Today was an interesting day to run across Nathan Winograd’s blog, What Is True Euthanasia?. It was a trying morning today after a few trying days, because this morning a veterinarian came to my home and helped me end the life of my beloved hospice dog, Macho. Rarely have I ended the life of an animal without deep thought and much debate, and although I know that I believe it was his time, I could always be wrong. Unfortunately, most cases of animal euthanasia come with a grain of doubt even in the presence of great suffering.
I brought Macho home this past June for hospice care – hospice care for animals is similar to hospice care in humans, it is the process of managing the pain and discomfort in an animal who has been given a terminal diagnosis. Macho was 15 and had lived in a shelter for the previous 12 years. At the time he was thought to only have weeks to live – but surprisingly he recovered and even thrived until September of this year, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. I was cautioned that the average lifespan for a lymphoma dog was two months and that he might have considerably less based on his advanced age and poor physical condition, but he lived for 3 months and one week after his diagnosis. The month after his diagnosis was actually probably one of the best recent times in his life – buoyed by his treatments, he had great energy, spark, and appetite. He loved exploring the outdoors. Although he was considered dog aggressive earlier in his life, he was amazing in my apartment with four other dogs. He never caused any sort of problem with them at all and even shared his food with them. He was always a gentleman in my home, a quiet, unassuming and gentle presence. He was perfectly behaved here and he was happy.
Macho was a dog of amazing drive and resiliency who had been through so many health problems and had always bounced back, so it was hard for me to accept that his time was really here, but the physical effects of cancer had damaged his body so badly that there was no hope of substantial improvement and I had seen that amazing will slowly drain from him.
I suspect my general attitude towards euthanasia differs slightly from Nathan’s – I do not necessarily believe in drawing things out to the very end and hoping for a natural death when only suffering remains, in animals or in humans. Where we strongly agree is the need for consideration and debate and dignity for these animals in their final decline.
I know some people who love animals and who say that they can’t do hospice because it’s too painful or depressing for them, and I suppose I understand that, but I think about it differently. Taking Macho from death in a cold concrete kennel may have been a gift to him, but watching him blossom was a gift to me. When I saw him break out into a happy trot and lope along after some smell he’d caught on to, my heart sang. When he made his break past the front door and shuffled down the apartment hallway in his funny old-man walk while I mock-chased him and he grinned, he made me laugh. When he rode in the front seat of the car beside me and finally learned to relax, lie down, and rest his chin on my leg I was at peace. Although his final days were difficult, the memories I have of his happy times will always make me smile.
I know some people who say that they would like to try animal hospice but they don’t know how and need resources and guidance, and I’m here to tell you that anyone who has had animals of their own can do it. By far the most important thing to have is a relationship with a vet who understands hospice and what you are trying to do and can give compassionate treatment advice, and I am very lucky to have that. The assistance of my vet, Dr. Maureen Hurson of City Veterinary Care made all the difference for Macho and she was always there for him.
Hospice care also does not have to be expensive – many shelters that have animals who would do better in home hospice will happily pay for their vet care, as I know both Pets Alive and Pets Alive Westchester have done in the past.
If you have any interest, I encourage you to try it. The end will be difficult but the rewards are so very great – and I agree with Nathan that people who are passionate about animals and about No Kill should be shooting for a world where hospice for terminally ill animals is a given, a norm, as that would represent a fundamental change in the compassion for animals within our society.
Give it a shot. Tell them Macho sent you.
Addendum: I am reminded that Pets Alive Westchester, the shelter I volunteer for in Elmsford, New York, has a senior foster program for dogs over 7 years old where the shelter pays for medical costs. In addition, I am sponsoring the adoption fees for five senior dogs age 7 or older between now and New Year’s. They have hundreds of senior animals, some of whom have lived there for years.