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Learning Lessons about Life and Death from a Little Dog

I lost my best friend last month. Dash came to live with me when he was only 8 weeks old--just a tiny ball of fur with a squeaky little bark and a big attitude. For 10 years, he was my confidante, my faithful companion, and my protector. When he was diagnosed with cancer recently, I had to make some hard decisions. Afterwards, I realized that the way we treat our pets can teach us much about how we deal with our human loved ones at the end of life.

When the vet told me that Dash had a large tumor near his anal gland, I immediately made arrangements for surgery. However, my main concern was his comfort and quality of life. Cure was a hope, but cure at all costs was never an option. I think we forget this sometimes with our human loved ones. We know that some treatments will be painful and uncomfortable, and we know that our loved ones—especially our elders—aren’t likely to regain their independence, functioning, or quality of life. They may live with pain and have a poor prognosis, but we want practitioners to do everything they can. Even when our human loved ones don’t want certain interventions or say, “Enough is enough,” this often is difficult for us to accept.

I discussed Dash’s prognosis with the vet; and she said that even with the surgery, long-term survival was unlikely. From our conversation—as well as my own research—I knew that aggressive treatments such as chemo or radiation would be painful and unlikely to produce significant results. Why would I subject him to pain and torture just to keep him alive a little longer? Guilt? My own selfish desire not to lose my dog? Those are terrible reasons. But they also are reasons that we often want our human loved ones to pursue treatments that they don’t want or that aren’t likely to help them significantly.

The vet and I agreed that she would remove the tumor—or at least the majority of it—and, after that, I would keep him as happy and comfortable as possible for as long as possible. I dropped him off early in the morning and tried to go about business as usual. I worked and tried to pretend that everything would be okay. I even bought Dash a ‘get-well’ toy—a little stuffed alligator I knew he would love. But the hours of waiting were torture. When the vet finally called, the news was much worse than I had hoped. The tumor had grown significantly in a few short days, and the cancer had already spread to his pelvis. The vet and I agreed that it was more humane to put him down than to let him suffer.

When it comes to our human loved ones, we need to respect and understand if they choose not to undergo invasive treatments or interventions. We need to realize that their definition of quality of life—not ours—is what counts. Only they can decide what is right for them. And we need to have these hard conversations and record their wishes—in the form of a living will, advance directive, or similar document—while they are still cognitively intact and able to make sound, informed decisions that are not clouded by illness or emotion.

After I got the call from the vet, I drove right to the clinic. All I could think of was that I wanted Dash to have his toy. A vet tech escorted me into a private room and handed Dash—wrapped in a blanket—to me. As I cuddled him and kissed his head, I noticed that his eyes were open; and I asked hopefully and irrationally, “Is he still alive?” The tech gave me a fleeting look of pity and said, “No, honey.” Then she left us alone to say goodbye. I hugged and kissed my beautiful little boy and told him how much I loved him. I thanked him for all of the love and happiness he brought into my life. When the tech came back to get him, I didn’t want to give up my dog; but I did. Then I made arrangements to have him cremated and returned to me in a cedar box with his name on it, I paid the bill, and I left. Then I went home, crawled into bed, and cried.

I still miss Dash—and I probably always will, but I am at peace with my decision. He was an active, scrappy little dog; and I have no doubt that he wouldn’t have wanted to live as an invalid, in constant pain, being plied with pills, and unable to run and play. With our human loved ones, knowing how they want to live can help bring us peace when they pass. My grandmother was 86 and bedbound. She had suffered a stroke and several heart attacks, and her normally thin body was frail and weak. A long-time widow, she always had been an active, independent lady who still cooked lavish meals every week and made bushels of cookies at Christmas. She enjoyed a shot of whiskey in her morning coffee, and she had something to say about everyone’s business. As she lay in bed during her last days, she often said to me, “I am ready to be with your grandfather. I don’t want to live like this.” When she died, I knew she was at rest. Instead of mourning her passing, I was freed to celebrate her amazing life.

Thanks to a little dog, I have a better understanding of life and death. His final gift to me is one I will never forget.

The author, Joanne Kaldy, is a long-time communications consultant for AMDA and the AMDA Foundation. She is one of the driving forces behind the Caring Canines calendar and a passionate advocate of the role pets play in the lives of our long term care facility residents.