Because we usually outlast the pets who share our lives, animal euthanasias and deaths sometimes seem to haunt us. Veterinarians are no different. But the stories of these short lives also enrich and teach us.
Here are three stories related by veterinarians about lessons learned, joy experienced, and the guilt, regret and wisdom that come with approaching and living past the end of the animals we love so much.
Not the dog he grew up with, but the dog who made him grow.
While Andy Rollo, DVM, says he wanted to help animals that didn’t have a voice, he also thought he knew his limits. Finley was the family dog who died of cancer in Rollo’s third year of veterinary school. At that time, most veterinarians want their own dogs, but Rollo says he’d seen enough trouble and didn’t want extra responsibility.
Then, out of school, a sick yellow Labrador puppy came in with megaesophagus and aspiration pneumonia, with a breeder intent on euthanasia. First, a team member took in the hard-luck medical case, but then her living arrangement changed and she couldn’t keep him.
“Beau was a really nice dog,” says Rollo. So, he adopted him.
Eating problems aside, the puppy grew up happy and strong. But soon after adopting him, Rollo went out for a run with the dog, and suddenly he just couldn’t walk and he had to carry him home.
A surgeon visiting the hospital soon after diagnosed the unlucky lab with muscular dystrophy. Then bouts of irritable bowel disorder and bad diarrhea followed, just when Rollo and his wife were dealing with their first child’s birth. Treatment through the years meant feeding tubes, trying everything and reaching out to veterinary specialists across the country with questions.
Still, the puppy who didn’t seem like he’d last six weeks lasted a long six years and taught Rollo a lot. The crucial question, as the dog struggled health-wise, was, how far do you go with medical treatment when a patient is failing?
“When I eventually euthanized him, he was as skinny as could be and couldn’t hold anything down,” he says. “When do you say enough’s enough?”
Rollo’s hard experience deciding when euthanasia was right has helped him become more understanding with clients struggling with the same decision.
The dog that disappeared on her.
Melissa Detweiler, DVM, and her husband bought a house…and a dog came with it. But they didn’t know it at the time.
“There was a big chocolate Labrador laid out in the garage,” Detweiler says.
They checked out the neighborhood and figured out the last owner had left him behind (an ex-wife who didn’t want her former husband’s old dog.)
“We found the name Copper on the garage wall with a date and figured that was his birthday,” she says.
He was a good dog, and good with the kids. Over time, he picked up a little arthritis, got a little hard of hearing and started struggling with his eyesight. Then Detweiler and her family moved from suburbia to a rural town, and Copper really started living his best life.
“He loved being out in the country,” she says.
But he got older, and it looked like eventually the family would need to decide when it was time for euthanasia. It was a hard decision, but one that was ultimately taken away.
One night, her daughter went out to feed Copper, and he was nowhere around. It was December, foggy and getting dark, but they still searched everywhere.
“We never found him,” she says.
Detweiler says she walked and drove every back country road around town, hoping to find him or his body.
“That still haunts me,” she says. She never said goodbye.
“Now when I have conversations about euthanasia with clients, I can relate to their difficult decision,” she says, remembering starting to consider the decision as Copper got closer to the end of his life.
“Euthanasia isn’t the easier option,” she says, “but it’s an option.”
The dog that bailed him out.
“We had this brown dog,” says Jeremy Campfield, DVM. “And she was far from perfect.”
The brown dog came into Campfield’s life with tetanus from the streets (before his wife adopted her), then fought through parvovirus, kennel cough and life-threatening bee-sting anaphylaxis. She loved eating poop, was aggressive toward men and overly-protective on a leash—yet always needed to stay on it because she was unpredictable.
But this brown dog was a good dog, he says: “More than once I’ve had to remind myself that a dog lunging at me as I enter the exam room might also be a ‘good dog,’ just like her.”
Campfield’s daughter asks him regularly to tell the story of when his good brown dog saved him. The story goes, he and the dog were on a hike in Southern California when the wind picked up and clouds started rolling in fast. Fog obscured things, and after 90 minutes of backtracking, Campfield realized he’d lost the trail.
“It was a weekday, and we were the only ones up there at the time,” he says. “Without cellphone reception and late afternoon upon us, I began to ready myself for an impromptu camping trip on the mountain.”
Campfield says he would have survived overnight, but his family would have been panicked.
“As we made a few more blind passes around, hoping to stumble back onto the trail, that brown dog became increasingly vocal and restless on her leash,” he says. “Then finally, after more wandering, she got stubborn.”
“She sat and stared at me, refusing to go in one direction, and I could have sworn she was trying to communicate something to me,” he says.
So, he broke his own “strict rule” about always having the dog leashed around people and other dogs.
“As soon as the leash clasp was off, that lazy house-dog was a sight to behold,” he says. “She started zig-zagging back in the direction we’d just come.”
She was searching. And within 15 or 20 minutes, after hours of his lost meandering, she found the trail.
“I don’t necessarily think she saved our lives that day,” he says. “But I sure did appreciate being home in a warm bed rather than spending a very chilly night in the mountains.”
Dirham, usually called “D” by the family, recently lost her battle with mast cell disease at eight years old.
“When I am faced with euthanizing a 15- or 16-year-old dog, I tell the owners how lucky they were to have had such a good run,” he says. “And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” +