The love we receive from our animals is deep, beautiful, unconditional and extraordinary. The relationships we have with our animals are incredible: You might be aggravated with all the humans in your house or even in your life—but the magic woofie or kitty will always save the day. Whether you’re returning home for a trip or a simple errand outside, a pet is always happy to see you, wagging or barking to welcome you.
This magical relationship makes it even more difficult, painful and heartbreaking to say goodbye. No matter how many years they live, it is never enough—and sadly, we often must make the decision to end their lives.
It’s terrible to watch the decline of a pet. Sometimes it seemingly comes on suddenly—our eyes are opened for the first time to a slowing gait, a missed jump onto the couch, or the inability to finish the usual walk. Sometimes we must watch as an illness takes hold. Regardless of how the end of the life of a beloved approaches, it takes a toll—emotionally and physically.
The hospice aspect of our sanctuary is the most difficult—and it’s an aspect we deal with a lot. We usually bring in senior dogs that are in the shelter system; they’ve been abandoned by their family because the family can’t afford to pay for euthanasia, or perhaps they don’t want the responsibility of caring for an ill senior dog. We know from the moment we get the first request and/or see the first picture that the remaining life span will be short. Nonetheless, we approach each dog with the same hope—that there will be some sort of magic that restores quality of life or longevity. We know that will almost never be the case, but the heart wants differently.
There have been times we have taken a dog straight from the shelter to the veterinarian to be euthanized, because the animal was dying, and the shelter did not want the responsibility. We recently welcomed an older dog that wheezed and gasped. We tried a few medicines, and while he responded slightly, his level of discomfort was heartbreaking. Late at night, we took him into the ER vet and gave him the ultimate gift of love.
Yes, we call euthanasia the ultimate gift of love—because that’s what you’re doing when you’re ending your animal’s pain and suffering, while your heart is breaking. People always say that they do not know how we do what we do. I always say: How can we not? These gentle and loving creatures are completely dependent upon us for their well-being and care; in return, they give extraordinary love. How can we not love these beloveds enough to say goodbye and end their suffering?
People also ask: How do we know when it is time to say goodbye? It’s an easy (while still heartbreaking) decision, after checking with the veterinarian, if your animal can no longer walk. It’s easy if your animal is too weak to stand up or has lost bodily functions. It’s easy if your animal no longer has any interest in food or water. Be sure to ask the veterinarian if he or she is just extending the life or providing longer-term care. Veterinarians are life-saving heroes—and sometimes it’s hard for them to recommend saying goodbye.
But not every situation with an animal is such an obvious crisis. It is the more subtle times that people need to be aware of: Suffering animals will sometimes still eat, drink and show you love, because you are their everything. Up to their last breath, they want to please you. Your great sadness and heartbreak should not stop you from seeing clearly what is happening, and doing what is best for your animal.
People always wonder after if they say goodbye if they did so too soon—if they did the right thing. Well, we say that it’s a good thing to wonder—because you will never forget if it was too late. We had a dog with congestive heart failure dog before we started Barkee LaRoux’s House of Love. She went into respiratory distress at the end of her life, because we were not paying enough attention. We have still not gotten over that experience. Do you want one more day or one more week with your animal if it’s truly suffering?
Trust me: We aren’t clinical about any of this. Our hearts break every time; we cry over every dog to whom we say goodbye. But every one of those dogs is held tightly, sung to or whispered to, and loved in the last minutes of their lives. Isn’t that something we all deserve?
Carlynne McDonnell is the founder and CEO of Barkee LaRoux’s House of Love Animal Sanctuary, a senior animal sanctuary and hospice in the Coachella Valley. She has been rescuing animals since she was 4 years old.