Macho, Euthanasia, and Hospice

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.

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  • LynnO

    My 15 year old sled dog went in for a dental cleaning yesterday. I’d been stressing about it for months. He’s old and crotchety, his mouth and his eyes hurt and he’s developed a senile sort of scream that is really difficult to handle. But he made it, and so did I. And so did the veterinary crew. They found a nasty tumor growing on and in his gums. But x-rays showed the tooth was still good. The doctor removed what she could. He’s home and coping. I’m glad it was not his day to die…although I suppose there are those who might have chosen that for him. Macho has many friends here. Thank you for sharing him with us.

  • Daphne

    Dear John, thank you so much for sharing your story. Here is another one. A few months ago we got a call from our favorite shelter that went something like this “hi! we know you just took in a 3rd dog …but there’s an old girl (14) at the SPCA and she’s so sweet and just not doing very well…could you take her? Just for a little while?” ” She does have a couple of minor medical problems but really she won’t be a bother.” “She’s a sheltie mix, get’s along with everyone, can’t you please help?”

    It turns out that Sunni (who is now Sassy Cassie) was only expected to live a few weeks. We didn’t know that. And as I watch Cass (who is most definitely part GSD with quite a little attitude!) run through the yard chasing our boys or snuggle up with us or curl up with a favorite toy I am eternally grateful that we said “yes.” We will love her and learn from her and spoil her for as long as we possibly can.

  • I think it is a great thing to do. Not sure if I would be emotionally able to do it. At least Macho died with love and you know that you did everything possible for him.

  • Qui Qui

    John, thank you for a beautiful & touching blog on Macho. Like you, I find that I learn so much from the dogs at PAW. They make me laugh, cry, & experience life to the fullest. Thank you for also showcasing sweet Chester on your blogsite. I’m sorry for your loss, but happy that Macho had the opportunity to love & be loved by you.

  • This post actually made me feel happy. Macho was so sweet, and I hope he is eating cheeseburgers in the sky. I’m sorry for your loss, but I am happy you gave him dignity in the end. Love to all of you (Jess, Ginger, Baron, and Ollie) – I’m sure they are missing their buddy. XO

  • I didn’t think I could do hospice for dogs either – until I found myself doing hospice care for my own dogs, including having to euthanize 2 within five months of each other. It’s never easy and, you’re right: having a compassionate vet is a vital and necessary part of the equation.

    It’s interesting that you mention Nathan Winograd; I just finished reading his book, Redemption. And, am about to re-read it – something I almost never do. He does encourage debate when it comes to No Kill shelters, but that’s a comment for another time.

    Thanks for this post. It’s a loving tribute to your relationship with a great dog. I feel like Jennifer: it made me smile.

  • Linda

    Wow. Wonderful blog. Than you John.

  • Linda

    Wow. Wonderful blog. Thank you John.

  • Janet

    You put into words exactly how I felt about our beloved Drewski. Thanks.

  • Karen Palchanes

    In the last year and a half I have done senior/hospice dog adoption. I have saved 3 in that time…and would not trade it for the world….I cried hard each time I had to say goodbye but seeing them be happy in their last days because I picked them far outweighs the sadness….until you experience you will not understand the happiness your own heart will feel each time you see them enjoy a place they are sniffing….their kisses, treats and doggie bed….the smile they get when my dog Freckles lays with them and licks them….I could NEVER stop doing this now that I started it and experienced what I can give these old dogs….”a smile”…peace and love. I hope articles like these and comments like mine will change more and more minds and encourage newcomers to the senior rescue…there is no feeling like the love and thank you from an old dog you brought home…..just nothing like it…..

  • jbsibley

    Thank you all for your support and for sharing the joy you find in caring for hospice animals – if people only knew the immense joy, more would try it!

  • Jen

    A couple years ago I adopted a senior dog, not ill and only 8. Not long later he was taken by AIHA – we had to choose euthanasia after 3 horrible days battling the disease. I knew in my heart I had to be there when either the disease took him, or we had to make the choice. We had to trust a doctor to help us make the decision, one I had somewhat made after seeing him in the oxygen tank, and I agreed although my heart broke. Honestly I think we left it a few hours too long – it is truly the most difficult decision to have to make. However, it is truly a blessing at the right time, when there are no other options – and I am eternally grateful I was there to be with him as he passed.

