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End of Life

We have a small dog in the family, a shih tzu that we adopted as a rescue about thirteen years ago. This coming April, Penny will be seventeen years old. She was originally named “Princess” but that name just didn’t wash in the household. We renamed her Penny, keeping the hard “P” consonant to make the transition easier.

(Picture of Penny, 5/08/2023)

We had lost all the animals in the household in just a short time. Our two cats, Nadine and Grover, died within a week of one another. We were without animal companionship for a year. Trauma takes time to overcome.

So, we were over at Angell Memorial Hospital looking at cats. I had pretty much finished looking over the cats but my wife and son were still considering them. I looked out the window and saw someone taking out a small dog to be walked.

I had grown up with dogs. My wife had never had one. As a family, we had tried one a few years prior—a hyperallergenic dog named Tucker. This was when we found out my wife was allergic to dogs when her breathing started to shut down. Ben was heartbroken but stood for it: one mother vs one dog wasn’t a hard choice for him. That was where it stood as I watched the little dog.

While the dog was out there in the field, I left my wife and son and looked at other dogs in the facility. It was pretty much pit bull city as far as the eye could see. I went back to the side entrance where people were taking the dogs in and out of the play area and waited until the small dog was returned. Then, I asked if I could take the dog out.

They were dubious. “Princess” had not been brought into the system. But they were kind enough to let me and I walked her out in the grass. “Princess” was a nice dog. Pleasant. Attentive. A hypoallergenic breed. Small enough that I wasn’t worried about her hurting anyone accidentally.

I have an ironclad rule about dogs. They are not to hurt anyone. Period. It’s too much to expect of an animal with a brain the size of a child’s fist to navigate the human world. If the human doesn’t have complete control of the animal, the human shouldn’t have the animal. I felt this way when we bread collies when I was in high school and it has never changed. It certainly didn’t change when my son was attacked by a pit bull that had been retained as “protection” by the dog’s owner. I don’t blame the pit bull. I blame the owner.

But “Princess” would be hard-pressed to maul an orange, much less a human, so I wasn’t worried.

I sat with her a while and she crawled up into my lap and said in dog: I’m okay with coming home with you if you’re okay with it.

I introduced “Princess” to my wife and son, both of which proceeded to melt. “Princess” excelled at that. We adopted her and that was pretty much that for the next thirteen years. My son went from middle school to high school to college and now to work. Penny consoled and comforted him whenever he was home. I pretty much credit my wife and Penny with getting him through high school trauma and college. I was the enabling technology but not the direct support.

Now she is sixteen. Seventeen in April.

Age is a step function with each step going downward. Starting three weeks ago, Penny took a step. She stopped eating. She lost weight. We’ve been trying to get her back level again with medication but this is a stage in life where we have to look at the miserableness/joy ratio: is she too miserable that there is no joy left in her life?

Dogs—and cats, I admit—have a special place in the family. They are not human. If I had to choose between my dog and my child, the choice would be hard but inevitable. That said, that makes them no less a member of the family. They are loved no less. I expect if I were demented and drooling, my family would have to make a DNR choice about me. Hopefully, they will treat me with the same kindness. Also, hopefully, I will treat them with as much kindness as Penny has.

We’re in that state now.

Every day we’ve been watching her: did she slip or is this an improvement? If an improvement, can it be sustained? Or is this just an illusion masking the slow slide downhill? With our other end-of-life animals, it was either sudden loss (as Nadine and Grover just died on our hands) or the animal let us know. Not, “I’m ready to die.” I think that is human projection. More like, “Please make it stop.” Penny hasn’t made herself that clear. We have to be very clear-eyed about this and not project onto her our desire to keep her around for our own benefit.

Humans are pretty long-lived. There are few animal companions we have that we won’t outlive. (We have two tortoises that will most certainly outlive us and considerations have been made.) End of life for them is a problem we have to face for them, deciding for them when it’s too painful to continue.

For me, at least, it’s even more poignant with dogs. Cats are still pretty close to wild. They are far more independent and seem clearer that when they are done with life, they are done. This is my own subjective view but it is based on my experience.

It appears that dogs diverged from wolves and started hanging with humans more than 30,000 years ago. The earliest possible domestication is 23,000 years ago and the earliest evidence they were part of the family was the Bon-Oberkassel dog found in a grave dated 14+ thousand years ago. Dogs didn’t get dragged in like cattle. They volunteered. It is my opinion that dogs domesticated us every bit as much as we domesticated them. I think they opened up potential in us that enabled us to live together as we never had before. Agriculture, cities, castles, and pyramids happened after dogs domesticated us. Not before. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

A dog in the family comes from a heritage as deep as fifteen hundred generations. It doesn’t surprise me that we bury them with honors. That we shed tears when they leave us. That we grieve over them for years.

Penny has gotten a little better in the last few days. She’s eating without the aid of medication. Not enough but some. She seems a little stronger. We’re hopeful she may weather this storm. But the step has been taken. Penny of March 2024 will not be the Penny of May 2023. The end may not be this time but the end is now in sight.

We’re enjoying her company as long as we can.



2 thoughts on “End of Life”

  1. When a series of strokes took Mr. Chessie four years ago, we vowed no more pets. Can’t take a chance on them out living us, or us tripping over them and killing or disabling one of us.

    But Oh how I miss the soft ball of fluff in my lap or beside my pillow. The bonds are deep. Our souls are better for the love of a furry companion.

  2. We went through this with our part-Dalmatian (and entirely hyperallergenic) Emily. She was a good sized dog–at her best, about 55 pounds, all of it muscle and ridiculousness. She made it to 15 1/2 years, which for a dog of that size is pretty old. Despite various infirmities (she blew out her ACL when she was six, after a bad landing when leaping to catch a fly ball–the dog was an athlete) she was with us until about a week before she died, when it became clear that she was not having fun. The traveling vet who came in to ease her out of life was wonderful; among other things he said “when I go, this is how I want it to be: surrounded by the people who love me, with really good drugs.” I don’t miss the shed fur (for a short-haired dog she shed breathtaking amounts) and I like being able to breathe (it turns out I’m allergic to dogs, but by the time we knew that Emily had been with us for eight years), and no one will ever replace Emily.

    Emily’s final gift, as it were: one evening about six months before she died, Danny was taking her out for a walk. He tripped over her on the stairs and fell and bonked his head. Out of an abundance of caution, his doctor asked him to get an X-ray. Which is how they found a spot that should not have been there on his thyroid, a tumor so early it would otherwise not have been caught for years.

    Enjoy every moment of Penny you have. They are priceless.

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