It's the question every pet lover dreads, the one for which there's often no easy answer:
"When is the right time to say goodbye?"
Choosing to end a pet's life is the hardest decision we make when it comes to our pets, and I can tell you from three decades of personal experience that it's a decision that never gets any easier. Your veterinarian can offer you advice, and friends and family can offer you support, but no one can make the decision for you. When you live with an elderly or terminally ill pet, you look in your pet's eyes every morning and wonder if you're doing what's best.
Everyone makes the decision a little differently. Some pet lovers do not wait until their pet's discomfort becomes chronic, untreatable pain, and they choose euthanasia much sooner than others would. Some owners use an animal's appetite as the guide -- when an old or ill animal cannot be tempted into eating, they reason, he has lost most interest in life. And some owners wait until there's no doubt the time is at hand -- and later wonder if they delayed a bit too long.
There's no absolute rule, and every method for deciding is right for some pets and some owners at some times. You do the best you can, and then you try to put the decision behind you and deal with the grief.
The incredible advances in veterinary medicine in the past couple of decades have made the decisions even more difficult for many people. Not too long ago, the best you could do for a seriously ill pet was to make her comfortable until that wasn't possible any more. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine -- from chemotherapy to pacemakers to advanced pain-relief -- is available to our pets.
For me, the addition of high-level care doesn't change a thing: If I can have a realistic expectation that a course of treatment will improve my pet's life -- rather than simply prolong it -- then that's the direction I'll go. But I find I must constantly examine my motives and ask: Am I doing right by my pet, or am I just holding on because I can't bear to say goodbye?
If it's the latter, I know what decision I must make.
Many people are surprised at the powerful emotions that erupt after a pet's death, and they can be embarrassed by their grief. Often, we don't realize we're grieving not only for the pet we loved, but also for the special time the animal represented and the ties to other people in our lives. The death of a cat who was a gift as a kitten from a friend who has died, for example, may trigger bittersweet memories of another love lost.
Taking care of yourself is important when dealing with pet loss. Some people -- the "it's just a pet" crowd -- won't understand the loss and may shrug off grief over a pet's death as foolish. I find that the company of other animal lovers is very important. Seek them out to share your feelings, and don't be shy about getting professional help to get you through a difficult time.
I am always firm in my belief that choosing to end a pet's suffering is a final act of love and nothing less. Knowing that my decisions are guided by that love is what always carries me through the sad and lonely time of losing a cherished animal companion.
Help with pet loss
You're not alone in losing a pet, and many resources are out there to help you cope with your emotions during a difficult time. Here are places to go for help:
-- Pet-loss hotlines. Most veterinary schools offer pet-loss support lines staffed by volunteer veterinary students. The University of California, Davis, had the first, still taking calls from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time, Monday through Friday; 800-565-1526. A list of other pet-loss hot lines can be found on the American Veterinary Medical Association's Web site at www.avma.org/careforanimals/animatedjourneys/goodbyefriend/plhotlines.asp.
-- Pet-loss chats: The Web site PetHobbyist.com offers a pet-loss chat every night of the year, staffed with volunteer moderators and attended by other pet lovers. Petloss.com is another online resource for information and help.
-- Memorials: Grave markers and garden plaques can be found advertised in the back of many pet-related magazines and on the Internet. The catalog company Orvis (www.orvis.com; 888-235-9763) offers a nice selection.
Don't give up on a lost pet
Q: I read your piece on lost pets, and I hope you will remind people not to give up!
My dog was scared by fireworks last summer while we were camping in Arizona. He is my travel buddy and best friend. He was gone in the desert for eight days before another camper discovered him about 10 miles away. All the old-timers said there was no chance he could survive, and I had given up. There were coyotes making a kill nearby the night he ran off.
Remind people to put both cell phone and home phone numbers on the tags (and that the pet is microchipped, if applicable), to put up posters, and to make calls and visits to all the shelters. Make sure the animal is microchipped, as that is the first thing the shelters check when an animal is delivered. -- R.B., via e-mail
A: It's true that lost pets have been located months (or even years!) after they've gone missing, and often a great distance from their where they were lost. These kinds of stories turn up in the news regularly, and are usually the result of someone taking in a pet as their own and then losing the animal later.
The longer you look and the more extensive your search, the better the chance of finding your lost pet.
You are absolutely right, too, that steps you take before a pet is lost can increase your chances of getting the animal back. Collars with up-to-date phone numbers and implanted microchips can help reunite a lost pet with the animal's family. I never waste space putting an address on an ID tag. Instead, I put the word "Reward!" with as many different phone numbers as there's room for. There are many kind people in the world, but the hint of a reward will help to motivate those who really don't care if a pet gets home or gets dumped in a shelter.
And speaking of shelters: It's important to check and check again at shelters in as wide an area as you can. Since shelter populations are constantly changing, visit area shelters every couple of days. Phone calls often aren't much help, since busy staff might not recognize your pet from your description.
I'm glad you got your dog back!
No head halters
Q: I've heard that head halters can cause serious injuries if used wrongly. A too-abrupt tug could jerk a dog's head, causing neck or spinal injuries, couldn't it? -- A.K., via e-mail
A: Anything's possible, which is why I don't recommend using a head halter with one of those long, reel-type leashes. The force of a running dog hitting the end of a 30-foot line does have the potential to cause injury.
