The Dreaded Choice: Euthanizing My Dog With Dementia

Cricket was my familiar, my baby, my little soulmate. We chose each other and stuck together like glue.

Adopting a Middle-Aged Dog

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 as I remember her best: confident and direct. The other dogs disliked her direct gaze.

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.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

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.

There’s that look again

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.

Starting to Consider the Euthanasia Decision

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.

What’s Are the Problems With Common Attitudes To Euthanasia?

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.

The Last Months

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.

rat terrier with dementia with her head on a pillow

Cricket near the end of her life

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?

Owning My Decision

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.

It Wasn’t Her Decision

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.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Is an Illness

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

38 thoughts on “The Dreaded Choice: Euthanizing My Dog With Dementia

  1. I thank you for writing this. It was a little over a year ago I put my Pumpkin to sleep. She was acting the same as Cricket- doing more circling than anything. Eating better than she ever had, but forgetting her favorite people, including me. She probably could have lived longer than her 16 years, but I determined it wasn’t fair to her. There were so many things that she loved and could no longer do or remember. I felt it was better to let her go than keep her here to make me feel better.

    • Kristyn,
      What a loving and thoughtful decision you made. Obviously, I’m with you all the way. Thank you for sharing about dear Pumpkin.

  2. Thank you, once again, Eileen for such an accurate description of how it feels to care for a dog with dementia. I especially related to the part where you describe how hard it is to euthenize a dog that can still walk and eat.
    On the morning that my Clyde was going to be euthenized I took him for his last walk. We walked the same trail that we always did every day of his life… a 2 mile walk, through the forest trails. When we arrived home he didn’t want to stop and I allowed him to do anything he wanted. He ran and circled around and played. I cried. I video taped his last walk and I still watch it from time to time.
    His body was still strong. His mind was gone. He sometimes knew me, he was anxious, he couldn’t eat without my help, he peed and pooped in the house daily and circled and cried all night long keeping me awake and with little sleep for almost 2 years.
    It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made to euthenize him, but now as I move forward in my life one year later, I know also that it was the right time and that Clyde wanted it that way.
    Thank you again for your great book which helped me cope, gave me ideas, and explained the unexplainable.

    • Dear Shona,
      Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for sharing about Clyde. He was so lucky to have your love and care.

  3. I went through this earlier this year with my 15 year old Cairn terrier, I loved him so much but he was getting very grumpy and difficult to handle, even trying to get him on a lead he turned agressive and had bitten me a few times,he was on drugs for his pain relief and |I think he was in more pain than we knew, he was regulary seen at the vets, his normal health was good he enjoyed his food and walks in our field as he did not need a lead, but the agression was very bad ,the vet said that we really had to think about things, I did, and one morning we knew it was time to say good bye, it as the hardest thing I have ever had to do, because when the vet came to our home, he got up and greeted her, tail wagging, I am afraid that I left my husband with him and had to leave the room only going back when he was asleep, I have never forgiven myself for this as I feel I let him down, but I do know we had to do it as he could have attacked someone who came to visit, but he was doing all the things Cricket did, hide in corners etc. He is now in his Urn on our mantle shelf in the kitchen with his picture,he will always be loved and never forgotten.

    • That sounds so hard, Jan. But you acted out of love–that is so plain. Be easy on yourself about leaving the room. Your boy knew you loved and cared for him. I’m glad you were able to have him put to sleep at home. The thing that broke your heart so much–that he was happy and animated–has another side to it. He wasn’t scared. It sounds like the way most of us would want to go. Hugs.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing these memories and for creating this blog. It is a wealth of information full of sensible and compassionate advice. My 10-12 year old female dog is in the early stages of CCD and we are seeing a number of the behaviors on your checklist. Most notable and difficult at the moment is pacing/panting/anxiety at night. This night behavior is causing our healthy male dog to growl and try to correct her because she keeps pacing near his head when he is trying to sleep, so we are now separating them at night, but the separation seems to increase our female’s anxiety, since she is used to being near her buddy all the time. Needless to say, none of us are getting a lot of sleep! I have a call into our vet about starting her on selegiline. Could you please share how symptomatic Cricket was when you first started her on selegiline, and how much/what kind of change you noticed in her symptoms? In particular, I’m wondering if it helped with her night behavior? I also plan to ask our vet about a possible anti-anxiety medication to use before bedtime. Thank you so much for all your work in putting this blog together.

