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Knowing When Its Time

The most difficult part of owning a dog isn’t potty training. It isn’t having your couch eaten. It isn’t making food decisions. Or big vet bills. It isn’t the first year. But, the last. And knowing when your time has come to an end. They don’t live forever, these creatures. Not even close. Really only long enough for us to take them for granted. To completely incorporate them into our lives. To make them firmly and officially family. How long is that? It varies, and I dont think it really matters. Years or months. Its never easy.

Which brings us to a certain little dog. I’ll say up front he’s still with us. We just don’t know for how long.


We’ve done this dance a time or three, more if you count cats (Yes, I said CATS). It’s never easy. And while I’m hardly an expert (nor do I wish to be), I am learning the decision is as unique as each individual dog, which really isn’t much of a revelation. As the caretaker of old dogs, I’d thought I’d get this down. That I’d hone my sense of ‘knowing’. That our connection would tell me, tug me in the right direction, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yet, doubt appears to be the one constant. Waffling. Assessing. Re-assessing. Thinking I’m ridiculous. I’m jumping the gun. No, we should have already done this. I’m being selfish. In either case.

But, doubt we should. Its a big decision. The decision. Life and death and more than that. Comfort. Security. Courage. Gratitude. Big concepts to reconcile with the ending of a life. Consciously. Especially when it’s warm and snuggly and still wags its tail because its happy to see you. When Ford showed up almost exactly a year ago, his little 19 year old Maltese body had plenty of issues. We never thought he’d be with us this long. His body though, has mostly healed. Yes, he has an enlarged heart and some chronic bronchitis that must be managed. He stumbles. He’s more than a little blind and deaf. For all the mess he sounds like, he gets around pretty well. Ford’s body might have some time. It’s his mind that seems in a hurry to exit the scene.

In recent history Ford has become lost and confused, which he expresses by wondering where the hell you are. AKA barking. To put this into context, you are either less than a foot away or lost to him entirely. There is no in between. Present or gone. Comforted or alone. Even if you were just with him (less than 5 minutes ago). Even if you are in the same room. It matters not. He only knows that moment, and if its off, he’s in a panic. Not fun for him. Not fun for us.

This is not something I’ve previously dealt with. Cancer. Mobility issues. Sudden emergency room death. That I’ve got. This I feel like I should manage. We keep him with us. We snuggle him in blankets and worn clothing to trick him into thinking he’s not alone. We’ve tried anti-anxiety meds (a no-go). But, life has to keep going. That’s difficult trying to have a small dog attached to you constantly, keeping his anxiety in check as well as your own.

And is it fair? If life has become that scary, if the room is that empty where once it was full, is it really better to go on?

I don’t honestly know.

I do know the question has to be asked. I know I’ve never regretted this decision once I’ve made it. I know I still miss the dogs who came before. I look around, and I know it will have to be made again. And again. And again. I know its not going to get any easier.

I also know, Ford is still happy to see us. Even if we’ve only been 20 feet away for 2 minutes. It’s all relative. His fluffy white tail celebrates our arrival. He eats his food with gusto. Occasionally, he still rolls around on the door mat in some sort of undignified, but apparently quite gratifying, scratching routine.

So, we are hedging our bets. Doing our best. Hoping thats enough. Until it feels like it isn’t. Count the good days. Count the bad. Keep a tally. Eventually, I will make the phone call. We will take the drive. In the not too distant future, I’m sure. Right now we appreciate the time we have. We minimize everyone’s stress. We appreciate all the tail wags and look for the moments of clarity.

How do you know?

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He looks exactly like my rescue maltese, Miney. She was about 13 or 14 (we never knew for sure) when we made the big decision. She ended up with an enlarged heart/congestive heart failure and then suddenly her liver went into failure. She was also deaf and had some developing cataracts. She had a rough life for the first seven or so years in a stupid puppy mill, then we got her and taught her how to be a dog. She never quite mastered how to play but did enjoy running around the yard. Still miss her. And yes, it’s just as hard with cats–we’ve had many more cats and had to take them in also. I’ve got a 15 year old cat right now that bounces between looking very bad and then very healthy. Still eating, purring, pottying, wanting to go inside/outside, etc., so we’re hoping for a year or two yet with him.


The bouncing back and forth is maddening. Just when you think its time, they pull through. Then you are always waiting for that next upswing. And I worry I wait too long.

Ford is my first experience with a Maltese. He is quite the little companion, and I’m sure was a huge ham earlier in life. Even know he can hold his own. Sounds like that runs in the breed.


