When Do You Know It’s Time?


Today, I spent a good part of the morning at the vet’s office with my boy Diego, 16-years-old this month, and decided to write about him and old dog things. Anyone who’s cared for a dog that has lived into what I call the Ultra Years — past the normal breed lifespan — will certainly relate to the many changes I’ve witnessed and adjusted to over the past few years.

It’s hard to remember that the 42-pound Chow/Pit cross who can now usually be agile, 58-pound, muscular, curly-tailed guard dog that posed for pictures and devoted himself to licking my feet. Diego was found in by my neighbor in a cardboard box dumped at a laundromat in 1994 when he was 8-weeks-old. We’ve been together ever since. He’s incredibly smart, understands about 50 words and phrases, loves riding around in the car, and likes affection but not all the time.

These days, our dog-and-caretaker life centers mostly around Diego’s, or Mr. Poopy’s, bodily functions. Today I found out that, yet again, he has a bladder infection — an unfortunate recurrence which, in Diego’s case, involves expensive bacteria — the kind that require $10 pills to exterminate. We also learned that his kidneys are failing more than they were 6 months ago, and his hind legs are just… not very connected to his brain anymore. But he’s not blind or deaf or terribly demented, and doesn’t seem to be in pain.

Me? I’m tired. I can’t remember when I last slept the whole night because I’m usually up in the wee (wee) hours cleaning one mess or another as Diego struggles to get outside; listening to make sure he comes back in; or kept awake by the click-clickity-click of his toenails on the hardwood floors as he laps the house for unknown reasons, like an old person walking the mall. It’s the exhaustion of having a newborn. He sleeps on towels and small blankets that are washed almost daily. Is it time to say good-bye just because he has accidents and seems a little daffy? The vet told me that’s usually when people make The Decision. But I can’t do that.

It has occurred to me, as I told a friend not long ago, that caring for an old pet in this way is the closest that many of us will come to experiencing the end stages of human life. Where dying parents and elders were once looked after by family members at home, they are now almost always in hospice, nursing homes or hospitals. Families may visit and spend as much time as possible with their loved ones, but they aren’t there day-in and day-out, participating as fully in the dying process as they did in the living, experiencing in the small, gray hours the struggles and changes and odors that occur as the body and mind begin to go their separate ways. Struggles that are now the business of paid professionals.

So today, like most days, I weighed the options, tried to assess Diego’s quality of life (and mine), shed a few tears, and decided he still has enough persisting dog qualities and enjoyment of dog things to proceed. I’ll do my best to keep his life comfortable.

And as I try to prepare myself for the day we’ll say good-bye, I feel blessed to have shared this bond, to have walked with such a loyal friend and indescribable comfort, my constant companion, bearing silent witness to all that has enlightened and devoured me over the past 16 years.

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17 thoughts on “When Do You Know It’s Time?

  1. Diego’s story touched my heart. Anyone who’s cared for an elderly pet knows what you’re going through and understands how hard it is to make that decision. Your love for Diego will guide you, as it has so far. I wish you peace and courage as you go through this painful time.

    • Thank you Tina for the very thoughtful comment. It’s been a difficult time, as I lost Diego 3 days after the post. I haven’t really felt like writing anything since, but I’m sure that will change with time. I appreciate your kindness.

  2. Thank you for sharing your post about Diego! I’m going through this near-the-end time with our dog Barkley (the Wonder Dog) (Houdini Dog), who could leap the fence and extract himself from nearly any confinement for most of his years, now nearly blind with cataracts, apparently mostly deaf, and suffering from Cushing’s Disease, etc. Every night I wonder–how much longer? Still, we walk a couple miles each morning, sometimes even energetically, and we go a quarter mile each evening, and the old tail wags…

    Thank you for sharing your story. I feel less alone in this time with Barkley now, reading your experiences.

    • Thanks. It was really tough. I think that there is often one dog (or cat, maybe) that touches your heart more than the others, even if you love them all… Diego was that one for me. You know what it feels like to lose such a companion. 😦 I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  3. What a beautiful post – Diego was one lucky boy to have you as his person. I am so sorry for your loss but I am glad you were there for him, in tune with his needs, and gave him the respect and comfort he needed.
    Hugs.

  4. What a lovely tribute to Diego! I know you must miss him a lot. Thank you so much for sharing this. It made me think about my cat who I got when I was eight and who died on Christmas when I was 26. These sweet animals make our lives so much richer.

    • Thank you Emily, I’m glad to have shared it, especially those who have lost special pets. He was my first… I can’t wait to get back to your blog and go through all the “highlights” in the comments!

    • Aw, thank you becomingcliche. I appreciate you reading and commenting. Yes, the very worst part of caring for an animal (and for me, dogs in particular) is knowing that you will also watch them die. He was a good boy.

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