When Pet Loss is Near

(Support to help you decide if it is “time to let go”)


            The death of a pet is always hard, however it occurs, but sometimes it is up to us, as beloved master and guardian, to initiate this grievous event.  Because not all pets enjoy a full and pain-free life right up until the moment they die,…..sometimes….one of the best ways we can show them our love is to help release them from pain and irretrievable loss of dignity.

            None of my dogs have died “naturally”.  All have developed some type of painful illness.  Two suffered from cancer, one had severe and excruciating hip dysplasya, two had multiple autoimmune diseases etc.

            Worrying that I might gloss over the severity of their conditions, HOPING that things would get better, I have always admonished my vet to be sure to let me know if he thought it was “time to let go”, if I hadn’t yet reached that determination.

            The first time I made this painful decision, my dog was 12 and been diagnosed with kidney stones that necessitated surgical removal.   He had already had two surgeries within the past year, was on multiple medications and had become quite arthritic.   So as much as I dreaded the thought of life without my wonderful, huggable shaggy Old English Sheepdog, Manfred, I knew that, for his sake, I needed to release him from further suffering.

            During the time he was part of our family, he had seen me through 3 miscarriages and a diagnosis of breast cancer on my 35th birthday.   Each time I returned home from the hospital, having lost yet another baby that I had carried for several months, Manfred was waiting for me at the door, eager for multiple hugs and kisses.  I didn’t have a baby to hold, but I had my Manfred.

            Then nearly 5 years after we first applied, the adoption agency called to tell us we were to become the parents of a 2 month-old baby girl. By this time, Manfred was 9; spoiled, pampered and uncontested “top dog”.

             I had some concerns as I had heard horror stories about other couples who, after bringing home a new baby, had to find their dog another home because the dog so resented the “intruder” that there was always the fear he might injure the baby.  “What would I do?????”   “How could I give up my beloved savior who had helped me through multiple traumas?” 

            Fortunately, this problem never arose, and I have several pictures of Manfred, showing his love and affection for his baby sister.  One shows his face tipped up, exposing his cloudy old eyes with a look of pure love and trust, gently taking a morsel of food that 8-month-old Alissa was offering him from her high chair.

            I have always been a believer in “the quality of life, as opposed to the quantity”, but when love and fear of loss collide, sometimes those two things can become blurred.

            Manfred had spent the night at the vet’s while they worked to determine what was wrong, so was partially medicated when I arrived. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, or how I would react, but I knew I had to be “there” for Manfred, as he had always been “there” for me. The vet placed him on an examining table, then left us alone to say good-bye. When the time came for his final injection, I held him close, pressing my face into his, while repeating over and over, “I love you.  Daddy and Alissa love you. You have been such a good dog.”  Later I would worry that I had perhaps made his last few breaths difficult, pressing so tightly into his head and face.  But, I knew that having me there, breathing me in as he took his final breaths, helped ease any anxiety or fears he might have had.

            Over the next minute or so, his breathing slowed, eventually stopped…..and he was gone.  The vet carried him out and gently placed him on a familiar blanket in the back seat of my car. 

            I had already called Lollipop Farm (a local animal shelter that has a crematorium) to let them know I would be coming.  During the 30-minute drive, I played gospel music,

cried, and stopped briefly to get a bouquet of flowers, which I left with him, along with some other keepsakes from home.

            On my way back across town, I stopped at a store and was able to find a lovely urn in which I would keep Manfred’s ashes. 

            A few days later, my 3-year-old daughter, Alissa accompanied me to Lollipop Farm to pick up Manfred and bring him home.  Wanting to keep Alissa from focusing on the loss, the majority of our time there was spent visiting the dogs, cats and numerous farm animals.

            Several months later I was reminded of one of the ways children process information.  Alissa asked, “Can we go to heaven?”  I told her, “Yes, but, hopefully not for a long, long time.”  She seemed to accept that, but a few days later, she asked me again.  After a few questions and answers, I learned that she was really asking to go to Lollipop Farm.  In her mind, that was Heaven, as that was where Manfred had gone when he died.

            For several weeks after Manfred’s death, I would find myself, unexpectedly, starting to cry; and I missed him and the “routine” terribly.  No longer did I fill his food and water bowls, let him out, or feel his comforting presence at night.   While he had started the night on our bed, with my husband and me, he usually ended up, lying on the floor along my side of the bed.

