The Loss of a Pet
I started this entry a couple times, and kept finding myself taking diverging trains of thought into the pandemic, and grief in general, and all the ways 2020 has thrown us curve ball after curve ball. So I decided to break it up into multiple entries, and now that I've gotten all that stuff out of my system maybe I can do this one justice. I guess I should write more, huh?
Anyways... I'll start at the beginning. Everyone knows my dog Willow, the
big fluff ball that often greets everyone at the funeral home. But most people didn't know my other dog, Oy. She was just as special, maybe even more in some ways.
Oy was the first pet I had as an adult. She was my daughter's Christmas puppy the year she turned 2, back in 2006. A guy I worked with back at a restaurant in California said his neighbor had puppies and we went and grabbed one. I had no idea what kind of dog she was, and really no idea how to care for a dog. I was 20. Everything I learned about caring for and falling in love with a dog I learned from Oy. She was a great dog though. Even as a puppy, the only thing I ever remember being annoyed at was her love of climbing under the couch and shredding it from underneath.
She was an adventurer through and through. She loved to go hiking and camping with us up into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. She loved the warm weather and she loved everyone she met and she loved cheap dog treats, not that expensive healthy stuff. She hated having her feet touched. Clipping her claws was a nightmare. She loved going to parks, and meeting new people, and playing in the water, and barking at things. She was there while my daughter was growing up, she was there through multiple moves and life changes and she was always just the sweetest thing. She got over her fear of stairs for us when we had to move into a tiny apartment, and learned to love cats and rabbits as our family continued to grow. She did this adorable prance every time she came in from outside, as my husband had gotten into the habit of giving her a treat every time she came in. The excitement on her face when we opened the treat cupboard will always be my favorite memory of her. We brought Willow home right after we bought our first house in 2013, and they were immediately friends. They loved to chase each other around in the backyard and play. When we moved to Buffalo in 2016, a friend of mine came with me so we could make a proper road trip out of it and stop at every place a dog could want to go. We hit dog parks in 6 different states, and multiple breweries and restaurants that allowed them there. We went on multiple shorter trips with the dogs, any time my husband had to travel for work and I was free to join him. She had a great life, and was part of every family memory that was created for 14 years.
But of course there were challenges. An incident with a family member's dog who house sat for us in the middle of our move left her with stitches and staples in several places, and I was 3,000 miles away unable to comfort her. She hid in my closet for 2 days until I could get home, and was never quite as carefree again. About a year after we moved here, it became apparent that she was losing her hearing. Her joints were starting to stiffen up. A year or so later, again while I was traveling, she suffered from an episode caused by vestibular disease (an age-related breakdown of the nerves that connect the inner ear with the brain) which left her disoriented, nauseous, and stumbling around the house for several days. The vet detected a heart murmur at a routine check up. Not long after that she started showing signs of dementia. I didn't even know that was a thing for dogs, but it exhibits itself as intense anxiety. She progressed to the point where she was pacing the house all hours of the day and night, whining as though she was in pain. We tackled all of it and took on exhausting amounts of vet bills and a pill regimen befitting her age. We gave her joint supplements, and fish oils, and liver pills, and anxiety pills, and dementia pills, and vitamins for senior dogs, and a special prescription dog food. She hated taking pills and got adept at tonguing them to spit them out later. We tricked her by grinding up the joint pills and putting them in canned food so she couldn't eat around it. Each new challenge we met with the attitude that we could find something to fix it, and although it wasn’t always easy, we managed to give her a good quality life for 2 years after she probably would have died had we not been willing or able to take on the extra expense and work. She got a couple extra camping trips, an extra Christmas, and more than a few more pupachinos from Starbucks.
At one point, she was on so many medications that my schedule went as follows: wake up at 6 am to give her Pantaprazol, and Metoclopromide, which has to be given 30 minutes before food (so we couldn't sneak it into her breakfast), let her outside, let her back inside, feed her a small meal at 6:30 with her joint medication and a Trazadone thrown in for her anxiety, followed by 2 Anipryl (those were the worst, they were gel-coated and stuck in her throat, giving her the super ability to actually swallow them and still be able to cough them up later); give her Metoclopromide again at 2pm, followed by another small meal at 2:30 with another Trazadone thrown in; Pantoprazole again at 6pm, more Metoclopromide at 10pm followed by another small meal at 10:30 with fish oil and vitamins and more Trazadone thrown in to (hopefully) help her sleep through the night. She regularly had to go outside between 1-2 am, and we ended up getting her a crate to keep her confined at night because she wandered around whining and occasionally making messes in the house. It was a lot, but she still very much enjoyed all the things she ever did - her cheap treats, trips to the dog park, walks around the neighborhood, and all the love and attention she could get. We decided it was worth it as long as she still had that spirit. We went ahead and got her DNA test done, since we never knew what she was. She was 25% Staffordshire, 15% Rottweiler, 15% White Swiss Shepherd, 15% ChowChow, and a few other weird things, most of which I never saw reflected in her.
