Depending on the breed and size, the average lifespan of a dog is seven to 16 years. For cats, that range can go between 12 to 18 years, or even longer. However, when the average lifespan for a human is 78.6 years, it is inevitable that our beloved pets will pass away before us. While we pray our precious fur babies will live a long, healthy life and simply pass quietly during their sleep of old age, there is an uncomfortable chance that, by injury or illness, we will have to make the decision to help them across the Rainbow Bridge. It is an uncomfortable word, which comes with a question that all pet lovers will find difficult to answer. Euthanasia: When will I know it’s time?
The word “euthanasia” comes from the Greek terms “eu,” meaning “good” and “Thanatos,” meaning “death.” Summarily, a “good death” is one that comes peacefully, without pain. But for the pet owner, the choice to provide a “good death” will be one of the most agonizing, gut-wrenching decisions you will ever have to make.
On Thursday, May 7, I had to make this decision and I can assure it did not come easy. It feels murderous, immoral and wrong in every way. You will feel like you have failed your pet. You will second-guess yourself. You will hate yourself. They gave you love, trust and companionship and now you are the one killing them.
It was precisely two years ago today (May 19, 2018) that my husband and I adopted Maximus (AKA: Handsomest Maximus, Brutus Maximus, Max, Flash and Mr. Slippers). He was, to be precise, the “Andre the Giant” of English Bull Dogs. Where the average male English Bull Dog weighs around 50 pounds, Maximus weighed in at about 75 pounds. Ironically, we were looking for a Chihuahua. The photo above is the one that was amid a string of Chihuahua photos being sent to me by the rescue agency I was working with. It was love at first sight. Eight months after he became a member of our family, Maximus was diagnosed with Canine Lymphoma. He was only three years old.
While Maximus was not given very good odds of survival we made the decision to start chemotherapy immediately. In the beginning, he had more good days than bad days. On the good days, you would never know he was dying of cancer. We would go for spirited walks through the neighborhood and he would geode his brother Einstein (a German Shepherd Dog of the same age) into a noisy round of play. The bad days, however, were long and hard. They started with tremors and vomiting and would last clear through the night. On these nights, we struggled with the question. Euthanasia: When will I know it’s time? But the next day, he would rebound and you would never know he was sick.
After about six months on chemo, he lost his fur. We bought sweaters and hoodies to protect his bare skin from sunburn and to keep him warm in the winter. He loved his sweaters.
As time passed, his body began to resist the treatments so his regimen would change. At different times, he was taking a different barrage of pills. While the chemo fought the cancer, it compromised his immune system so he had to take prednisone. There were pills to help combat the nausea, pills to protect his liver and pills to combat diarrhea. Some pills were once a day. Some, once per week. Some pills were twice a day. Other pills were once a month. It wasn’t 5PM anymore, it was chemo-o’clock. It wasn’t half-past six in the morning anymore, it was prednisone-thirty.
After a year of this, he got so sick of taking pills. You could see it in his face. He hated the sound of the bottles opening. There wasn’t enough hot-dogs or thick-sliced American cheese in the world to coax him into swallowing another one. The question plagued us again. Euthanasia: When will I Know it’s time?
I could tell he was getting tired. He was tired of everything. For the most part, he just wanted to sleep. He didn’t greet me at the door when I would come home anymore and he didn’t want to play with Einstein. He just wanted to sleep.
In April of 2020, we started waking up to find that he had gone to the bathroom in the house. Then he began having trouble breathing. Although the prednisone gave his a ravenous thirst, he wasn’t eating very much. He spent most of his nights pacing the floor. He couldn’t breathe if he laid down.
On the morning of Thursday, May 7, I went to work but did not stay long. Something wasn’t right. I knew Maximus needed me. One of the many blessing that come with working at the Humane Society of the Nature Coast is you don’t have to explain why you need to leave to care for your sick fur-baby.
When I got home, I knew something was wrong. He did not greet me at the door. I found him on the other side of the sofa, laying belly-down on the cool tile floor. He didn’t lift his head, but his eyes opened slowly. I could tell he was struggling to get air. I bent down and lifted his head in my hands. The look in his eyes said everything I didn’t want to hear.
I felt under his chin. His lymph nodes were the size of lemons. When I sat on the sofa near him, he stood up. He staggered. His but hit the floor. My husband, Tom, helped him onto the sofa and sat with Maximus between us. Our little boy was so tired he could barely hold his head up. He laid down, but the pressure of his lymph nodes on his throat would literally cut off his airway. He tried to sleep sitting up, with his head tilted back as he leaned side-ways against the back of the sofa. His breaths sounded wet. There was fluid in his lungs now. It was around 1:30PM. I knew it was time.
I took my cell phone and went outside to call our veterinarian, Dr. Donna Mignemi of Nature Coast Mobile Veterinarian Services. It was her day off, but she said she would be there around 3:30.
My husband contacted our middle daughter, Kayla, who lives about 30 miles away. When she arrived, to our surprise, Maximus jumped off the sofa and ran to greet her. He looked so happy. He was giving her enthusiastic kisses and his adorable little nub-tail was just a wiggling for all it was worth. I immediately began to second-guess myself. What was I doing? Maybe Maximus was rebounding. Maybe he was just having another of his bad days and any minute now he was going to feel better. Oh God. Was I making a horrible mistake?
