I'm about to have you murdered" and picking her up for a cuddle and a lift outside just felt sixteen different kinds of wrong, every single time.

But on the day itself, it was OK. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, warm but not hot. She woke up, I took her outside, she snoofled about for a while and headed back inside to sleep as usual, but instead of opening the door for her I just picked her up and we sat out on the deck in the afternoon sun, and she fell asleep in my arms instead of in her bed. And we just stayed that way for the forty-five minutes until the vet turned up, and she was gentle and quick and Chelsea didn't express any distress, and then her strong little heart had stopped and she was limp in my arms and that was that.

I agree that eliminating "any chance" of suffering is not the right way to think about these things, because by that logic we'd all be euthanased at birth. But when there's very little in the future but severe suffering, and it's impossible to tell exactly when the really severe phase is actually going to start, then "better a week too early than a day too late" is as good a guiding principle as any you'll find, I think.

I miss her.

I'm really, really glad she didn't suffer any more than she did.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 AM on October 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I noticed you marked this answered but I just wanted to to come in to say that even though I'm between pets now, this discussion has helped me deal with the last time we had to do this...and if I get another pet, the next time. Thank you. And peaceful thoughts for you and your lovely dog.
posted by emjaybee at 5:07 PM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am saying good-bye to a beloved 18-year-old dog in two days and was wondering if the time was right. I think it is. This thread helped me immensely. Thank you all.
posted by Camofrog at 5:16 AM on October 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for your kind input. You helped me make a decision that I'm at peace with: Yesterday, Dinsford passed peacefully at home with the help of a lovely traveling vet. He got a week of intense spoiling, and his last day was filled with loads of human food (including his favorite: pizza), snuggles, and rain puddles.

Bf and I are really, really sad, but also proud that we minimized his suffering. (I never expected to keep him from experiencing any suffering, but in his paws I would have preferred to go on a good day than a bad day, and before my pain was too severe to enjoy life. I think we did right by him.)

Thank you again.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:53 AM on October 29, 2018 [18 favorites]

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