I want to begin this article by disclosing that every sentence you will read here is my opinion. I have no solid research to back up anything I say. There was no peer review of the validity of this article before I published it. I wrote this article for you because a dog that has been in our care at Kelsey’s Dog House for a long time concluded his stay with us this week. We will never again see him. He was laid to rest by his veterinarian. His owner’s decision to put him down was an extremely hard one to make, as it is for most of us.
Dogs Live Fast
Dogs live very fast lives. They gestate quickly. They mature quickly. During mid-life, they perform to a very quick beat. Their hearts beat rapidly, even at rest. Food goes down in very few gulps and then comes out the other end in a very short time. They focus on one thing for only a few seconds, and then they are on to something else. Their sleep-wake cycles are generally much shorter than our own. Even their normal body temperature of 99 to 102 degrees indicates their physiology is running in overdrive. It’s no wonder when dogs reach the late stages of their lives, their batteries run down very quickly.
The problems of old age for dogs generally mirror our own. Blindness; deafness; and lack of mobility due to arthritis; loss of muscle tone; and faltering balance are all part of the old age equation. Fittingly, a dog seems to retain his sense of smell right to the very end. What distinguishes old age in dogs from that of humans is the speed at which dogs deteriorate. While many humans take decades to show the wear and tear of a long life, dogs, which live life in the fast lane, seem to reach a point at which their health falls off a cliff.
An Old Dog
At this late stage, a dog is no longer himself. For example, although he may have been 100% reliable in doing his business outdoors, reduced mobility and incontinence may cause him to relieve himself indoors. He can no longer play, in the traditional sense, or even explore because getting around is a chore. He may be disoriented most of the time because his senses no longer give him the feedback he needs to navigate. Or, he may simply be too tired or ill to move around very much.
Many dogs develop serious disorders and illnesses in old age. A dog with serious health issues will need to make frequent, expensive, and stressful visits to the vet’s office. Old dogs with various disorders may experience varying degrees of chronic and acute pain. Pain medication may alleviate the pain but further dull a dog’s already reduced senses and alertness.
Before I go further, I want to re-emphasize that what I am writing here is only my opinion, especially with regard to suffering. I do not believe dogs suffer in the sense we humans would describe suffering. A dog in discomfort does not carry on a verbal dialogue with himself about his poor condition. He does not feel self-pity, nor does he agonize that his condition will worsen. I believe a dog does feel pain; and chronic pain does debilitate a dog. It makes him more inclined to hide, sleep, or act out of character. Having said that, I will also say a dog does not assign an emotional value to its pain as we humans often do. When we say, “That dog is suffering,” we are falsely assigning a human attribution to the dog.
What it All Means
What does all this mean for a dog and our bond with that dog? As each of us has our own unique set of behavior we call personality, each dog has its particular identity. Additionally dogs, like humans have a role to play, a purpose, if you will. I believe each dog has a job in this world, whether it is guarding a herd, watching the backyard, or simply sitting in your lap to comfort you. Some of these jobs are formal and trained, and others are assumed by accident or good fortune. In any case, dogs are generally their happiest when they play a role that seems to fit their identity. When your dog has reached a point at which he can no longer do any of the things that make him a dog, when he cannot do his job, then he becomes a shell of what he once was. He may still be physically present, but his spirit is gone. To compound the problem, when his poor health causes him to do things he never did before, such as accidentally peeing in the house, this causes him some degree of stress. A dog knows what he knows. When what a dog knows no longer applies, or something happens that seems beyond his control, he cannot rationalize to make sense of it.
Let’s throw you into the mix. You remember your dog as a happy, vital companion. Your positive energy and approval was food for his soul. When all you can do for your dog is fret over his deteriorated condition, you send wave after wave of distress and worry in his direction. If you become frustrated because your old dog is soiling the house or acting strange, that also sends a message. Your dog looks to you for safety and comfort. Although you will certainly do everything you physically can to make him comfortable when his health fails, you may also be inadvertently sending emotional signals that make your dog’s situation worse.
When It’s Time
There comes a point in a dog’s life when it is time to say goodbye. We would love to hang on to our best friend forever, but we know that is not going to happen. Your dog, though he may be ravaged by blindness, deafness, illness and other disorders, still looks like your dog. He is still warm and furry and his tail still wags when you pet him. Your memory of what he once was may fill in the details of a dog that is no longer there. He may not be suffering, but he is no longer fulfilled. It does not matter that he still looks and feels like your dog, because the dog you knew has departed.
Many of us take a long time to reach this conclusion and it’s understandable. Any decision to put a dog to sleep is difficult, feels premature, and is often tainted with guilt. Perhaps you feel your dog has brought you years and years of pleasure, and now you owe it to him to comfort and sustain him for as long as he is willing to carry on. Again, this is a perfectly understandable and completely rational thought from a human perspective. Consider everything I have written here about how it looks from the dog’s perspective.
Once your dog’s heath slips off the edge, nature has no intention of restoring him. His senses have dulled. His mobility, as he knew it, has gone. He struggles to orient himself. He may be in pain, or so diminished by pain medication that he cannot do any of the things he once loved to do. The feedback he receives from you is laced with pity. He cannot do his job. He cannot even do normal body functions correctly. Worst of all, none of this makes any sense to him. The kindest, most loving act you can do at this point is to gently help him find everlasting peace.
Update 10-15-15: My wife and I had to put one of our own dogs down last week. We did everything we could to keep our dog happy and reasonably healthy in her last years of life. There came a point when medicine and nearly around-the-clock care was simply not enough.
In her last week, our dog seemed exhausted physically and in spirit. We felt she was telling us, “It’s time.” Though we wished we could have her with us forever, we realized her need came ahead of our wishes. She departed peacefully and without pain.