    • I’m so glad the site is helpful! I’m so sorry about your dog and how tough the nights are getting for her and your family. I was very lucky in that Cricket didn’t have many of the night disturbance symptoms, so there was little to see change with the selegiline. What I did see change was less zoning out. She was more responsive and also less anxious. I think you are doing the most important thing by contacting your vet about this.

      If it helps to know, I had three other dogs at the time I had Cricket, and two of them I kept completely away from her. Including that when we all went to bed at night, those two slept in closed crates in the bedroom. I couldn’t trust one of them not to be aggressive (they had a history) and the other was just so much bigger and pushy that I was afraid she would jostle/trample Cricket just in the course of her normal behavior. The crates worked for us because both were crate trained and liked their crates, and especially liked being with me at night, even if it meant being in a crate.

      I hope you can work something out for your situation with your dogs and family. I know how hard it can be.

  5. Through my tears, I thank-you Eileen for sharing. I know I had to be unselfish to send my 19 yr. old boy Rascal to the Bridge. I really think that the key word here for all of us is to not be selfish and to release and let go…..through our tears.

  6. Thank you for sharing. Touched me to the core. My Sammy was doing the same thing her last of 16 years. I knew when it was time to let her go but my husband just couldn’t do it and convinced me that Sammy still had so much life in her and we shouldn’t euthanize her, so she lived an entire year after the day we should have helped her die. Yes, my heart knew otherwise. Our Sammy who never had an accident in the house began doing just that. The circling…the dreaded circling. The walking downhill and getting stuck when she was in the back yard. She didn’t know who we were anymore and tried to bite me (broke my heart) when I’d give her baths, so I didn’t bathe her as often as she needed. It was sad, and we should have euthanized her once she had her first stroke…she had a second one. Sammy, like your baby, also had always been very healthy. Oh my Sammy. I should have helped her move on. Instead she finally died on her own. I knew the time was hours and minutes away so I layed her in some soft clean bedding that I wanted to bundle her in before her body was lifeless. I wanted to bury her cradled in “comfort”. I watched her die as I lay on the ground next to her in our patio one beautiful sunny breezy spring day. It was hard. It was just me and my Sammy. My husband and teenage (at the time) daughter couldn’t emotionally handle being present so they waited in the house. It was hard but beautiful all at the same time. Since then, now 12 or so years later, I wish I had helped her die after her first stroke…an entire year sooner. My Sammy….💗

    • Teri, you have left me without words. I’m so sorry about your regrets. But Sammy was so lucky to have all of you who loved her so. Hugs to you.

  7. This is a great perspective. I understand that the love people have for their pets can sometimes turn into selfishness without realizing that the suffering is hidden by their stoic furbaby who lived to please. However, in the case of dementia, I ask myself if I would want to exist in that state as a human? Cricket’s seizure informed your decision to let her go. Without being flippant, she inadvertently made your decision an obvious one. Many other pet owners aren’t afforded that opportunity. Quality of life is the standard benchmark that we try to adhere to when deciding when its time. Dementia makes it harder for one to determine that. So, if I was faced with the agonizing decision to euthanize a pet with an obvious level of dementia, I would put myself in my pet’s place and try to imagine if I was happy and comfortable with the way I was feeling. It sounds like you analyzed Cricket’s state of well being as being content and pain-free before her seizure. But at what point would one determine when it really is time to let go had extenuating circumstances not appeared? I agree with you that we are generally not told by our pet when it’s time. It’s always harder on us than it is on them. Perhaps that’s the ultimate price we pay for all those years of unconditional love and companionship. But we’d never give that back ❤️.

    • (I took the liberty of incorporating the correction that you sent in.)

      Really good points, Tom. Yes, in a way my decision was an obvious one. I think I was looking for an “event.” So because I got one, it was easier than it could have been. But it was also harder than it could have been, since she wasn’t obviously impaired by the seizure. I’ve always focused on that part when thinking about it. But you are correct that I did have something to hang my decision on. I like your empathetic approach to the question.

      Thanks for your comments. You made me think.

      • Cricket certainly was a sweetie! And it’s hard no matter the circumstances to say good bye to our loved fur babies. I have 2 pugs who gave been joined at the hip since birth. They’re now 10 and healthy so I’m hoping for another 6 or 7 years of their love. After that, I will be devoting my love of pugs to senior rescues. We learn so much. Take care and thanks for your vital take on canine dementia. Cheers!

  8. Thank you so much for this article…. I have a dog that the vet thinks has dementia, and now I realize that she is probably right. This really opened my eyes, and helped to prepare me and also give me more things to discuss with the vet that might help my little aging dog for awhile.

  9. “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.”
    I wholeheartedly agree with it. I waited for the first dog I had to euthanize to tell me that – I waited too long, regretted it and vowed I’d never do it again. Yet ended up doing the same just a few months ago, with one of my all-time favorite dogs, with a similar problem, hoping for just one more day, one more sign that things will get better.
    Now my oldest dog, a 13-year old Dachshund is, I think, showing early signs of CCD, and every day I ponder about if/when I’ll have to euthanize her, and it breaks my heart every day. Yet again I vow not to make the same mistakes I did.
    Thank you so much for writing this!

  10. I am struggling with this decision with my whippet. Unlike everyone else here, he is only 4. However, he is pathologically afraid. Of everything. People, novel situations, novel places, everything but other dogs. We got him as a 5 month old rescue. We knew he had anxiety problems, but figured we could work through them. We do sports and know lots of people who have rescued dogs with fear issues and they have blossomed and become “real dogs”. Until Zer0, I had never known of a fearful dog who didn’t eventually come out of his shell. I’ve honestly never met or heard of a dog as fearful as he is. In all my searches on the internet, I’ve never read about someone having to euthanize their dog for fear issues, without fear aggression coming into play. Ever.

    We try to manage his anxiety with medications, but the 10mg of klonopin, 400mg of trazodone, 0.2mg of clonidine, and the 40mg of clonipramine only somewhat take the edge off. He has has two mini strokes this year, and both times he forgot the people he had become accustomed to and we had to start over. Most days at home, he is ok. Sometimes awesome, but mostly just ok. Then there are the days that he can hear something (real or imagined) outside that scares him, and nothing we can do can calm him. Physically, he is completely healthy and active. Eats like a horse, could run for miles (if we could take him somewhere that didn’t scare him to give him the opportunity), can jump on the counter from a standstill, you name it.

    In many ways it is like living with a dog with CCD. At some point, you have to admit to yourself that he isn’t going to get better, only worse. And you have to comprehend that you will have to euthanize a physically healthy dog. Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but there is a point that will come. And that knowledge doesn’t make making the decision easier.

    • Emily, I am so sorry. You came to a place where somebody understands. I have dealt with three dogs with fears, one moderate, one severe enough for medication, and one feral who didn’t need medication but is an ongoing project at 6 years old. None of them is nearly as severe as your whippet. But since I’m in a community of people with fearful dogs, I have heard of situations as severe as, or perhaps almost as severe as yours. I’m glad you are in the hands of a capable vet who is not afraid to prescribe medications. And I’m sorry that their effects are only slight.

      There are no quick fixes (and I won’t let anybody post any of those type of suggestions) and it’s completely understandable to me that for some dogs there may be no fix. If you want to consult with someone who has dealt with dogs possibly as fearful as yours, you might contact Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com . She does phone/videoconferencing consults. She is all about quality of life and wouldn’t judge you for choosing euthanasia–not at all. She possibly might have some suggestions, but if not could be a comfort to talk to. (We are friends but I don’t get a kickback. She is one of the handful of trainers I recommend with no caveats.)

      Again, I am so sorry. Your dog is lucky to be in your hands and I’m sorry for the ongoing and potential heartbreak.

      • I am very lucky to be working with a vet behaviorist, one of the best in the country. Our regular vet and her behavioral team are completely on board with our decisions regarding his time on Earth. She was very honest with me and told me he has a terrible prognosis and that, sometimes, euth is the kinder option. My husband and I are prepared to make the decision, as hard as it will be. Thank you for your kind words.

        • I’m so glad you are seeing a vet behaviorist–it kind of sounded to me like you were. And that you have a wonderful support team. Hugs.

    • Oh man, Emily. That is one of the hardest places to be with a dog. And I think one that many folks don’t readily see as “suffering”.
      I had a dog that had horrible separation anxiety and noise phobias. And while meds worked, ultimately, we also believe CCD had started. We couldn’t stop his Separation Anxiety meds to put him on Anipryl….and ultimately, I called a halt because nothing was effective….his terror was much more prominent than his CCD….and I let him go more due to his fear than his dementia.
      I’ve had to euthanize a few dogs for behavioural issues…and people generally understand when there is aggression, but are not always as understanding about paralyzing fear. And you may have a dog that has neurological impairments that make the meds less effective or ineffective.

      For me, it’s ALWAYS about the suffering. Always. I don’t care what the reason for the suffering is, but my job as the dog’s owner is to mediate or stop the suffering. If I can’t do that in any other way…meds, behaviour modification, changing the environment….then sometimes you are left with the horrible choice….life with suffering or putting an end to the suffering finally.
      My heart goes out to you.

      • Zer0 is so hard, because he doesn’t have separation anxiety and has never shown evidence of any aggression. Those things, and this isn’t the right word to use at all, are “easier”. More indicative of a problem. This summer, we actually made the appointment and then cancelled it, because after making it he had the best two weeks of his life. At some point though, it isn’t going to be enough.

  11. I put my precious 14 year old Abby (Rat Terrier) to rest on October 30. 2017. I cried my eyes out. It is a week later and I am still choked up. Abby was showing signs of diabetes and had several indications of CCD. She didn’t appear to be suffering, but I could tell she was lacking quality of life. I still feel I betrayed her, but deep down I know I did the right thing. I feel that if I had waited, I would only be delaying the inevitable. This website has helped me very much. Goodbye sweet babygirl.

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am writing this through my tears, as I know it is time for me to make that decision for my precious baby Kero. He will be 15 in December. He has dementia and is currently taking hemp oil. It is no longer helping. He has extreme anxiety, is not sleeping at night and getting lost in his lifelong home. What is making the decision harder, is that his body is physically healthy. I am finding strength in the stories of those pet parents who have made this agonizing decision. Thank you for sharing.

    • Dear Valerie,

      It is so, so hard when they are physically robust. We are used to their bodies being the main factor in quality of life. It’s hard to see beyond that. But I think it is good to do so. Cognitive dysfunction is an illness, too. I can tell you love Kero so much. Hugs to you in this hard time.

  13. Dear Eileen, My 18 1/2 yr old dachshund, has had CCD for about a year now and of course, as time goes on, it is getting worse. She also has kidney disease. Her bloodwork, last week show her numbers are stable. I’ve talked to my roommate (her other mother) about letting her go, but those conversations go nowhere. This past August, we almost had to make the decision in the emergency room, when she had a severe episode of IBD. To add to this, 2 nights ago, I found my 16 yr old dachshund standing in the corner. He has cushings disease. I can’t believe it is starting with him! I applaud all of you who have been able to give your babies peace.

    • Dear Donna,
      What a hard situation. And I sure hope CCD isn’t appearing with your younger Doxie as well. I hope you and your roommate can be on the same page about what’s best for your 18 1/2 year old. It’s hard enough even when people are in agreement. I can tell how much you love both your dogs. They are so lucky to have you. Hugs.

  14. I found this site as I sit here listening to the seemingly endless pacing of my 14 year old schnauzer. I’ve been struggling with “the decision” and you nailed it. He still eats. He knows me and we and he have seemed to adjust somewhat to “the new normal” as we call iit. I made some dietary changes after the initial diagnosis and we all seemed to start doing a little better. But I’m seeing a marked decline. If he’s not sleeping, he’s circling. It’s that battle between feeling selfish in keeping him here or feeling selfish about sending him across the bridge. Thank you for your story.

    • Dear Lori,
      I’m so sorry you are going through this. It’s so very, very hard. You don’t sound selfish to me. You are putting so much thought and care into your dog’s well-being–any dog would be lucky to have you as a caregiver and friend. I hope the decision becomes clear to you, but I know your dog is in good hands whatever you decide.

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