            Thanksgiving arrived a month after his death, and we went up to my parents’ home in Watertown.  Accompanying us, per usual, was Manfred.  I could not bring myself to leave him home alone.  So his urn occupied a near-by spot (I had declared it a Place of Honor)  as the rest of the family ate their Thanksgiving dinner.

            I can honestly say that, while I have dearly loved all of my dogs, making the dreaded decision to “let them go” was not quite as hard after that “first time.”

            Now I knew that it was “painless” for them. My vet gave them an initial injection to calm down any stress or anxiety they might be feeling, before giving them the final shot; and in almost all instances, I strongly felt that my pet had asked me to please let him/her go. 

            I have talked with other animal lovers about this, and they too have had this experience.  Many people suspect, and I am inclined to agree, that animals operate on a mental level far superior to ours.  If you and your pet are very close, they will sometimes try to communicate things to you….and sometimes exhibit uncanny behavior.

            My second Old English, Dudley, was one such dog.  He had severe hip dysplasia, plus a large pin in a hind thigh; the result of “escaping” from my parents’ house by pressing down on the latches of two doors, one stormy January day.  He dashed into the road where he was unavoidably hit by a car of college girls and spent the next month at Cornell, waiting for his shattered hip and thigh to heal.

            Over the years he underwent various medical procedures…including acupuncture, surgery to insert magnetic gold beads into his acupuncture points, injections that helped arthritic racehorses, and multiple vitamin regimes, determined by kinesiology.

            But, at the age of 10 ˝, he no longer came upstairs to my bedroom at night. Instead, he chose to lay on the landing….partly because that spot enabled him to keep watch on the two bedrooms that housed his beloved family, and partly because it was too hard on his hind quarters to mount the additional steps.

            Sadly, I accepted the fact that “the end was coming”.  Helping me to reach this decision was not just his decreased mobility, but also the “look” he had been giving me in the evening, while lying near my chair as I read.  I would look up and see him staring intently into my eyes, like he was trying to get a message across to me.  It didn’t happen every night, but often enough that I became more and more aware of “the look”.

            Our vet was soon leaving for a month, so, not wanting another doctor to perform the sad task, should it become absolutely necessary, my daughter, Alissa, and I decided it was “time to say good-bye”. 

            Dudley had been receiving monthly injections that helped make him more comfortable.  So, wanting him to have some measure of relief during his final days, we decided he would have his regular injection two or three days before his final shot.

            Months earlier I had purchased books on pet loss, including Moira Anderson Allen’s “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet.” I gave these to Alissa to read, hoping it would better prepare her for the inevitable sorrowful time.

            During the days before his scheduled euthanasia, Alissa and I talked with him, telling him what we were doing, and letting him know that he would soon be totally pain-free.  His response was almost unbelievable.  He seemed to know exactly what was going on.  A neighbor coming over to “say good-bye” to him was amazed when he kissed her; something he had never done before.

            His last night was a beautiful winter night.  The snow was heavily falling and Dudley went out with our other dog, a Great Pyrenees, Tinkerbelle.  He actually tried to romp with her, and I took pictures as he happily tried to bounce around in the soft, fluffy snow.  Then when it was time to go to bed, he did not stop on the landing, per usual.  Instead he struggled up the last 6 steps to the 2nd floor, resolutely marched over to my bedroom, struggled and managed to get his front paws up on my bed.  He then looked at me, asking to be lifted the rest of the way up onto “his” bed.

            The next day when Alissa and I took him on his final ride, he seemed eager, like he was anticipating something he looked forward to.  When we arrived at the animal hospital, instead of resisting going into a treatment room, like he sometimes did, he pulled on his leash, walking to the room in a very determined manner.  

            We lay him gently on the floor, on his side, and while Alissa and I both knelt over him, stroking him and telling him how much we loved him, he peacefully left this world.

            Once again I headed out to Lollipop with a beloved dog in the backseat.  Alissa and I stopped to get a dozen roses, which he splayed out on his body, in an arc, before leaving him for cremation.

            Of course, it was a very, very sad day for us, but on our way back into town, we stopped at a floral/gift shop, where Alissa discovered the “perfect urn” to hold Dudley’s ashes.  Now, over 10 years later, he still is “on guard” on a little marble shelf, below a tall gilt mirror on the landing.

            Some people prefer to bury their dogs at home, or in a pet cemetery.  Some find it hard to make any decision about the remains, so leave that up to the vet. But I have always found it comforting to bring my dearly loved dogs home, where I can have them in visible locations, and sometimes pick up their urn and hold them close.


                                                                                                            ~ Suzanne Phillips ~