Saying goodbye is never easy, regardless of how or when it happens.
small white dog on ground
Cupcake. Photo by Dr. Amelia White
I thought my dog was dying in front of my eyes.
Cupcake is a 13.5-year-old female Pekingese mix. She’s the cutest fluff of soft white fur you have ever seen, and equally as sweet. If there was ever a dog that could imprint herself on your heart for a lifetime, it's Cupcake.
The day I met her, I was working as kennel staff at a local veterinary clinic while making my way through college and trying to get into veterinary school. Her owners brought her in to be euthanized. She was only 12-weeks-old and had a severe form of a parasitic skin disease called demodicosis.
We could not tell what her coat color was because she was completely bald and covered head to toe in sores. Her poor eyes were barely open and she was frail…she looked like she wanted to die.
Perhaps the most upsetting part is that the owners didn’t seem concerned with how miserable she was. They only cared that the breeder had given them a sick dog and they wanted their money back. The owners' lack of compassion was especially upsetting to me. After I spent hours soaking her skin in a medicated bath, she cuddled up in my lap and that was it for me. I fell in love with her hook, line, and sinker. From that day on, I spent hours tending to her needs and nursing her back to health. Within six months she grew a full coat of the most luscious white hair; even the dogs at the dog park were doing double takes!
Cupcake and I were inseparable. She has been with me through every major life event so far: college, veterinary school, marriage, advanced veterinary specialty training, having children, and most recently, losing my father. Cupcake is in tune with my heart and needs, and she is always there for me when I need her.
When my Dad died tragically, a day forever ingrained in my memory, she would not leave my side. I remember receiving the dreaded phone call and making the two-hour drive home. When I arrived at the house where I spent my childhood days, I found there were so many visitors that many people had to park in the pasture out front.
I could barely make my way through the sea of grieving people to find a seat on the couch. In those never-ending days, Cupcake was my shadow, following me through a house filled with hundreds of strangers who'd come to offer their condolences. She was there for me in a way no one else could be, curled in my lap with her tiny paw on my hand. She stared at me constantly and the look in her eyes seemed to be trying to tell me that I would be okay. And she was right.
Then the day came that she tested me, and it was my turn to reassure her. I wondered how I could let my beloved pet know that she could pass over and my family and I would be okay.
On that ordinary Saturday morning I woke to the usual sounds of birds chirping in the backyard. After stretching and checking the clock, I crept out of bed to the crate where my old lady sleeps at night now that she has taken to wandering through the house and getting lost. My heart stopped. There she was, curled in a ball, asleep. But she was too still.
I threw the cage door open and our other dog, Jock, jumped out. Cupcake remained too still, didn’t even lift her head when my other dog jumped on her trying to greet me. Suddenly, my heart seemed to be pounding in my ears and my body flushed. There was a rushing wind and ringing in my ears. I reached gently towards her and tried to speak, but nothing came out. Tears streamed from my eyes as I cradled her head in my hands. Her body was completely limp and her leg drooped to the floor when it slipped from my grasp. I lifted her eyelids and saw that her eyes were not responsive. I was sure she was dying.
“It’s okay, sweetie. You can go. Tell Dad that I said I love him.”
As I petted her head, she took a sudden, ragged breath.
“Cuppie? Cuppie? Please don’t leave me yet,” I begged.
“Mommy? What’s wrong?” said a tiny voice over my shoulder.
I turned with a start to find my four-year-old son standing in my bedroom doorway. Immediately I panicked again. I didn’t want him to see this.
“Sweetie, everything is okay. Can you turn the lights on for me please?”
As I ran over every scenario in my mind about how I would explain this to him, he switched on the lights.
Instantly, Cupcake’s eyes focused in on me and she took a deep breath. I still held her head in my hands, and she stared at me. Slowly her tail began to wag. Then she started to stretch as if waking after a winter’s hibernation. With that, she stood up, kissed me, and walked out of the kennel.
Dumbfounded. That’s what I was. Then I panicked again.
I called my best friend, who is also a veterinarian, and we talked through every explanation including my go-to for any random ailment she might have: brain tumor. I called the specialists I worked with and they all took turns looking her over and examining her. None of us could come up with much other than a laundry list of differentials I still refuse to accept.
I don’t know why she came back to me that day. We often wish for the gift of a peaceful passing in our sleep, and hope the same for our pets; many suffer in their final days until their bodies eventually expire. In veterinary medicine, the ability to euthanize a pet and alleviate their suffering in the most complete and final way truly is a gift. But no one wants to be faced with making the decision to euthanize their pet. I often question if Cupcake might have passed over had I not intervened, and I realize how much less burdened I would feel knowing that the decision whether or not to euthanize would no longer be an issue.
Euthanizing a family pet is never an easy task for veterinarians. We try to put on a game face, and sometimes we are able to accomplish this, but most of the time we break down and cry after you leave the exam room. Euthanasia is as much a hardship as it is a gift.
But how do you know when it is finally time? Their entire lives you have been committed to protecting and nurturing them and making the decision to let them go may feel like you are somehow giving up on them. The reason we take such great care of them is to provide them with an excellent quality of life. That very quality of life is often what is sacrificed in the days leading up to a pet’s death. It can be hard to measure the impact, especially when a disease is long and drawn out, creeping along as slowly as a hot summer day in Georgia after the air conditioner goes out. Luckily, there are some really helpful tools out there to aid us when making such a tough decision. I often recommend owners take a quality of life questionnaire for their pet. This gives them an objective way to measure their pet’s quality of life and can significantly help people arrive at the place where they are okay with the decision to euthanize their pet.
Saying goodbye is never easy, regardless of how or when it happens. No matter if it is planned or completely unexpected, our hearts ache when a beloved pet dies. Whether you make the decision to euthanize or to let them pass naturally, your heart will grieve just the same.
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