No doubt about it: For those of us who love dogs, the joy of living with a special pet is unparalleled. And at the same time, the grief of losing that same dog is unbearable. Recently I had to say goodbye to my “heart dog” of nearly 13 years. I wrote about Denver’s last days in my blog, “Gratitude in My Grief.” My experience generated several emails from readers who wanted to know how I knew when it was time to say goodbye. The stories and emails I received were all variations of the question “How will I know?” It’s a question I have asked myself every time a dog I loved has neared the end of his life. It’s a question I asked my veterinarian several times in the past few months. It’s a question I recently had to answer for myself, and for Denver. I thought I would provide my thoughts on how I managed to answer this dreaded question about how to know when it’s time to say goodbye.
My decision for Denver stemmed primarily from considering his quality of life. Due to his age (nearly 13), and the fact that surgery would be extensive and complicated, my husband and I had already ruled out surgery as an option for care. I told myself if I could see Denver was enjoying life, I would continue to keep him happy and comfortable. But quality of life is a tricky thing to define, isn’t it? How do you know if a dog has a good quality of life? For me, I choose to use these three measures to guide my thoughts.
Pain. I knew pain was a factor. If I felt that Denver was in any pain or was suffering, I would know it was time to say goodbye. He was on medication at the end of his life and I could tell it helped him feel better. At the same time I also told myself if giving him medication became an awful part of our daily routine, I would consider that a negative impact on his quality of life. Thankfully, even when Denver really wasn’t eating much, he would normally take his pills in peanut butter. So our morning and evening routine consisted of me encouraging him to eat a spoonful of peanut butter rather than me wresting him to shove pills down his throat.
The Joys of Life. I got this idea from the book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. I wasn’t actually sure if Denver had cancer. For a variety of reasons we were never able to determine the cause of his stomach tumor (that’s a story for another day). However, I decided to read this book to get ideas about full spectrum care for dogs. I would highly recommend it. The chapter I bookmarked and reviewed the most was Chapter 18: Joys of Life. In that chapter, the author describes these joys of a dogs life:
- The joy of eating and drinking
- The joy of motion
- The joy of social interactions
- The joy of having a fully-functioning body
- The joy of a healthy mental state
- The joy of play
- The joy of expression
I started paying close attention to what increased or decreased Denver’s joys of life. I also took a brutally honest look at whether or not any joys seemed gone for good. The book explains that if one joy is gone a dog can often still live a wonderful life. When two joys of life are gone, be sure you are assessing quality of life and if three or more joys are gone, then quality of life may be dropping significantly. I found the list both heartbreaking and helpful and used it as a gauge of Denver’s quality of life.
Denver’s Favorites. The final list I kept for myself was a list of the top 5 things Denver loved. I figured that if he could no longer do 3 or more of them, his quality of life had declined. For Denver the list looked like this:
- Eating …everything and anything offered to him
- Going on walks
- Chasing his ball
- Playing chase in the house (a game where we chased him)
- Hanging out with his human family
Again, I found this list heartbreaking and helpful, but I used it as a gauge of Denver’s quality of life.
Ultimately, I think you have to be prepared to make these decisions for your own dog based on whatever you think is the right thing for your own pet. What you use to make your decision might look different from what I’ve listed here…and that’s ok. I don’t think there is a perfect answer to the “How will I know?” question. The fact that you are even asking the question means you love and care for your dog. Whatever decision you make will be the right decision for you and your pet.