Tears for Zack: Saying Good-Bye to your Pet

I never thought I’d cry while slicing cucumbers.
I never thought I’d cry while sweeping the crumbs off the breakfast room floor.
I never thought I’d cry while I turned off my bedroom lights.

Two weeks ago, I said good-bye to my best friend and companion, Zack. He was a lovable, thirteen year-old golden retriever who suffered from the long term effects of hip and elbow dysplasia (arthritis), degenerative myelopathy (inability to recognize the position of his back legs), inflammatory bowel disease and laryngeal paralysis. I tried everything to make his life as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for so many years, but in his final few days it was not enough.

I knew within months of adopting him that he had severe hip dysplasia. I exercised him regularly, kept his body weight lean, and gave him nutraceutical products to help slow down the rate of his degenerative joint disease decline. As a pet owner and a veterinarian, I tired to help him live a long, happy and comfortable life.

Zack had a great life. My family and I loved him. Daily, my two boys played tug of war, wrestled and hugged him. He spent many summer days chasing his ball on the beach and swimming in Lake Michigan. For me, I loved watching him run on the beach wagging his tail. He was so happy!

I do not work at my office on Wednesdays and it was a day that I spent with Zack. He was my shadow and my buddy. As I did my chores, he followed me around our home. Every Wednesday, I bet he went up and down the stairs over two dozen times. Then, he would settle down beneath my desk as I worked on my home computer. Later, while I prepared my family’s meal, he would anxiously await for vegetables to fall onto the floor for him to voraciously snatch. To this date, I don’t know why he never learned that he competed with no one for these fallen treats. I don’t remember a time in the last 13 years where I had to pick up a piece of fallen food. Fondly, Wednesdays were our time together.

As he aged, I gave him over a dozen pills each day to make him more comfortable. I disguised his medication in peanut butter, cream cheese or marshmallows to minimize the bitter taste of the medication and make his medication time more enjoyable. He had a hip replacement when he was around seven years of age. Unfortunately, it was not as successful as we had all hoped for. I took him to an acupuncturist, but he was so nervous and distressed that he failed to experience the benefit of this treatment modality. I took him to many orthopedic specialists for advice, but in the end, they all felt he was not a great surgical candidate.

Years ago, I wrote a previous Huffington Post blog about saying good-bye to a pet. While writing this piece, I remember I created a list of 5 activities for Zack that I believed were essential for a good quality life.

Happy to be with his family.

I was his best friend. I believed his display of excitement to see me – wagging his tail, jumping up and down, wanting to be kissed or hugged by me – confirmed he enjoyed life. Despite his difficulties getting up and walking, he happily greeted me each day until the last two-weeks of his life. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure why he wasn’t greeting me at the door when I came home. I was secretly hoping it was because he was sound asleep and couldn’t hear me come in, but in the end I knew it was because it was too difficult to rise. During his final two weeks, I would go and greet him. He would wag his tail and smile with his eyes when I approached him, but this stopped on our last day together.

Enjoy eating.

Zack loved to eat and ate well until he died. The last 2 weeks, I did notice that his appetite started to wane a bit. He didn’t rapidly eat his breakfast like he had done his entire life and more recently; he sometimes ate his breakfast at noon. In the beginning, I thought he was bored with his food or maybe I bought a bad bag of food. I tried to convince myself that Zack’s appetite was not down, but that there were other reasons for his disinterest in his food. The last two days of his life, I fed him canned food only – which was his favorite.

Enjoy walks

I told myself years ago, if he stopped wanting to go for walks, then, he definitely was not happy. For the last 6 months, Zack would get excited to see me pull his leash off our mudroom wall hook and attach it to his collar, but the distance of our walks gradually got shorter. Just 2 years ago, we would go on 30-minute walks. In the last few months, we would just go to the corner of our block, which was not very far since we lived on the corner of our street. It’s sad how you start re-negotiating with yourself what is okay – that he is still happy despite not going on long walks. But, in the last few hours of his life, he did not walk.

Eliminate outside on own.

Zack was able to take himself outside to go to the bathroom until the final day. On his last day, I knew it was time when I discovered that Zack could no longer rise from a sitting position and he fell over when he tried. On his final day, even with our physical support, he collapsed while defecating.

Enjoy life.

Lastly, Zack must want to live. I always tell my clients that, for most pet owners, there will be a day when their pet tells them that they no longer wish to live. On Zack’s final two days of life, he lost the spark in his eyes. In fact, he did not maintain any eye contact with me on his final day. He just looked away from me. Although he enjoyed licking the tasty bowl of vanilla ice cream while I gave him the final sedative, I knew he was ready to die.

It took me over a week to tell many people that I said goodbye to Zack. It was so painful and personal; I just didn’t want to discuss it with others. But, that’s me. Everyone deals with loss differently. Some people want hugs, some want to talk about it, and some people want to be alone. My advice to people comforting those who have just lost a loved one, just give the grieving person the space that they desire. Say you’re sorry for their loss and let them take the lead if they would like to share more with you.

The other night I was watching the Democratic National Convention and heard a quote from Vice President Joe Biden that really connected to me. He said something like “One day, when you think of him, a smile will come to your face before a tear comes to your eye.” That day is not today for me, but I look forward to that day in the future.

Writing for me can be cathartic. I hope my writing can also be a way to connect with others facing this final decision for their ailing pet. Remember, it’s our responsibility to our beloved pet to care for them, love them and guide them through life. Try not to make excuses for their “bad day” – that tomorrow will be better even though you know it will not be. Don’t let them live another day for you if you believe that their quality of life is poor and they are suffering. Please recognize that you have a loving obligation to end their suffering in a humane and compassionate way. Although this was an extremely difficult and emotionally exhausting decision that I made as a pet owner, it simultaneously was tragically simple. I knew intellectually and in my heart, that on Friday, July 15, 2016 I had to say good-bye to Zack. He was not enjoying life.

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