When it comes to euthanasia, when will I know it’s time? As reported by NBC/TODAY, Dr. Lisa Lippman, a house-call veterinarian in New York City said to “trust your instincts.”
“Are they eating? Do they get up to greet you like normal?”
The answer was “no.” It was time to face the hard truth and to answer the ultimate hard question.
Euthanasia: When will I know it’s time?
Texas veterinarian Dr. Fiona McCord, founder of Compassionate Care Pet Services, stresses that owners shouldn’t feel as if they have done something wrong if the euthanasia takes place on a day their pet is feeling well. It’s normal for pets to have good and bad days toward the end.
When Dr. Mignemi arrived in the big mobile unit, her husband, David, met her at our house in his own car. Maximus got even more excited. He loved Donna and David. They had seen quite a lot of each other over the past year and it always involved Pupperonies!
Einstein was excited, too. He wanted to play. He had no idea why company had arrived but he was so happy to see them. Although we didn’t want to, we put Einstein in a bedroom and closed the door. He was trying so hard to get Max to play and Max was trying hard to comply. I was sobbing. Max looked so happy.
Dr. Mignemi sat on the floor with Max, petting him, calming him. “How, ya doing, big guy?” She asked.
She held his big head in her hands and looked into his eyes. She felt his lymph nodes. She listened to his breathing. I saw the grimace on her face. She checked the color of his gums. I already knew they were going pale.
She confirmed our worst fear. He was losing the fight. She offered that we could up his chemo treatments to twice a week. We could add more prednisone… more pills. But this would only buy him days and most of those days would be bad.
“You’ve done everything humanly possible,” she assured us. Her eyes were welling up with tears. “You’ve done more than most.”
She explained that – out of all of the clients who receive a diagnosis of cancer for their pet – 98% of them immediately make the choice to which it took us a year to surrender. But now, it was time. Our collective hearts were breaking.
Kayla and I sat on the floor next to Maximus. Dr. Mignemi sat with us, too. We were hugging him, telling him how much we loved him. He was kissing all of our faces with such joyful abandon. Tom bent down to kiss his beautiful face one last time. He was utterly distraught. “I love you, big guy. You’ve been such a good boy.”
As Dr. Mignemi began the procedure, she explained everything.
“The first shot is a sedative,” she said. “It will help him relax and fall asleep. It will take a few minutes.”
As the drug took effect on Maximus, his breathing slowed. When his body slumped, Dr. Mignemi and I helped him lay down on the tile floor. I laid down next to him, holding him, whispering, “Mommy’s here. I love you, Maximus. I love you.” I said it over and over again. I was sobbing. I wanted to call it off. I wanted it to stop. “I love you, Max.”
Dr. Mignemi administered the second shot, pentobarbital, into the femoral artery of his thigh. I was not prepared for how quickly he stopped breathing. “Oh God. He’s gone.”
When I looked up, Dr. Mignemi and her husband were crying. She held the stethoscope to the side of his chest.
“This is so unfair,” she wept, rubbing his head.
She asked that we get Einstein and let him see Maximus.
“It’s important that he understands,” she advised, “so he doesn’t spend time looking for him.”
After Tom opened the door, Einstein immediately rushed around the table to where Maximus was laying. He sniffed Max’s his head. Then he sniffed the length of his body… and that was it. He turned at trotted away as if nothing at all had happened.
I don’t know why, but I expected more.
As Dr. Kari Trotsky wrote for the website. “Peaceful Endings,” even if it isn’t possible to allow sibling pets to be present when their friend crosses the rainbow bridge, it is highly recommended that you allow them to sniff the deceased pet.
Many times, the other pets don’t appear to be doing anything but avoiding the pet or just taking a sniff or two,” Trotsky explained. “That may be all your pet needs to process the information. Don’t force them to be nearer to the pet, or to sniff more, just because you expect ‘more’ from them.”
“Being there eases their transition of not having the pet around anymore,” she wrote further. “They will understand their companion has died and was not just taken away.”
Little Bit misses Maximus a lot. He was her snuggle-buddy since the day we brought her home. She now spends most of her time sleeping on the blanket Maximus would lay on.
While Einstein did not seem to respond much in the immediate aftermath of losing his brother, it was clear by nightfall that he too was grieving. In the days since he lost his brother, he spends a lot of time moping. He seems to find comfort in keeping a toy with him at all times. He isn’t eating.
The pain is so raw. It was so hard to let him go. He was only four years old. We only got to spend two of them with him and one of those had been spent fighting cancer. It wasn’t fair. Still, I knew it was the right decision. It was a matter of the quality of his life. So, to answer that question… Euthanasia: When will I know it’s time? You’ll know. You won’t want to admit it… But you will know.
“Dogs die,” wrote Dan Gemeinhart, author of the New York Times Best Seller, Good Dog. “But dogs live, too. Right up until they die, they live. They live brave, beautiful lives. They protect their families. And love us. And make our lives a little brighter. And they don’t waste time being afraid of tomorrow.”
Thank you, Maximus, for everything.
If you have lost a pet or are facing the difficult choice, please share your thoughts.