    But most importantly, those 8 months we had him were the best 8 months of my life. I learnt so much from him during that time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Adopting senior or hospice dogs is truly wonderful for both human and canine.

    The somewhat sad realization I made recently, upon driving hours out to a high-kill shelter to adopt a dog, is in an at-capacity shelter with nearly 200 dogs for my dog and I to choose to meet… not one of them was senior (or remotely close to it). I walked up and down every aisle, and looked in every single kennel. The one I found on Petfinder to try and find, on my shortlist, when I asked about him the woman asked for his description along with his number “Oh.. he’s old? Uh yeah… sorry.” (said with a knowing look). I’m crossing my fingers the rescues got to many of them first, but it truly was a first-hand experience of what you and Nathan speak of – and the grave importance of improving the fate of these tremendous dogs.

  • Jeanne Modesitt

    Dear John,
    Thank you so much for such a loving tribute. My husband Robin and I took home three hospice dogs from the Lodges (each at separate times): Andy, Sage, and Trinkett. Trinkett lived 3 months, Sage 6 months, and Andy 12 months. It was emotionally tough at times, knowing that these dogs would not be with us long, BUT it was also incredibly joyful. These dogs were HAPPY in our home. They got to eat really good food, go on long walks (in the case of Border Collie Trinkett, these walks turned into 3 hour hikes!), and get lots and lots of cuddle time. Our hearts are telling us it is getting to be time to bring home another hospice dog. We have called upon the spirits of the THREE (Trinkett, Sage, and Andy) and have asked them to guide us.
    Thank you so much, John, for all your love. You are loved by many (and that includes Robin and me).

  • If it works out that I have a choice at the end of my life, I will likely choose not to suffer in pain when there is no more hope for living without pain. This is the euthanasia choice I have made for my pets. None of us wants to make the decision too soon while at the same time hoping to avoid making it too late. There is always a question, no matter how small, but that’s the way life is.

    Thank you for giving Macho so much happiness in his final months and for sharing him with us.

  • Ellen

    Great writing, John, and thank you for helping that lovely boy. I have had several hospice dogs. I have one now through Animal Ark (Hastings, MN) and am having a heck of a time figuring out what she’s telling me. She has been here a little over a year – elderly, stone deaf, some dementia, but still enjoying the heck out of her food and being a member of the pack hanging out on soft beds in warm places as her health degenerates.

    Those who are saying “I couldn’t do it” should really give hospice (and fostering in general) another thought. Those of us who do this are mushy-hearted, but we know that it’s something very worthwhile. The sadness we suffer from it is so small compared to the pleasure we’re able to give these old, sick creatures. It’s part of doing for others what we would want done for us, no?

  • Beautiful post. Blessings to you and Macho. Beautiful pictures. Namaste.

  • Apologies. Mispelled email and blog first time . Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

  • Rose

    John, I’m so glad you and Macho were able to share such special times.

  • Kristi Sockwell

    I think this a wondeeful, wondeeful program. How I wish we had something like this in our area. We live in Muscle Shoals, Al.

  • Kare Miller

    Reread your article today, and as usual, you have great writing style. It’s such a tough decision to make when the end is near. All 3 of my cats presented us with the question is it time? It turned out with each that the answer was yes. They were all too loved to watch suffer because we couldn’t let go.

    • Karen Miller

      OK, it’s Karen — wasn’t allowed to correct.

  • Sarah

    I have no doubt these past six months were the best of Macho’s life.
    I am sure Smokey, Fallon and Lonnie have been sending you stregnth along this journey. You have been a big part in helping many feel peace and joy towards the end of thier life and I thank you for that. I will always adore you and the work you do. Hugs.

  • Thanks for this — Ellen (above) passed this around. I’ve got an old hospice dog we took in last April, 12 y.o. dumped in a shelter, and she’s acting like everything but a hospice dog. She’s on pee pills, thyroid, has heartworm and we treated her Lymes, she’s lost a lot of weight (from 120 to 93) and may have cancer, but she is the spunkiest ol’ bitch, more and more confident every day, and she isn’t planning on checking out anytime soon. She now constantly smiles, patiently asks for attention, and seems to understand that things are different, and she’s warm, well fed, and happy — we even found her dancing on the dining room table one day! Long live Summer! And when it’s time, she’ll tell us, it’ll suck, but we’ll know that her last days she was happy and treasured.