Feb 042012

How do you say good-bye to an animal?

When a person dies, there is an innate understanding of the loss. You have lost a parent, spouse, a child, sibling, and you tell someone, “Yeah, my dad died last night.”

And the person you’re telling understands, empathizes: “Yes, losing a parent is very hard. I am so sorry.”

But with an animal? Relationships with animals are so individual, not always easy to understand or empathize with.

In January 2009, I euthanized my cat Lucy. She was 3. She had feline leukemia, and I did everything I could – everything medically possible – to get that cat well. In the end, putting her down was not only the humane choice, it was the only choice. The leukemia destroys red blood cells, which carry oxygen, and, at the end, Lucy had so little red blood cells, she couldn’t walk. She’d try, but she’d simply fall over.

Lucy in 2008. Sick but not symptomatic.

There was nothing anyone could do.

I like to think – and I suspect this is actually true – that she was trying to tell me to let her go. The day I put her down, I’d picked her, tried nuzzling her, and she bit me on the cheek. Not hard. But she did indeed bite me. That was so foreign to her behavior that I interpreted it as, “Pay attention. I’m sick. You’re responsible for me. Do something.”

So I took her to the vet one last time – just to be sure. He and I sat on the floor, watched her try to get to her feet, watched her stagger then fall to her side, fighting for breath.

“It’s time,” he told me. “We’ve tried everything, Maureen. There’s nothing else left.”

I nodded. I knew that.

He explained how he’d put her down, how he’d first give her a sedative to put her to sleep and then a medication to stop her heart, but I’d been with other pets when they’d been euthanized. I knew what he’d do, so I told him it was okay, I understood.

Then he left the exam room. I held Lucy while he was gone and kept her on my lap, when he came back with the tech, when swabbed her foreleg. Lucy fought him. As depleted, as exhausted as she was, she fought that needle.

She was a cat that had survived being dumped in a garbage can when she wasn’t even a week old. She survived my clumsy attempts to bottle feed her, to wipe her bottom with a warm towel so she’d defecate. And she survived the leukemia. For three years. And a surgery for left lobe lung torsion, which is so unusual, so rare, the vets that operated her wrote about  it.

She was quite a cat.

The vet got the needle in her foreleg, gave her the sedative; she fell asleep in my arms. And then he gave her whatever it was that stopped her heart.

When she died – and granted I am a spiritual woman, I believe in God, an afterlife – I swear I could feel her leave, and I was filled with an enormous sense of peace. I think Lucy was in pain most of her life, and I think death was a relief.

So I never once questioned that what I had done for Lucy – my putting her down – was the right thing, the humane thing.

And still… For three months, the grief I felt was so intense that I couldn’t even mention her name without crying.

I think about that now. What was there about that cat that caused such an enormous amount of grief?

I think, in part, it was her life, how hard it had been, and she was such a small, dainty cat. When she died, she weighed five pounds. She was a short-haired tortoise shell with green eyes, pink paws. Finnicky eater. Delicate, tiny cat.

And when I pulled her out of the bottom of a garbage can out in Grants, New Mexico on a cold November morning, she still had her eyes closed, her ears flat on her head, and she had what can only be described as half a rat’s tail. She was black at that point. Not particularly pretty – in fact, almost ugly. But she needed help. And I gave it. I took her home, kept her alive with kitten formula, blankets, and over-heated formula. I carried her everywhere, held her close against my heart, trying to simulate what I thought would be the actions of a mother cat.

She needed me.

And when the leukemia was diagnosed, I had the option of putting her down then. Most people would have. I couldn’t. I researched the disease, found that with palliative care some cats could live for quite a while. I took the gamble. And for three years, I gave her as good a life as she could have had.

And when all hope had been exhausted, I put her down. And I think the grief that I felt – the grief that left me unable to breathe, unable to even hear her name without crying – I think that grief was for the life she could have had, should have had. It was grief that her life had started as cruelly as it had. Grief that life and circumstances can be so unfair. To animals. To people, as well.

