The holiday season is full of joy, love, time with family and gift giving. As a Registered Veterinary Technician the weeks leading up to Christmas are often filled with what many call the ultimate gift of love to our pets…euthanasia. During what is supposed to be such a happy and joyous time, we as veterinary professionals see grief, pain and loss.
The beginning of winter often brings up the burning question to many of us owners of older pets, will they make it through the winter? Just like many humans with arthritis, the colder weather that winter brings can take a toll on our four-legged friends. This poses the question that I get asked several times a week…how do I know when its time? This is a question I have been asking myself this year as well.
Euthanasia is not a decision to be made lightly. I see it as a gift, as a way to peacefully end our beloved companions lives in a pain-free, dignified manner. But when is the right time? How do we know they are ready? Every day I take the difficult journey with a family as they say their final good-bye to their beloved family member I come home and hug my dogs extra hard. I’m a little more generous with treats at this time of year, I do everything I can to make sure they know they are loved. Being an RVT is a constant reminder that every day is precious. Illness touches animals of every age, breed and gender. This year I come home and I cry, this year I am asking myself all the questions I frequently get asked, this year I ask myself is it his time?
In my last blog I told you about our black labrador retriever “Rambo”. Rambo came into our lives a little over 4 years ago. Aside from a retained testicle, he was a seemingly healthy, middle aged lab. Rambo had a vivacious zest for life, and an obsession with all things related to fetch and swimming. We discovered after a few months of having him that he has hypothyroidism…not such a big deal. We make sure he gets his medication everyday, test his blood levels twice a year and he remains our wonderful Rambo. Last year we discovered Rambo has epilepsy, again medication twice a day, bloodwork…we can handle this!
This summer Rambo started to slide. Rambo’s seizures have become uncontrollable despite normal therapeutic levels of his epilepsy medication. There are days when he has several seizures in a day, and then weeks when he has no seizures at all. It’s absolutely awful to watch him experience these breakthrough seizures, and even worse to know you’re doing everything you can, yet it just isn’t enough.
Rambo’s energy level has plummeted. The dog who would play fetch for hours on end just mere months ago now has days where he has no interest in his favourite ball at all…heartbreaking. A day playing with his friends means three full days of doing nothing but sleeping, and eating of course (he is a lab afterall!). A walk on a bad day is out of the question- he has no interest.
His water consumption has at least tripled in the last 2 months. Our perfectly house trained boy with impeccable bladder control can no longer sleep through the night without having to go outside.
As an RVT I know that the last two symptoms point towards kidney failure. While kidney failure is not a diagnosis anybody wants to hear, it is typically treatable in the short term. With medication, fluids and a special diet I would be able to buy him at least a few months of good, quality life. After a lot of tears I brought myself to finally run bloodwork on Rambo and reveal the inevitable. When the printer finally spit out the results, I held my breath and looked down expecting to see the dreaded red lines meaning “bad things”. Instead I saw all black…all normal. I should be relieved right? Why didn’t I feel that way?
As veterinary professionals pet owners look to us for all the answers. Our jobs are challenging…our patients can’t talk. However; we usually have all of the answers. Why did I have no answers? Why was I no farther ahead in helping my baby now than I was yesterday? I find myself asking “is it his time?”. Diagnostically the next step for Rambo is an MRI of his brain. This is a procedure that comes with a hefty price tag, and I have to ask myself what would I do with this information? The seizures, lethargy and increased water consumption are non-specific symptoms that can point to a variety of medical issues. With all of those issues ruled out all signs point to a tumor in an inoperable place. The MRI will not answer the burning question, how do I know when it’s time?
The one thing I always tell everyone who asks me that question is- Nobody knows your pet better than you do. I’m sure many of you have read everything that is going on with Rambo and are thinking “what is wrong with you? it was time weeks ago!”. The reality is…it’s not time. I don’t know when it will be time, but I do know I will be certain when the time comes.
Last Friday I thought it was time. After a rough week with Rambo I prepared myself all day for the terrible conversation I would have to have with my husband when I got home from work. Saturday would be the day, the end of Rambo’s story. When I arrived home on Friday I was met at the door by…Rambo with his favourite ball in his mouth! We went outside and he played fetch for at least half an hour straight…ok, now is not the time. His energy level has remained normal for the past several days. He even got into the garbage on Saturday! I wanted to be mad, but I was just excited he had the energy to do it! He’s not ready.
As much as we have to make sure he’s ready, we have to be ready too. Maybe he knows we’re not ready. Maybe that’s why he’s not ready. The reality is we don’t have all the answers. We struggle just the same way anyone does. The one thing I am sure of is we will “just know”. When I tell clients that they can get quite frustrated, but I do believe it to be the truth. One day Rambo will look me in the eye and his eyes will tell me everything I need to know. One day he will tell me he’s tired, he’s done. Until then I will treasure every day, spoil him too much, and always above all make sure he knows how much he is loved.
When Rambo’s time comes I will put my feelings aside and make the most selfless, loving decision any pet owner can make. In my grief I will remember he was a “lucky boy”. The skinny, sad, beaten up boy we adopted from “death row” has had 4 amazing years full of fetch, food, camping and most importantly love. Looking at him everyday I know how grateful he is for what we have given him. He won’t be sad, he’ll be at peace. I hope he knows that what we have given him doesn’t come close to what he has given us. He is a dear, loyal companion and when it is “his time” we will miss him more than words could ever express.
I offer my sincere sympathy to all whom have had to say good-bye this year and comforting thoughts to those who, like me, are struggling with the decision. Remember that I and all of your friends at Cambridge Veterinary Services are here for you anytime. We may not have all of the answers, but we do understand your struggle.
~ Emily, RVT