Cricket was my familiar, my baby, my little soulmate. We chose each other and stuck together like glue.
When I got Cricket from rat terrier rescue, she was already about six to eight years old. I thought I was in for heartbreak by adopting a middle-aged dog. Well, I was, but not because we got only a couple of years. We got ten years, and I’m so grateful for that. But I was still in for heartbreak because of how much we loved each other and because ten years, or twenty, or thirty would never have been enough.
Cricket was a robust little thing. Only 12 pounds, but sturdy, intense, brave, and frankly, bitchy to other dogs. Even with limited interactions between the two of them, Cricket managed to intimidate my very pushy puppy Clara, who quickly grew to be more than three times Cricket’s size but never even thought of messing with her.
Cricket never had many health problems. The worst thing that happened was that she would repeatedly scratch her cornea when rolling in the grass and had to wear a cone on her head for long periods during the summer. And as she aged, she developed neurological weakness in her hind legs. But that was it, man. Otherwise, she was healthy as a tiny, sturdy horse.
So as bad luck would have it, this strong little dog who was aging so well and was so physically strong started to lose her mind instead.
I had some experience with dementia since my mother had Alzheimer’s, but I had no idea dogs could get it until then. I tell the story of Cricket’s diagnosis and how I learned about dementia in my book. But that’s not my focus today. Most of the people who come to this website are already struggling with the thought of euthanizing their dogs. So I am going to skip ahead, over our wonderful years together, and go to the end.
I have to be honest. I could talk about the tragedy of canine cognitive dysfunction and the pathos of watching a dog’s mind deteriorate. Those things are real and commonly experienced by owners. But in my case, once I learned what was going on, I rolled with it. Goofy and mixed up, she was still my little Cricket. She was still essentially herself. I do realize now that, while I had to deal with some pretty difficult symptoms (like her pooping on the rug and walking around in it almost every day), we had it easier than a lot of others. She actually slept at night. She got quieter instead of barkier, to the great relief of my other dogs.
But this is the hardest thing to explain: I wasn’t really that sad about her dementia. Of course, I wished she had all her marbles. She had been such a sharp little dog. But I could and did accommodate her decline. She lived for two years after her diagnosis. I couldn’t be sad all the time. I loved her fiercely. She was still 100% my little girl.
I started agonizing over the decision of when/whether to euthanize her pretty early in the game. She scratched her cornea again when she was 15 or 16, and since by then she couldn’t cope with the plastic cone, I thought I was going to lose her. Over a scratch in her eye! But I found another kind of device she could wear that prevented her from bothering her eye, and she healed up and was fine. Whew. Thank goodness for the inflatable doughnut.
But from then on, I was always assessing. Was she happy? Were her days mostly positive? Was I being selfish by keeping her with me? Was she miserable because of her declining mental capacities? I checked with trusted friends regularly to make sure I wasn’t unduly biased.
Through observation, I determined that she wasn’t bothered by her decline. She didn’t know about it. This is true of many humans with Alzheimer’s as well. Not all, but many. There is even a name for the syndrome of not knowing you have something wrong with you: anosognosia. It is actually a typical symptom of dementia. And to all appearances, Cricket had the doggie equivalent of that.
I feel confident in reporting about typical attitudes in the U.S., and these may be prevalent in most other English speaking countries as well. People who can afford to give their pets good medical care usually decide to euthanize their pets when they won’t eat and start to waste away. If we feel like we can control the pain of whatever condition they might have, we take “not eating” or sometimes “unable to walk” as the main turning point. But I have come to observe that many pets are already living with pain and a poor quality of life before they refuse food or become too weak to walk.
I started listening to wise people like Blanche Axton and Sue Matthews, who both wrote beautiful pieces about their attitudes towards euthanasia and were kind enough to let me reprint them in my book, Remember Me. I think the chapter where the three of us tell our stories gives more comfort to people than any other.
They—and I—don’t want to squeeze out every last day our pets can handle. We want to help them leave this life before the final decline. The saying, “Better a week too early than a day too late” has become my mantra. I imagine this is shocking to some people. We all need to make our own decisions about this. But I bet also that to some people who are struggling with guilt over a dog with dementia it can be a great comfort.