And now I am saying good-bye to another animal. A dog this time. Beaker. An Australian Shepherd mix with no tail and two blue eyes. Like Lucy, her life started out hard.

Her first owner – never met the man – didn’t want Beaker, didn’t want her sister Triscuit, so he loaded them into the back of his pick-up truck and dumped them on the side of the road, where a rescue organization found them, put them up for adoption, and I took them.

Beaker. Probably about 2007.

I took them when I hadn’t yet moved into my house, so they stayed in foster care. Hard but not insurmountable.

Then I got a call from the foster mom: Beaker was in the hospital with Parvo. She wasn’t expected to make it. Parvo is a killer. The foster mom told me not to hope. I can’t help who I am, I hoped.

And Beaker made it.

I brought her and her sister Triscuit home, tried to settle in to the housebreaking and bonding, but then they both got sick: diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, thick green mucous bubbling out their noses, choking their airways.

They had distemper. A highly contagious, frequently fatal disease. Generally, dogs get distemper if they haven’t been vaccinated, but both Beaker and Triscuit had been vaccinated when the rescue organization picked them up from the side of the road. Best guess was that first owner hadn’t bothered to vaccinate, and that both the Parvo and the distemper had been incubating and the vaccines weren’t enough to keep them well.

This time Beaker and Triscuit both ended up in the hospital. The vet was clear; she didn’t mince words.

“We can’t cure distemper,” she said. “All we can do is hit them with antibiotics with the hope that we can prevent secondary bacterial infections. And if you don’t want to go down that road, euthanasia is something you might want to consider.”

They were four months old. Euthanasia wasn’t an option. I wanted to give them the chance to fight. The vet said okay but cautioned me not to get my hopes up, reminding me that distemper is deadly. Yeah, and maybe I didn’t get my hopes up, but I definitely hoped for the best, hoped they’d pull through. And they did. But not completely unscathed.

Because distemper is so contagious, neither dog was socialized properly. Beaker rolled with it. She was friendly and gentle and low key. Triscuit was anxious – she still is – couldn’t relax around strangers and needed medication whenever it stormed.

The other problem – and I don’t know this for sure, I’m only guessing – is that it left Beaker with residual neurological problems. Nothing dramatic. The problems were subtle. She just was never as bright or as alert to her surroundings as most dogs. I could train her to sit, to lie down, to shake, but if you put a blanket on her head (a test for canine intelligence), she wouldn’t take it off. Instead, she’d look put upon: “Why do you want to humiliate me like this? Covering me up with a blanket? What did I ever do to you?”

Then when Beaker was about three, she started getting sebaceous cysts; these warty, oversized growths that would spring up on her back, swell to maybe two-inches and then pop and drain. The option for cysts is to operate, surgically remove them; however, they will come back. I opted not to keep putting her through surgery and let the cysts come and go, so Beaker ended up with cysts all her life. They were unsightly and kind of smelly, and I always felt kind of bad, kind of guilty that I wasn’t removing them even though putting a dog through surgery every six months to remove what looked like warts and what weren’t a health risk didn’t seem appropriate.

Still… Animals are entrusted to us. We (or at least I) want to provide for them as well as we can, want their lives calm and happy and stress free.

But life (fate?) has a mind of its own, and in 2008, Beaker had an FCE, which can be best understood as a spinal stroke.

She’d been outside playing with Triscuit and another dog I rescued – Rocky. I called them in. Triscuit and Rocky came bounding across the yard; Beaker brought up the rear, dragging her right hind leg behind her. Her paw was curled, dragging across the ground – what they call ‘knuckling.’ And then her leg gave out and she fell.

I knew something was quite wrong. I loaded her into the car and raced to the emergency vet closest to my house. The lab tech came rushing out, looked at Beaker, said that she must have fallen into a hole and twisted her leg.