In truth, just about every piece of canine equipment has the potential for problems if used incorrectly. Slip-chain collars can choke a dog or injure his neck. Breakaway collars, designed to release a dog who's caught on something, can result in a dog being off-leash when it's least safe, such as next to a busy street. And head halters can jerk a dog's head around.
If you don't know what's right for your dog or how to use it, find a trainer who can help you choose the appropriate equipment and show you how it works. Every piece of training equipment is right for some dogs, but no single item is right for all. And no piece of training equipment is safe or effective unless it's fitted and used properly.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
New cat door fits in window
The sales representative who pounced on my interest in the Let Meow't cat door knew all the right things to say. The well-designed unit fits in a window like an air conditioner, and features a turn and a series of flaps that eliminates drafts as the cat goes in and out. Very clever!
But then, he offered a bit of information that didn't go over so well: "Once your cat learns to use it, you can ditch your litter box," he said.
Well, uh, no. Believe me, my reader mail reveals that our neighbors do not appreciate cat mess in their flowerbeds. Letting your cat roam puts him at risk not only from the crankiest of those neighbors, but also from such other hazards as cars, dogs or accidental poisoning. For every person who protested the recent Wisconsin cat-hunting proposal, there were those who thought it wasn't such a bad idea, even if they may have kept their thoughts to themselves.
The latter are the folks your cat may run into on his rambles, which is why I recommend keeping your cat safe on your property.
Still, there's no denying the Let Meow't is a pretty nifty product. It's perfect for use in providing access to a screened cat porch or other secure area. Suggested retail is $100 from pet-supply stores or catalogs. The unit can also be purchased at www.letmeowt.com. -- G.S.
Thyroid malady common in cats
When an older cat starts losing weight and gaining energy, the diagnosis is often hyperthyroidism, a common malady in which the thyroid starts overproducing. If thyroid production is not checked, cardiac and liver problems develop, and the cat dies.
Veterinary medicine offers three methods for treating hyperthyroidism.
Radioactive iodine therapy offers a cure rate of 90 percent to 95 percent, with no further treatment. The cat gets one dose of a radioactive substance that kills the overproducing cells without harming any other of the body's functions. The problem: The procedure is available only in large urban areas or at veterinary schools, and requires a two-week stay that some cats don't tolerate well.
The surgical removal of the offending parts of the thyroid gland is an option that usually doesn't require travel or an extended hospital stay. The problem: Some cats are not good candidates for this delicate surgery, and there's a chance that other problems may result after the surgery.
Finally, hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication. The problem: Some cats don't tolerate the medication well, and some owners aren't up to the task of administering daily doses for the duration of a pet's life. Because of this, medication is sometimes used short-term to get a pet to the point where he can better tolerate one of the other, more permanent treatment options.
If your senior cat has been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, your veterinarian will discuss the options to help you make the best choice for you and your cat.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Pools can pose a problem for pets
Backyard pools present a drowning hazard to pets and wildlife alike, which makes pool safety important for animals as well as for people.
The best way to keep pets safe around a backyard pool is to fence off the pool from the rest of the yard and never leave animals unsupervised within the fenced pool area. Alarms that sound when a child or animal falls into the pool are also a worthwhile investment.
Not all dogs can handle the water. Many bulldog breeders and rescue groups will not place these dogs with families who have unfenced pools. The breed's front-heavy design makes swimming difficult, if not impossible, for these dogs (and similar kinds) who tire quickly and can drown easily.
Even dogs who love to swim can be at risk of drowning if left unsupervised, which is why it's a good idea to teach them how to find the pool steps just in case. You can do so by having one person help the dog in the water while another stands on the steps encouraging the animal to find and use the exit. Painted or taped stripes at animal eye-level may help orientate a pet toward the steps.
Because fences won't keep cats or wildlife from failing into the pool and because even the best intentions can't keep gates closed to dogs, it's a good idea to install an escape ramp such as the Skamper-Ramp. The ramp anchors to the side of the pool and is designed to attract drowning pets and wildlife to it.
Once on the ramp, the surface helps an animal crawl to safety. The Skamper-Ramp comes in two sizes and retails for around $40 (for animals up to 40 pounds) and $55 (for animals up to 90 pounds).
Currently available in pool-supply outlets, the Skamper-Ramp is now showing up in pet-supply stores and catalogs, and can also be purchased from the company's Web site. For more information: www.skamper-ramp.com or 877-766-5738.
PETS ON THE WEB
No need for war with wildlife
As we've grown out from the cities and developed more and more land for housing, it's no surprise that conflicts between humans and native wildlife are a big problem.
Conflicts can be kept to a minimum by blocking off attics, chimneys and crawl spaces to prevent wildlife from setting up housekeeping, and by keeping garbage cans and other food sources securely sealed.
The Humane Society of the United States has an excellent collection of articles on the group's Web site (www.hsus.org/wildlife/urban_wildlife_our_wild_neighbors) that offers more suggestions on living peacefully with urban wildlife. From coyotes to skunks to deer, the site provides information that will minimize the potential for nuisance. The site offers advice on products that can help discourage animals, along with case studies of non-lethal methods of dealing with conflicts.
The HSUS also offers tips on creating urban sanctuaries for animals and birds displaced by development.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600