It’s so hard to know when they can’t tell you what they want. And Ford’s such a cute little bundle of old dog! This is a decision my husband and I have only had to make once in our adult lives (when his cat went into kidney failure), but both of us have experience with “the decision” since childhood. It never gets any easier since every case is so different. I know I would be more likely to manage the situation in your case as long as I could. Whenever you make “the decision,” though, I’m sure it will be the right one.


Thanks Jenny. Yeah, we’ve been managing the enlarged heart cough situation for a little while now. Just when you master that, something new. Isn’t that always the way?

Nope, doesn’t get easier.


Thank you non-dog friend. :) This is part of the deal you sign up for. I keep reminding myself of that. Sometimes it just comes sooner, rather than later.


I’m sort of going through this right now with Dusty, my inherited 14 year old poodle. Just took him to the vet this morning because he has…a-hem… big elimination problems and is constantly trying to go. He’s deaf, going blind, and seems confused more often than not. (Can dogs develop Alzheimer’s?) I wasn’t sure if today wouldn’t be the BIG day, but it was not. I keep hoping he will pass in his sleep and take the choice out of my hands.

I put my mini-schnauzer down in 2009. I sort of knew it was right because she had become skin and bones. I didn’t want her to suffer. She was the doggy love of my life, but I have more love to give and three dogs to give it to.


Don’t know about Alzheimer’s specifically, but I know they can suffer from dementia. That’s one of the thoughts about Ford too.

Hope Dusty’s ‘issues’ continue to be on the mend. That does not sound pleasant!


We’ve lost a dog and a cat (by scary coincidence, on the same exact date, though 2 years apart). Our dog was hit by a car, so no difficult decision to make, just so very untimely, she was just 4 years old. With my cat of 16 years though we had to decide how to let her go. The first difficult decision was not to operate on her cancer the third time it appeared. The first 2 surgeries prolonged her life by 4 years, but the vet told her the possible extra months from a 3rd one are not worth the stress for her and we believed him. So when she stopped eating a few months later we knew it was her time, but we still had to decide whether to let her go naturally or put her down. We went with naturally, but the night before she passed away I broke down and called the vet for an appointment – as it turned out not needed as she did pass that night. I don’t know if I would ever decide on euthanasia for a pet where there is still some hope, but when I am certain next time I don’t think we’ll wait for the natural end, it’s just too painful for both them and us.


I always hope for a natural, quiet death. Going in their sleep, we should all be so lucky. But, I think it hardly ever happens unfortunately. And I’m with you on the hope thing. I’m a big cheerleader for the spontaneous recovery.


I have had many dogs over the years and faced that decision a several times now. I am usually prompted to do ‘it’ when a dog can no longer comfortably take care of themselves- when my elderly sheltie broke his leg and it required a complicated cast that upset him and made it difficult to get around, when my pom seemingly had a stroke and could no longer balance on his back legs, collapsing to one side, or when my precious mixed breed guy had one too many episodes of dementia. I ask myself if I am keeping them alive for their sake or mine. And if extreme measures, that the dog really wouldn’t understand, need to be taken to prolong the dog’s life.

I also have horses, and a friend is struggling with a much loved 17 yr old mare who has had any number of problems over the years. The mare will most likely have to live in a stall for the rest of her years, without the comfort of a close horse friend, and is in pain for long stretches. I don’t see this horse as having much to live for that is enjoyable. She can no longer move around much and can’t go out in a pasture as her diet has to be very carefully regulated. I think if it were my situation I would end that horse’s struggling.

Another friend at my barn – a 60 yr old woman who never married or had kids and came to horse ownership late in life- made a decision to put her gorgeous horse down last year when he was found to have an illness that would require several months of treatment, including being fed thru a tube, and 100% recovery was in doubt. Her horse was 12 and meant everything to her. I think she acted with tremendous grace in making her decision. She chose what was best for him, not for her.

It is such a difficult decision – the fate of an animal lies on your shoulders. The last time I was faced with this was 3 yrs ago with my 16 yr old lab mix. I found the time leading up to the vet visit exhausting and depressing, but once it was done I knew my precious friend was free from any pain and confusion. He had had the best life I could provide for him. And that comforted me. Altho I am still gonna cry as I write this!

Miser Mom

This is so hard, so hard. When my mom was suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s, she broke her hip. My dad had to make the decision: surgery? knowing that very, very few Alzheimer’s patients live a year past a broken hip, surgery or no. He decided yes, and she died a week later. The question of “do I try to repair this?” is hard enough, when “interfering with the natural course” means trying to make things better. But when taking action means saying good-bye, that’s a whole different kind of hard.

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