Maltese dog

Shortly after my 17-year-old Maltese died, the wind picked up. It was early evening in mid-June, and a warm gust blew across the North Texas prairie, swirling the dust outside the vet’s office.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that when someone dies, angels take the soul into the heavens, which is a windy place where that soul awaits reincarnation. Perhaps the wind blew through as the door to the other side opened for my little Bogey. Perhaps it was nothing like that.

Regardless, I knew nothing of the wind that night. I wasn’t there. 

My friend Andy tended to Bogey in those last minutes of his life, held him while the vet administered the meds that would render him unconscious and then stop his heart, then stayed with him while the heat left his body.

We didn’t plan it that way. I had always felt a responsibility to see my pets through to the end, but when the time came for Bogey, I was on another continent. And the truth is, I was grateful to be relieved of the burden of that very hard thing. Much to my surprise, that fact didn’t make me feel like the worst person ever.

A Friend’s Selfless Act

After my return, I was explaining to my friend Jennifer about the turn of events, how I felt a complex mix of grief, relief and guilt. Yes, I was devastated about the loss of my pet, and yet, I was glad I hadn’t had to attend his death. And I wondered if I’d not only failed my dog in life by not being there with him at the end, but if I’d also failed him in death by not feeling horrible about my absence.

Jennifer shared that her mother had done the same for her sick Boston Terrier, and that she’d taken care of a boyfriend’s elderly cat’s last moments. I started asking around: Was this a thing? Another friend said that he’d agreed to handle the euthanasia of a friend’s dog after the dog was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and then he offered to do the same for my pets in the future.

This selfless act is, apparently, something that some people do for each other. And now that it’s happened to me, I know that these people are heroes — and that the pet owners who accept this heroism are not cowards. In Jennifer’s words: “We are just lucky that we have people in our lives who love us enough to do this for us.”

Buying One More Day

Fifteen months before Bogey passed, our veterinarian diagnosed him with chronic pancreatitis, early kidney disease and low thyroid function. At the time, he was so ill, our vet suggested that I consider euthanasia.

Instead, I took him home. One tablespoon of chicken baby food (suggested by my vet) at a time, he improved. “It’s a miracle!” I exclaimed to the vet four days later — but Bogey was fragile on and off for a long time. Things would be better, then they’d be worse, but despite Bogey’s advanced age, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I realize now, I would never be ready to say goodbye.

More than a year later, there I was: leaving on the trip of a lifetime, to see Machu Picchu and then spend a week on a boat in the Galapagos Islands. The trip had taken most of a year to plan (as well as a significant amount of savings). It was not an easy decision to leave my sweet dog, but the opportunity for this particular trip would not exist a year or two down the road. If I was going on this adventure, this was my chance.

By that time, I’d established an elaborate protocol for Bogey that entailed several expensive low-fat foods, pain meds in the morning and six to ten trips per day outside in an effort to deny the fact that he was no longer really housebroken. He couldn’t hear. He could barely see. And he’d long given up taking the stairs, so I cradled him like a baby and carried him. It wasn’t a routine I was proud of, but it was buying me one more day — day after day.

Bogey was fine for the first part of my trip — as fine as a sick, old dog could be, that is — but during the second week, his health failed. Andy took him to the vet, but meds and fluids didn’t help. I was wracked with anxiety. “How could I have gone off and left my dog?” I thought. “What kind of heartless human leaves an elderly pet for two weeks?” Seeking comfort, I typed to Andy: “Maybe there’s something you can report to make me feel better, like he is still moving around the apartment and cuddling at night.”

That evening, a reply: “Call me right now.”

A Long-Distance Decision

woman and maltese

I dialed. Andy and Bogey were at the vet. I had a choice: admit Bogey to the hospital, where they could medicate and hydrate him until I could get home, or give my consent to let him go. Neither of these things sounded like reasonable options to me. It was the proverbial rock and hard place — and there was no good way out.

Tears ran down my face. I paced the floor of the old convent where I was staying in Ecuador, just two days from being home. I sobbed and pulled my hair at the roots. I said the word “OK” over and over between huge breaths. “OK. OK. OK. It’s going to be OK.” I must have spent $50 of that $100 phone call just saying the word “OK.”

In the year-plus since Bogey had grown ill, I’d had long conversations with my vet about what was and wasn’t acceptable care for Bogey. She knew that I didn’t want him to spend another day or night in the hospital hooked to an IV. She knew that I didn’t want him to suffer, but that I also didn’t want him on so many pain meds that he became a floppy, drooling rag doll. She also knew that I didn’t want to hold on for the sake of holding on. I’d provided impeccable care for my pet, and I wanted to do the right thing by him when the time came.

And when the time came, my dear friend Andy was on duty.

"An OK Choice"

I asked Dr. Beth Burgin at Katy Trail Animal Hospital in Dallas how common it might be — friends helping friends in this way — and she said that a chronically ill pet having an episode while an owner is away on vacation is quite common. And as far as other people helping an owner through the pain of letting a beloved animal go, it’s simply up to the owner*.

“Having someone step in — especially if it’s a really close friend or a family member who loves that pet, too — is an OK choice. We all do whatever we need to deal with this really difficult time, and some people want to remember their pets the way they have been and not have [euthanasia] be their last memory,” she said.

Letting my sick pets go has been the hardest part of pet ownership for me. Twice I have handled it with less grace than I would have liked, and held on longer than I probably should have. But, when Andy mercifully ushered Bogey from the world this past spring, he gave us both an incredible gift. For that I will always be grateful.

*Vetstreet editor’s note: Having a friend or family member step in for you during your pet’s final moments is something that needs to be clearly communicated with your veterinarian, and please keep in mind that different practices in various states may have different requirements regarding consent. If possible, have this conversation with your vet before the time comes and leave written instructions for him or her if you know you’ll be unreachable in order to avoid making an already emotional decision more complicated.