This blog is about how to make The Decision... The decision about how to know if it's time to euthanize your beloved animal. I know it's not a cheery subject, but it is one you will likely need to make if you have animals. I've thought about writing this blog many times, and for some reason now is the time I actually did it.
I hope what I write here will help you one day. I hope it will help you act with love and will prevent you from feelings of confusion or regret.
Animals fill our lives and we do our best to love them and take care of them for as long as we possibly can. It rarely feels long enough. Sometimes an accident or acute illness takes them suddenly. When there is clearly nothing we could have done, there is no decision. There is grief and sadness, but often no decision.
Old age or chronic conditions that slowly effect them eventually create a situation where we have to balance the quality of their life with our desire to keep them around as long as possible. That's where things get hard.
In these situations we need to step back and get the bigger picture. It is emotionally difficult for most of us to think about euthanasia, but our animal may be physically suffering. In this moment, it is possible for us to take control of our emotions. Our role should be to take care of them. Not the other way around. Animals certainly shouldn't have to endure any unnecessary physical suffering just because we can't handle the thought of losing them.
If you agree that your responsibility is to the animal, then the emotion you need to be most concerned with is regret. It feels horrible to lose a beloved animal. For me, what is even worse is to lose an animal and feel regret that I let him suffer more than necessary out of either mismanagement, a wrong guess, or delayed action.
As a custodian for the animals I get to live with, it is my role to serve them and help them have the best quality of life they can. Their gift to us is their presence. Our gift to them is to be able to help them in ways they cannot help themselves.
Nature is beautiful but let's face it - it can also be cruel. We have the ability to give the gift of kindness that can end suffering.
The tricky part is to not wait too long out of an unwillingness to let them go. I often say: 'our animals make us happy, but they shouldn't have to'. Of course we want to do everything we can for our animals and to keep them around as long as possible. The reality is that some people have a lot of trouble making the decision because it will be too hard for them.
Over the years I developed a way that helps me make the decision. Perhaps it will help you.
How I decide
How many 'good days' vs 'bad days' are there? Good days need to out-number the bad.
I know my line of regret:
I ask myself: 'What, exactly, will it look like that will make me wish I had chosen euthanasia sooner?'
Every situation is different so you need to get really specific and reality-based. As animal lovers, we get good at seeing what could go wrong and preventing it. We make sure gates are closed and sharp objects are found and removed. Use the same skills in this case. Look at the exact trouble your animal friend is having and see what really could happen that would cause undue suffering. Would you be able to live with that? Would you want that to be the last moment on earth for your friend?
I aim to get as close as possible to the line of regret (without going over it), while keeping the good days out-numbering the bad.
I've gotten it wrong a number of times for various reasons. Those moments can still haunt me (and it's taken some real work to forgive myself). I've gotten it right a number of times too. When I think of those times I am filled with love-sadness. It's a sadness that comes from remembering someone you loved so very much. It is a different kind of sad. When I remember those animals, I am filled so much with love that it makes me cry. I KNOW I made the kindest decision.
Actually, it felt like we made the decision together. In each of those cases I felt them ask - it seemed like they knew what was happening and I felt them let go right before. In each case, each vet commented on it. It was different. My beauties went into a peaceful stillness. We were both surrendering. They knew they didn't have to struggle any more to stay alive just for me.
When my horse Vivaldi (a.k.a. Bubba) got older, his chronic hoof issues caught up with him. He was abscessing frequently on both front feet. Xrays showed that there was almost nothing between his coffin bones and the ground. Boots didn't help. The bad days were starting to out-number the good ones. He wasn't moving around much. I was starting to worry if he was getting enough water, and keeping him locked up made him depressed and worried. A couple times I noticed he had trouble getting up in the pasture.
What was my line of regret? I would regret if I came home and found he had suffered and/or died from dehydration and heat exhaustion because he couldn't get up.
There was a very real chance that he could end up down and not able to get up. If this happened when we weren't home he could easily dehydrate and over-heat in the Florida summer we were in the middle of.
The vet had been waiting for my call. It was a beautiful sunny day in 2010. Bubba was grazing and I was with him. The vet walked up and stopped in her tracks for a moment. He was shiny and grazing 'happily'. 'He looks good' she said. Bubba was an extremely stoic horse. He picked his head up and took a couple stilted steps forward and we all remembered why we were there. He really couldn't walk.
My husband was also there for me. He had never seen a horse euthanized and the vet and I warned him of how it could go. Sometimes it is not so pretty. During the procedure Bubba simply laid down... exactly as any other horse would lay down in the grass on a sunny day. It was the most peaceful thing I experienced. The vet had tears in her eyes and remarked: 'If I didn't know better I would have said he just laid himself down'. He took a couple big breaths and it was done.
Doing our best...
Yes, I have tears as I am writing this, but they are love-sad tears. They are the same ones I get when I remember the moment my dog Rex helped me decide, and when my dog Carlos helped me decide. Those were the other ones I got right.
We decided together and we did it together. They were clear and I was courageous. I gave them the biggest gift and they gave me the biggest honor.
For the ones where I didn't get it as right as I could have... I know they are free now and aren't thinking about it at all. When I think about them I alternate between feeling love-sad and deep regret. Over time, I forgive myself and feel the love-sad. It will make me try even better to get it right the next time.
For sure I know I always do my best to do my best.
When you are deeply connected with an animal and deeply connected to your higher self you will know. It will be sad and it will feel like love.
So, I hope that helps you even just a little bit.
I'll leave you with a poem by Irving Townsend:
We who choose to surround ourselves
with lives even more temporary than our
own, live within a fragile circle;
easily and often breached.
Unable to accept its awful gaps,
we would still live no other way.
We cherish memory as the only
certain immortality, never fully
understanding the necessary plan.