On Knowing When Your Pet Is Saying Goodbye

pet at the end of their life

The day is dying for my Ellie.

Just shy of a year ago my yellow Lab told us that her end was nearing, and we’d best begin letting go, as her body was slowly saying goodnight. The past 11 months have been filled with high peaks of bright eyes, sassiness, and excitement for her day. She hobbles out to the porch each morn to settle next to me: ready for work, happy to be included, and finding comfort in routine. Rides in her wagon or in the car calm her addled mind and give her a world to engage with that her arthritic joints can’t grant her passage to. She cuddles into our laps, bites her brother, and devours her food as if every meal were her last.

These peaks have been matched only by the valleys of long restless nights, endless trips to the water bucket and outside, and an increasingly harder time standing, yet alone walking. Her mind and awareness comes and goes, particularly keen at supper time, supremely anxious the second we step out of the room. She barks, endlessly, until hoarse; incontinence and madness sets in from the sheer act of being left alone for a moment. Her nearly 15-year-old body is a mass of benign lumps, but they grow so quickly and chafe so severely it’s hard to see them as mere accessories to an aging dog. A trip outside is a 30-minute affair and anywhere farther than the yard requires the strength to deadlift an 82-lb. dog.

It’s exhausting, mentally, emotionally, and physically for her and us. We’re tied to the house constantly, there is no such thing as a full night’s sleep, and sometimes nothing will stop the barking. But then there are the good days, when the smiling and happy dog I’ve grown up with appears, and it’s unfathomable to make such an impossible decision. How do you watch a needle slide into the neck of an animal that’s licking your hand?

I’ve been part of many of the final moments in my animals’ lives and held them close, sobbing as they were put down. Most had terminal cancer and were ready to go, the pain had already taken them from us and the while the decisions were difficult, they were right. It was clear. It was the only decision, often made in moments due to a swift and unalterable turn in their health.

With Ellie, it’s an interminable quagmire of uncertainty. Each day begins with the question of whether today’s the day. A morning report on how she survived the night, a check to whether she eats her breakfast, and her anxiety levels dictate if the vet is getting a call. The noontime daily debate settles into the pit of my stomach, pros and cons weighed with one hand on her steadily breathing side, as my mother and I carefully avoid making eye contact throughout the discussion. Every night as we lie awake in the deep of the night, Mom through her prayers and me in my internal ramblings, both desperately hope that Ellie will go on her own; that we won’t have to play God.

These past few months have been spent standing on Death’s doorstep with our hands raised over the knocker. There we grapple with unanswerable questions: Is she in pain? Is she unhappy? Does she have a quality of life? Is she telling us she’s ready? And in the depths of our hearts the most agonizing question of all, are we considering putting her down to make our lives easier? Is the endless barking, sleepless nights, the deck reeking of piss, and cabin fever pushing us to make this decision? Would it be for Ellie or for us? Her seizures are manageable, and though the medicine for them has put her liver and lungs on decline, it’s not killing her. The senility, blind and deafness, incontinence, and arthritis that make her days and nights difficult are not a death sentence, so how can we be the ones to sign the warrant?

And so we remain in an ever-growing high stakes detente with Death as her days continue to dim. Vet appointments are made and canceled as false alarms are sounded and another day passes that is not the day. Trips to the store are filled with questions on just how much dog food to buy, whether a new bed for the winter is needed, or even as simple as should we really invest in a large bag of pee pads? How much do you buy for a life that is ending?

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photo of person holding black and white dog

The days continue to pass, each one another surprise that we have her with us. We no longer speak in seasons or months that she may live, but rather in weeks and days. Her light dims a little darker and her final chapters grow thinner, brightened only by happy eyes and thumping tails, beating out the rhythm of a slow, but cheerful march to the end. Until then we will close each day with a question mark, continuously paused yet raging against Death.



View Comment (1)
  • oh my lord, this piece made me bawl. All the hugs to you, Ellie, and your family during this difficult time! We had similar issues with our little family dog. It’s so difficult :'(

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