Then she started developing a new mystery illness that caused her to start vomiting, at first only occasionally, then pretty much every time she ate - which made it even more difficult to get her to keep her pills down. Her dementia and anxiety started ramping up again as a result. It got worse and worse over the next few months. After several vet visits and hundreds of dollars’ worth of tests and Xrays, we discovered that she had pyloric stenosis - a tightening of the stomach muscles that allow the stomach to empty itself. We had the option for corrective surgery, but it would have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5-6,000 dollars and would have been extremely risky given all her other problems. There was no guarantee it would work, and even if it did, how much time would it buy her? And how miserable would she be in her anxious state during the vet visit and resulting recovery? She didn't like going to the vet under the best of circumstances. We decided it wasn't worth it. Instead, we tried a few last-ditch efforts - more specialty foods, more pills. But eventually it progressed too far. She had lost about 15 pounds off her 45-pound frame. She no longer had the energy to run around and play. We decided it was the kindest thing we could do to schedule an appointment to have her euthanized. That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
The next challenge - this was in March. This was when everything was closing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and even for such an important appointment we would only be able to have one person accompany Oy to the vet. It would have to be me, but I didn't want to do it alone and I didn't want to leave the rest of my family out of that experience. My daughter and my husband loved that dog as much as I did, and she had been a part of my daughter's dad's life too. It wasn't fair to leave them all out. Why now? This wasn't anything I ever expected to have to factor into these already very difficult decisions. After discussing my concerns with the vet, I found out about a program called Lap of Love that offered home euthanasia services. That was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make in my entire life. I thought making the decision to make the phone call was the hard part, but I found myself blubbering like a toddler entirely unexpectedly trying to say out loud what I needed to do. I'm so, so grateful that they were available though, even though the vet had to come alone and wear PPE to enter our house. I was really afraid they wouldn't be making home visits at all. We scheduled the appointment for April 3. We took Oy to the park and got her a doggy ice cream beforehand - two things she loved. We wanted to make her last day a good one. She didn't finish her ice cream, and didn't walk very far at the park. I guess I had a picture of what a perfect last day would look for her, but when are things ever perfect? When we got home, we put her up on the couch and we all loved on her until the vet got there. She laid her head in my daughters lap, and stayed there until the vet came. She died like that, head in my daughter's lap, at home where she was comfortable, surrounded by family she wouldn’t have been surrounded by otherwise. I have heard over and over again how great Hospice is for the families we serve and how valuable it is to be able to die at home. I know this, but I didn’t get it, you know? This was the best gift I could give her. To be on her couch, surrounded by familiar people and familiar smells. To not have to be afraid, and surrounded by loud noises, unfamiliar smells, and strange people. I’m not really sure how different it is for people. There’s a difference in that (usually) people understand what is going on around them, and can voice their concerns or ask questions. We have to be advocates and anticipate what is needed from us when we have to make those decisions for our pets, or children, or people with dementia or other conditions that take their voice and autonomy from them. I knew she was comfortable and not afraid, and that's all I wanted for her at the end. I owe it to Lap of Love and the amazing and compassionate vet that allowed us this experience.
The house hasn't been the same since.
This was really hard for all of us. I cried every time I picked up my phone and saw her on my screensaver for most of the next month. I'm crying as I type this, 3 months later. My husband, not usually much of a crier, was red-eyes for several days. My daughter, surprisingly, took it pretty well. Kids are far more adept at navigating grief than we give them credit for.
What I didn't expect was the overwhelming guilt. Did I make the right decision? Should I have tried the surgery? Should I have even moved to Buffalo? She hated the winters here. Did I do everything I could have done to give her a great life? She was with me pretty much my entire adult life. I felt like I owed her more.
I know I’m not alone in this. Whether you’re losing a pet, a spouse, a child – anyone you feel responsible for the well-being of, you’re always going to second-guess yourself. You’re always going to feel a sense of responsibility when things don’t go like you think they should. And it hurts. I know in my heart I made the best decision I could, but sometimes reality just doesn’t give us the options we wish we had. Even people who aren’t in caretaker roles often feel a sense of regret. We always wish we would have reached out more, had more time to spend with the person we’ve lost, told them we loved them more. Taken them for more walks. We always assume we’re going to have more time to do the things we want to do for the people in our lives. And it’s true, until it isn’t.
It does get easier. I still think of her every time I give one of her cheap treats to Willow, or go to the dog park without her. I probably always will. She will always be special. She was my first dog. But it gets a little less painful each time. When I thought of her that first month or so, it brought tears to my eyes every time. Now I can think of her and say her name without that sting. At least most of the time. Some days when I’m feeling a little raw, because of everything that is going on in the world and in my life, it still gets me. And I know this is true for most people, most of the time. I hear the same thing from many of the families we serve. It hurts, but it does get easier. And you will have bad days, but they get less and less frequent. And that’s really about all you can say. Life wasn’t meant to be lived without pain. Grief and heartache and loss are the price we pay for love. And that’s how I have to look at it. I miss her because she was special. I cry because she’s worth it. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.