My brother was a smart, strong, and energetic whippet named Tucker. He taught me so much, especially about courage when he survived a serious battle with cancer years ago. We were yin and yang — sleek, thin, and elegant vs. scruffy, chubby, and sturdy. I looked up to him figuratively and literally. Recently, after watching Tucker’s health decline to the point that his body was shutting down, my people made the heart-wrenching decision to alleviate his suffering through euthanasia. It was devastating for every member of my family, two-legged and four. His 14 years on this earth were not nearly enough.
My people, however, had heard that it was best to allow the other pets in the family to be present when an animal is euthanized. The more they looked into it, the more evidence they found to support the recommendation. They heard the same advice repeatedly, and it seemed to apply to all domestic animals. So, when everyone knew it was time, the vet came to our house and I was able to be with Tucker before and after he was gone.
Allowing pack mates to be part of this process prevents the problem of a pet simplydisappearing. When one animal in the family is ill, the other animals in the family are always aware of it – often before the people are. We’re usually not surprised when a sick friend passes away. But it is extremely distressing if we do not know where our friend has gone. In that situation, some of us will continue to wait for him or her to return, repeatedly search the house, or experience heightened anxiety and/or depression.
People should not, however, expect us to show a lot of emotion when we say goodbye. Most of us simply give a brief acknowledgement, like a quick sniff, and move on. We grieve, but not in the way that people do. It’s as though we understand the cycle of life and death a little more than our human counterparts. We are not afraid of it in the way that they are. (Perhaps we know something people do not.)
I should note that there are times when families should not include another pet in the process. Rambunctious puppies or kittens may be distracting, and even some adult animals may be so hyper that it creates a stressful situation for the vet.
One final observation is that the surviving animals sometimes change behavior after a death. In my case, timid Isabelle has come out of her shell. She, who never showed any interest in playthings, has taken over Tucker’s position as Titan of the Toys. If I turn my back for one second, she jumps in and grabs whatever I’m playing with and adds it to the growing collection of squeaky animals that she has commandeered. Her bed is a mountain of giraffes and elephants and lions and hedgehogs.
We’re all adjusting to life without Tucker, and I know that it helped us to be present when he passed. Far from upsetting us, being included calmed us and gave us closure. I’m so glad I had the chance to help Tucker feel loved at the end of his life. I hope there are endless green fields and no fences where he has gone. I can picture him there now, running like the wind, the way he did when he was young. Godspeed, Skinny Dog.
Albert, a Jack Russell Terrier, is Chairman of the Board of Wylie Wagg, a shop for dogs, cats, and their people, with locations in VA and DC.