Last December, Star Tribune Pet Central ran "Falling Short: Life and Love with an Imperfect Dog" by Jeannine Moga. It was a touching account of Jeannine's journey with her dog Tucker, as together they struggled with Tucker's severe behavioral issues, including separation anxiety, fear aggression, seasonal affective disorder and developmental trauma. In this second installment of a three-part series, Jeannine shares her agonizing decision to release Tucker from his continual torment as she comes to terms with the uneasy reality of euthanasia.
A tough winter
Tucker was remarkably healthy on the outside and increasingly troubled on the inside.
His anxious behavior always became exponentially worse as the days got shorter, and last winter was the longest, most difficult winter of our lives. As the sun ducked out for the season, Tucker's intractable demons came out to play. My home became a battleground marred by canine disintegration: urine-stained carpet, chewed furniture, shredded bedding and annihilated exit routes. My efforts to calm him were futile. I revised his diet, exercise and medication regimes; made frantic calls to my behaviorist; and borrowed a full-spectrum light box in hopes of giving him some healing sunshine, however artificial (alas, he chewed up the cord). I left no stone unturned, and yet I was unable to find anything to soothe the tooth-grinding, pacing machine that had become my dog. While I swore I would never euthanize an animal for a behavioral condition, our lives had become miserable, indeed.
Relief and resignation
As I neared the end of my rope, the sun came out and Tucker's spirit slowly began to return. The dense fog of terror and tranquilizers began to lift. I called my behaviorist with a strange mixture of relief and resignation, saying through tears that I would never again ask Tucker to endure that kind of terror. I wanted him to know joy for a few more glorious months.
What a wondrous summer it was, full of long walks and sun-filled naps and stealing tomatoes from backyard vines. I savored each moment as best I could, fully knowing that the summer would wind its way to an end - bringing with it a reality I did not want to face.
But the onset of autumn came much too soon, falling leaves accompanying Tucker's slow and familiar emotional spiral. I had seen this downward spiral many times before, each one worse than the last. Like anyone facing an end-of-life dilemma, I held onto hope that this time would be different. I desperately searched for a way to slow Tucker's descent - grasping at anything that would allow me to bypass the uneasy reality of euthanasia.
In many ways, this process was not unlike the end-of-life roller coaster experienced by people whose animals ride the dips and whirls of terminal disease. The condition changes slowly or quickly, each day bringing a new assessment of symptoms, a slightly revised treatment plan and a more palpable sense of desperation to try anything that will keep them alive for one more year, month or day. The good days are so priceless that you almost forget the bad ones. The bad days are so frequent that they become almost normal. And the moments in between are a dizzying mixture of hope, sadness and exhaustion.
When the winter snows finally arrived, the light in Tucker's eyes was replaced by desperation and panic. "Quality of life" conversations were replaced by "quality of death" conversations: if death was inevitable, what kind of death did I want Tucker to have? In short, I wanted it to be comforting, loving, swift and fearless. I did not want to bid him goodbye on the cusp of one of his outbursts. I did not want to wait until he did something so destructive or dangerous that my love for him would be eclipsed by anger or regret. I did not want him to suffer just because I wasn't ready to let him go. Ultimately, I wanted him to leave his body with his dignity and some semblance of his warrior's spirit intact. I loved him too much to let him die defeated.
And so on December 14, 2007, I walked Tucker around the lake for one last time. He was given many gifts that frigid and bright day: a muzzle-free morning of exploration, complete with a goose poop buffet and squirrels to chase. A snuggle with his dearest canine friend. A massage, a last meal of steak and potatoes, and a goodly dose of his favorite beer (this time, he didn't have to sneak a slurp from the bottom of my glass). Finally, when our kind and gentle veterinarian arrived at the house, Tucker took his last breaths on his own bed. He was bathed in sunshine and held in the arms of the person who loved him to the end of the earth and back. After a journey that was both long and much too short, I made the painful decision to release him into the light.
Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW is a social worker and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central. www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc/clientsupport.html