KNOWING WHEN TO SAY GOODBYE TO A PET IS A DECISION MADE WITH LOVE
Never before have I been in a position to make end-of-life decisions for two pets at the same time. With a nearly 16-year-old Sheltie being treated for chronic kidney failure and a 7-year-old retriever in chemotherapy for a malignancy that turned up on her annual wellness check, you can well imagine that I spend a fair amount of time thinking that some hard decisions aren't that far away.
Both of my dogs are doing phenomenally well right now, and I am as comfortable as I can be with the decisions in our future. But I know that choosing to end a pet's life is the hardest decision we make when it comes to our pets, and Marty and I can tell you from decades of experience that it's a decision that never gets any easier.
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 certain pets and certain owners at certain 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 anymore. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine -- from chemotherapy to pacemakers to advanced pain relief -- is available to our pets.
But the addition of high-level care shouldn't change much when it comes to easing suffering: If you can have a realistic expectation that a course of treatment will improve your pet's life -- rather than simply prolong it -- then those options should be considered. But you must also ask yourself: "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, you know what decision you have to 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 for 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.
Choosing to end a pet's suffering is a final act of love and nothing less. Knowing that your decisions are guided by that love is what helps us all through the sad and lonely time of losing a cherished animal companion. And in the end -- and I hope that end is a long time away yet -- it is love that will see me through, as well.
Talk to your vet
about 'dog flu'
Q: I keep hearing about "dog flu." I get my flu shot every year. Should I get one for my dog, too? -- via email
A: Canine influenza virus, or H3N8, is one of many organisms that can make dogs cough. Most of these illnesses are no more dangerous than your getting a cold, but like a cold, they can turn into something more serious in a small number of cases, especially in the very young, very old or those with other health problems.
H3N8 was first discovered in racing greyhounds in 2004, but it's now been found all over the country, in pet dogs as well as those in kennels and shelters. It's a good idea to ask your veterinarian if she's seen cases of it in your area, and whether she thinks your dog needs to be vaccinated.
Be aware, however, that the vaccine might not protect your dog from getting sick with the disease, although it may make his symptoms less severe. Vaccinated dogs can still transmit the H3N8 to other dogs, too.
No matter what causes your dog's respiratory illness, and regardless of whether he's been vaccinated, always stay alert for signs that things are taking a turn for the worse. Symptoms of canine influenza and other forms of respiratory disease include nasal discharge and a cough that ranges from so mild you almost wonder if your dog is just clearing his throat all the way to a very deep, disturbing cough.
If your dog's fever goes over 104 degrees, he seems depressed, his nasal discharge is green, or he has trouble breathing, it's lights and sirens time: Head for the veterinary ER. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most cat lovers
like them mixed
-- Less than 1 percent of the total feline population are pedigreed cats. The rest are usually cat-egorized by coat length in the United States, with veterinarians marking them in the records as domestic longhairs (DLH) or domestic shorthairs (DSH). Cats of no particular breed are sometimes also referred to as "alley cats" in the United States. In the United Kingdom, they're called "moggies."
-- Having a hard time finding a rental that will permit your pet? You're not alone. Apartments.com reports that 35 percent of renters with pets say it's very difficult to find an apartment that allows pets. Of renters who don't have pets but wish they did, 33 percent blame their lack of a pet on their building's no-animal policy.
-- Dogs can become afraid just as we do, but they express fear in different ways. A fearful dog may cower, hide, drool or tremble. Wide pupils are another sign of a dog in fear. The cause of such behavior may be genetic, it may be because of improper socialization as a puppy, or it may be in response to a frightening episode in an animal's life. Since fearful dogs are not happy and may in fact bite, it's important to get a referral to a veterinarian skilled in working with behavior problems. The combination of proper medication and behavior modification can make a scared dog's life a happy one. -- Mikkel Becker and Dr. Marty Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and also the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.