Welcome to Hard Times

When we say our first “Hello” to a vibrant new pup, the last thing on our mind is that in a little more than a decade of seasons we’ll be saying a final, heartfelt “Goodbye” to that same dog— grown old and infirm.

Few would deny that the toughest decision a gun-dog owner will make is determining when his or her hunting partner of many years has reached the end. No one wants to think of losing a treasured friend to old age, but that’s the one certainty in our lives with dogs—the point when there’s nothing left except to make the final moments peaceful and dignified.

Those of us who’ve faced end-of-life dilemmas over years of gun-dog ownership know that regardless of how many animals we have lost, the decision doesn’t get easier. The best we can do is to minimize the emotional trauma that accompanies euthanizing a dog, the guilt that’s always there, and the lurking doubt about our timing:Did I wait too long or, worse, did I not wait long enough? Such strong feelings are part of being human.

Elderly, terminally ill dogs are living longer thanks to advances in geriatric veterinary medicine and a deeper understanding of fatal diseases. Although modern treatments can extend an old dog’s existence, that bit of extra life isn’t always worth the physical and emotional cost and, typically, great financial outlay. Cancer is an illustrative case.

According to veterinarian Nicholas Dodman of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, more than 500,000 dogs die from cancer annually in the United States, and the disease affects half of all dogs over 10 years old. Dodman is the co-author of “Good Old Dogs: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable.” Among the array of information, Dodman offers in this highly rated book his advice on end of- life care. Many diseases of aged dogs involve complex, and personal, medical determinations, but cancer’s commonness provides a look at a few baseline factors in treatment decisions.

Owners of old, cancer-ridden or otherwise chronically ill dogs must consider issues beyond the natural desire to treat the suffering of much loved animals. To deal with this highly charged issue, experienced dog owners often base decisions on knowledge of their dog, details of its condition, and observable symptoms—has its tail stopped waging; is the light gone from its eyes; does it seem to be suffering?

As I suggested above, a primary consideration is that just because a treatment exists doesn’t mean it should be used. As Nicholas Dodman points out in his book, “… providing treatment to simply extend the dog’s age is not necessarily the best decision.” Invasive procedures, for instance, are painful, and recovery might be lengthy, even in doubt, which can cause the dog’s quality of life to further deteriorate.

By way of example, I lost a first-rate springer spaniel to a form of very aggressive cancer. Discussions with veterinary oncologists made one fact clear: Their ideas of successful treatment and mine were worlds apart. Surgery was their job; to me and my springer, this was personal. Full-scale treatment to gain a month or 2—a time in which my dog would suffer intensely or be drugged senseless—had to be weighed against the inevitable. My decision was heart-rending, yet easy: I didn’t intend for this spirited springer to die as a pain-ridden shadow unable to rise from his bed. That’s what I meant when I said that just because treatment exists doesn’t mean it’s the best option.

Canine afflictions such as cancer, heart disease, failing kidneys and respiratory difficulties are as serious in dogs as they are in humans, and each condition, prognosis and potential treatment must be evaluated individually. Other physical problems may be handled with noninvasive or somewhat invasive treatments that allow dogs to be maintained in generally pain-free and contented states. Then there are lesser age-related conditions such as arthritis, deafness, diminishing sight and others, many of which can be treated, or remain untreated, and allow a dog to finish its life comfortably. Note that dogs adjust remarkably well to losses of hearing and even degrees of sight.

Sometimes dogs just wear out. “Like in humans,” said Dodman, “there is certain constellation of signs that are not accounted for by any physical finding or disease.” One of the more common geriatric disorders of this type is canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), also called CCD Syndrome (CDS), which is considered an equivalent of Alzheimer’s. Information about CDS is available in Dodman’s book and on the Pfizer Animal Health website (CdsInDogs.com) that offers a list of cognitive dysfunction symptoms. Pfizer describes signs of CDS under four categories: disorientation and confusion; lack of interest in human— especially family—interaction; changes in sleep and activity patterns; and general loss of house-training behavior. If dogs show a number of Pfizer’s CDS symptoms and they’re occurring more frequently, or dogs don’t respond to facets of life once enjoyed, they could be suffering from varying degrees of cognitive loss, which should be factored into decisions concerning their care and maintenance.

At some point in our dogs’ lives, whatever their specific afflictions, we have to ask ourselves if it’s time to let go. “If they have reached a point where they have given up,” Dodman said, “and nothing you can do can bring them back, you have to think very seriously about what’s the quality of life.”

Each owner of a terminally ill or dysfunctional animal should ask a fundamental question of themselves and answer it honestly: Am I trying to extend my dog’s life for its sake or my own? Much of the time the answer is the latter. But that doesn’t make our motives completely self-serving; we are simply caught in the emotional upheaval of the impending death of a cherished animal.

As I said at the beginning, euthanizing an animal is the most personally wrenching event in our life with dogs. But when we can no longer escape the reality that there isn’t another choice, most of us take comfort in knowing we did everything we could for our dog in its life, and we gave it the same consideration in its death.

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