Okay. I’ve had no medical training; however, a dog who has twisted its leg will put no weight on it; the dog will not drag the foot. It was clear to me that Beaker had severe weakness or paralysis and because of the tech’s initial exam, I had no faith in the vet’s office, so even though the vet then came out and said he suspected that Beaker had an FCE, I wouldn’t let him treat her. Instead I drove 15 miles across town to bring her to a vet I did trust.

Beaker stayed two days in the hospital and then I took her to two months’ worth of physical therapy. She started with hydrotherapy – easier to use the leg when it weighed next to nothing.

And then for a while, Beaker seemed okay. She was getting older. Arthritis seemed to be setting in, and it was harder for her to get up. And she started doing odd things, like staring at walls, like walking into corners, like barking at her echo.

Still, those odd things didn’t seem odd. Not for Beaker. After all, wasn’t she the dog who kept blankets on her head? Who responded always as if people were simply trying to humiliate her?

Yet, on Friday January 27, when she lay panting on her side in a puddle of urine, I knew she was ill. I thought I would be putting her down that day. I brought her to the vet, who told me her lungs, her heart – all her vital organs sounded good. I couldn’t put her down not knowing what was wrong with her.

I thought – because she was having so much trouble standing and walking – that I was seeing sequelae from the FCE. I thought she’d bounce back, and she did for five or ten minutes at a time.

Finally, on February 2, I drove her to see an animal neurologist in Santa Fe. He told me she was a complicated case because the inability to walk suggested something muscular skeletal, while the staring at walls suggested something neurological. Something more ominous.

He gave me a reasonable game plan and asked that I leave Beaker with him with the understanding that he’d give her an MRI and that I could pick her up on Friday.

That wasn’t to be.

As I was pulling into the driveway – some 45 miles south of Santa Fe – he called to tell me that Beaker had an intracranial brain tumor that was affecting the thalamus. Because the tumor was in the center of the brain, surgery was not possible, but I could do chemo, which, best case scenario, would buy Beaker another few months. Or I could do radiation, which, best case scenario, would buy Beaker another year.

She was 12 years old. The life span for a dog her size is 12-15 years. She was old. She had arthritis, and whatever was going on with her inability to walk was separate from the brain tumor.

“No,” I told the vet. “I’m not putting her through radiation or chemo.”

Then he asked if I wanted him to wake her up (she had been anesthetized), so I could get her in the morning to bring her back home to be euthanized. I asked if she was completely out. He told me ‘yes,’ and I told him ‘no, let her go. I’ve already told her good-bye.’

And here I am back where I was with Lucy – grieving the loss of an animal. The loss of a dog, who I used to refer to as a “Velcro dog.” She followed me everywhere, including into the bathroom. I would be sitting on the toilet and she’d be outside the door, trying to open it, sliding her paw beneath it, pulling at it.

When I worked outside the home and Beaker would be home all day with Triscuit and Rocky, I’d make them “food puzzles.” I’d put treats inside of boxes and then boxes inside of other boxes, so she would have something to do while I was gone.

If I went to McDonald’s or Burger King, I’d take her with me, buy a “Happy Meal” just for her, although Beaker always preferred sweets and would have been happier had I just bought her a chocolate shake.

In fact, Beaker was so fond of sweets, I’d sometimes call her by my daughter’s name – completely by mistake – because my daughter has always had an incredible sweet tooth.

The difference between saying good-bye to Beaker and saying good-bye to Lucy is that Beaker had a longer, richer life. Grieving for Beaker is already different. I can talk about her without crying, which is not to say I don’t miss her. I do. And I’ll probably miss her for a while. She’d been a good, loving companion for 12 years.

My only regret is that I wish I’d been there when she died because I’d like to have offered her comfort if I could have. I would have liked to have said one final good-bye, but waking her up just to bring her home so I could have said that final good-bye seemed cruel. I couldn’t do that.

I loved her the way owners love their pets, and I will miss her. She was important to me. And now she’s gone.

Like Lucy.

Like Tasma.

Like Heffalump.

And I’d like to think – so I will – that they are all up there together somewhere – healthy and young. Playing. And running.

And maybe – just maybe – waiting until I’m up there with them.