In 2013, Cricket could no longer go on a real walk (she circled instead). She got trapped behind stuff and paced or circled much of the day. But she still went to work with me most days. She had a good—a great—appetite. And she still knew me. This was pivotal for me, and I don’t think I was being self-centered. She had gone through periods of anxiety early in the onset of dementia but seemed to have passed through them. The medication she was on, selegiline, probably helped. But I feared the day she would forget me. Maybe the anosognosia would help there, too. Maybe she could keep sailing through life just fine without me. But I didn’t want to risk it. So that was one benchmark I was conscious of. I wanted to let her pass out of this world before she forgot me, lest she would become anxious again.
A friend remarked how she always stayed close to me. When I was present, she would toddle up (remember the rear end weakness) until she could sniff my leg to make sure it was me. Then she would stick around with me. She would stay with her head right next to my leg, her nose often touching. This was such a comfort to both of us. And a signal to me of what was important to her.
In the spring of 2013, I observed that she enjoyed our time together outside less. She had lost most intention. She still peed when I took her out, bless her heart. But after that, she would simply walk downhill, wherever that took her. She had little volition. And she was less interested in smells. In late March she forgot how to drink water. She still had an appetite and ate healthily, but she had forgotten how to drink water. I made all of her meals into soup with milk or unsalted broth, or just water in a pinch. She continued to eat with gusto and I kept her hydrated that way. But I knew her quality of life was teetering.
She grew frailer. She had no metabolic or internal problems that I knew of, but her rear end weakness was making it harder to walk. Her balance was poor and when she did walk she had no idea where she was going. I knew the time was coming, and I obsessed about when. I was proud that she was still at her lifetime normal weight of 12 pounds. She was still eating great. When might that change? What else might change before that?
People often say that the dog will “tell you when it’s time to go.” My opinion may not be a popular one, but I believe that when we wait for dogs to tell us, we have often waited too long. So many dogs are stoic. The day they lose one more pound and look more emaciated, can’t get up to stand, or look at us pleadingly may well come after they have already suffered. We can’t eliminate all suffering, but we don’t have to force them to go down this road, either because we want their companionship or we feel guilty taking our beloved dog’s life.
So I didn’t wait for a signal from Cricket. She was cognitively impaired, after all. I can be sentimental and romantic, but I won’t do it at my dog’s expense. It’s a romantic thought that the dog will know when it’s time to go and somehow convey that to you. I decided not to count on that.
The day Cricket had a major seizure, I decided to euthanize her. That, to me, was the turning point that indicated we were looking at a downhill slope in her quality of life.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I decided to euthanize her immediately. I didn’t try for a sweet last day or night. The weekend was coming up and I didn’t want her to have more seizures. And I had already been trying to make all of her days sweet.
These are some of the hardest words I’ll ever write, but Cricket didn’t go easily. The vet had to use six times the normal dose of the drugs to euthanize her. There was a point during the process where, if I could have, I might have changed my mind. But I was afraid she would be left with permanent damage if I tried to reverse the process. In the end, I still think my decision was the right one. But when she sat in my lap, alertly looking around, after the first dose—double what should have euthanized her—it was agony.
On the other hand, I had long known that this was the way she would go out of the world. She was tough—terribly, terribly tough—and full of life. She wasn’t going to make it easy for me. That’s who she was.
It is very, very hard to euthanize a dog who can still walk, will still eat, and has it in her to growl at the vet. I can’t count how many times people have come to this site with a dog who is in very late stage dementia but the person is convinced that they are being selfish for considering euthanasia. These people don’t strike me as selfish. Not at all. I think in some cases, euthanasia is the most unselfish things we can do for our dogs.
Dogs with metastatic cancer or end-stage kidney disease are obviously ill. We can see their suffering. But sometimes, when dogs with advanced dementia still have fairly healthy bodies, we can’t see it. But canine cognitive dysfunction is a progressive, debilitating illness, as serious and impairing as many others.
You folks who come to this website are almost all suffering. You don’t usually get a lot of praise or affirmation from the world for all you are doing. But you are heroes to me because of the amount of thoughtful, endless care you provide for your sweet, ancient, confused dogs. I wish for peace and comfort for all of you and for your dogs.
See more resources regarding euthanasia here.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson