Working at a pet hospital means seeing all sides of life: joyous births, clumsy youths, hale, and hearty adults, failing seniors, and eventually death. We sometimes care for patients from nearly the time they enter this world until the moment they leave it. We learn that certain symptoms mean it’s time to speak in gentle tones, that clients have questions they don’t know how to ask, and that sometimes the only thing you can do is slide over a box of tissues and leave them to their tears. We all try very hard to make difficult situations as easy to navigate as possible. Sometimes events play out to which we are all-staff and owners alike-merely observers, never having the opportunity to affect the outcome of a patient’s condition. Sometimes we must provide choices no one wants to hear for a result no one should have to endure. And sometimes we find that we, ourselves are on the other side of the exam table being given results and choices we aren’t ready to face, even with all our experience and training. That is where I found myself last week as I struggled to find the courage to say a gentle goodbye to my boy Tank. I’m hoping my experience may help you understand How will I know it’s time.
How will I know it’s time?
It occurred to me how often I have people ask me the questions they find difficult to ask the vet. How will I know it’s time? “How do I know if they are in pain?” “What happens when you put an animal to ‘sleep’?” People don’t always want to ask the vet because they are afraid of the answer. They are afraid they have waited too long or are considering it too soon. They have what they see as moral and ethical conflicts with euthanasia in general. So many pet owners fail to realize that their primary role is to be an advocate for their pet, making decisions that allow for the best, most comfortable and humane quality of life that they can. Too many times I have seen people procrastinate addressing their ailing pet’s condition because they simply don’t know or understand the care, respect, and compassion that is demonstrated by everyone involved in a pet’s final visit.
Tank was a very, very special part of my life. He had faced health problems from nearly the moment I found him as a fragile orphan, and I always knew his time would be shorter than most others. The fact that I had him with me for 13 years was in every way a gift. But I realized that his passing could also be a gift-what my sister calls a teachable moment- to others facing that difficult decision. Losing Tank gives me the opportunity to educate others on what that most painful of moments involves, and hopefully can give them insight into when and how to decide with their own pet.
One of the most frequently asked questions is how will I know it’s time? Your vet can give you the medical answer, but I think a lot of people are looking for that emotional answer. The best I can say to that is when the bad days outnumber the good it is time to take a good hard look at your pet’s quality of life. Can they get themselves up to go to the bathroom, are they in pain, are they aware of their surroundings- these are the things I consider. Would treatment cure their issue or just extend their life? Would extending their life be for them or for you? Sometimes you just need a little more time with them, even if only long enough to say your goodbyes. None of us are promised the opportunity for a long goodbye; with Tank, I only had a window of a few hours before he would once again begin to suffer. Your vet can guide you through those hours or days, help ease the pain enough for you to spend those precious moments with your pet.
Once the decision is made, there is that gut-wrenching phone call to your vet. People struggle with what words to use, “put to sleep” and “put them down” are the most frequently used, and they are perfectly acceptable. If you are calling, your regular veterinarian odds are they already know that the time is getting close. Sometimes just a simple,” I’m calling about Buddy, I think it’s time” is all that is needed to set us in motion and to get you through that initial phone call. We will ask the questions that might be too hard to answer when you bring Buddy in, such as do you want to be present, will you want his collar back, or will you be taking him home for burial or would you like a private cremation, or do you want us to take care of his remains. There are no wrong answers to any of these questions, by the way. Everyone handles loss differently and whatever you decide is perfectly acceptable.
Before you arrive for your pet’s final appointment, we will have already taken steps to make it as peaceful as possible. We may have rescheduled other appointments if we felt it might be too loud or boisterous in the clinic. If another client usually brings small children with them, we might try and bump their appointment a bit earlier or later. We are ready to help carry a pet that finds walking difficult, taking them straight into a room rather than making you sit in the lobby. Once you are in the room, we hang reminder signs for incoming and outgoing clients and staff to use quiet voices and appropriate tones. We give you time to settle, to tell us a brief story of what you will miss or something silly you remember an opportunity to share your pet’s life as much as its death. It’s our job to make How to tell it’s time as easy as possible.
With Tank, I chose to be present-I needed to be present. I had promised myself a long time ago that the last face he would see would be mine, the last voice he heard would be mine, and the last touch he felt would be mine. Surrounded by family and friends, we gave him whipped cream and shared stories and scratched his ears as he worked his way around the room visiting his people. His Tribe, as Dr. Anna called us. We held him as the solution that would slow and stop his heart was injected into his catheter. I held his face to mine as his eyes slowly closed, and felt him sigh a long, quiet sigh as his paw slipped from around my wrist where he had held me as much as I held him. And then we cried. We cried not just for the loss of Tank our cat but for the loss of Tank, the cat. We mourned the loss of an incredibly smart soul who would play jokes on kittens. We mourned the loss of one of the calmest, steady cats we have ever known who at one time sat quietly while 50 kindergarteners pet him. We mourned the loss of a cat that would bring live baby bunnies to the front door, expecting them to be let in to play with him. We mourned more than our cat; we mourned the loss of our friend.
As employees of a pet hospital, we try very hard to keep our emotions in check during these difficult visits. We try very, very hard to handle the details that can get in the way and create more emotional distress than is already occurring. We know that if we succumb to the grief, it will only make it worse for you, and that is the very last thing we want to do. So, we move quietly through what needs to be done, giving you time to gather yourself before leaving the room and the clinic and entering back into the world where people are walking down the street or getting out of the car next to yours have no idea what you have just been through. At some point we will open ourselves to the pain of losing one of our favorite patients, we will acknowledge the loss, we might even save their personalized cage card for our wall of friends. We will worry about you and hope you are ok and hope you find another furry friend at some point, not to take the place of the one you lost but rather to share in the love we know you have for animals. And on those days when it is our own pet we have just held for the last time, we will be grateful for our coworkers-our family, that stood with us as we said our last, gentle goodbye.