Shelter worker, animal rescuer & advocate, Jan has become a well-regarded source of insights & know-how on pet care & behavior nationwide.
Old Age Comes Quickly for Pets
It seems unfair, and at times even cruel, that the animals we bring into our lives to love and share our time with seem to suddenly enter ‘old age’ and start to decline—just when we are fully devoted and bonded with them.
We share so much of our lives with our pets, some more than others when the pets share beds and couches with their humans, that they become almost a part of us—the good part.
They are comforting through our heartaches, entertaining when spirits are high (or need lifting), loving and understanding when we sometimes are a little impatient with them (because of our own problems), and most of all unconditionally loving.
And yet, in the blink of an eye, or so it would seem, in the fleeting time that we are here on earth, our loyal, loving, full-of-life companion becomes older, slower, and weaker right in front of our eyes. Their eyes may start to go, or you need to call a little louder for them to hear, they are a little slower to get up and no longer like taking the stairs - old age has taken its grip much too soon.
And still, they get up, attempt the stairs, want to please, and want to continue giving and receiving love and attention no matter their state of decline. And we hold on hoping that they will somehow regain their youth, somehow become stronger and we’ll be able to continue to receive that magnificent, unwavering love that only animals can give.
But alas, time is not on the side of either of us and we must make that horrible decision for our furry friend that only we can make.
In the Beginning...
They come into our lives through various means whether through breeders or rescues or gifts or even from someone who can no longer care for them. We may even find a stray along the road or dropped on our property (those on farms know this all too well) and even if it may be an unplanned adoption or even a begrudgingly accepted pet - they all soon turn into companions we don’t know how we did without for so long.
No matter if you adopted your pet from a rescue, rescued the pet yourself from the streets, or bought one from a breeder for a certain ‘job’ within your home, one thing is certain, that very act of bringing a life into your home will change you.
Whether your first pet or your tenth pet, whether you are a single pet or multi-pet household, they will work their way deep into your heart, dare I say, your very soul and the time you have from that first moment forward will seat them firmly there forever.
During these first days, weeks, months, and years, you bond with your pet, grow, learn from each other, and ‘work things out' to your individual ways of living. You have no thoughts of being without them, of them one day not being there anymore. You just love and laugh and miraculously - those eyes, their eagerness to please, their ever-present attention, and willingness to give love will take a hold of you like nothing you have ever experienced.
And it is because of this bond, this sharing of their very beings—their unconditional love, their teaching of patience, understanding, friendship, loyalty, and a bond of love you won’t experience elsewhere—that the incredibly tough decision of letting go at the right time becomes a delicate line which is incredibly hard for many to walk and something no pet owner wants to have to consider.
Letting go... the hardest thing for us to do and yet the kindest and most loving last gift we can give to our beloved friend.
And So It Begins...
So you go on with your life—you grow, move, start a new job, lose a job—ups and downs, losses and gains and then one day you notice, not outright ‘oh my’ kind of notice, but a subtle click in the back of your mind that your beloved pet has been aging right before your eyes.
The extra white in their fur, the slightly cloudy eyes, the slow response to verbal commands, the purposeful movement of aging (and probably achy) bones. You intellectually know they are old now. You know this is the natural order of things, but still, there is a pit that starts to form... the knowledge that someday, most certainly sooner than you’d like, your ’friend’ is going to be either gone or needing your help to be at peace.
We all pray for that ‘peaceful passage in the night’, but that rarely happens (in my 30+ years of rescue experience) more often we are called upon to relieve their suffering and in doing so beginning in our own sort of suffering—the suffering of a great loss.
Sometimes your pet may be (or seem to be) perfectly healthy right up until the end when they then experience some devastating health issue (liver failure, kidney failure, heart failure, etc.) and while that sometimes takes their life before we need to intervene, many times, there are signs/symptoms while they still have days or maybe even weeks where they could linger in pain from their condition—this is where that line shows up and can wreak havoc on your mind if you let it.
Another possibility is that your pet could have a long-term condition that starts to worsen—this is another time where we must make decisions, however heartbreaking, for the good of our pets.
While the decision to not let them suffer seems to be an easy conclusion for most people to come to—it is wrapped in a lot more than just that ’simple’ question. There is always a million things going through your mind: maybe they’ll get through it, is it really time for them to pass, is there something else I can do to help them, are they actually suffering (this is a big one as dogs—and cats—very, very rarely vocalize their pain and suffering from illness, but there are usually signs).
Signs a Pet May Be Dying
Some things that should be carefully watched and discussed with your vet (at any time during your pet’s life) are changes in eating habits (especially having no interest in food), severe lethargy, being extremely slow and shaky getting up (or even a stronger sign: unable to get fully up without assistance), changes in behavior (anxious or excited to go in the car normally but now just lies there), and losing control of bowel movements. While there are others, these are some generals ones to look out for in your pet.
Once you listen (and watch) your pet very carefully (and you should get to know them over the years you’ve had together) and talk over your pet’s condition with your vet, you will then have the knowledge to make the decision that is best—the next part is getting up the courage as well as letting go of any selfishness in keeping them around because you don’t want to part with them so that you can give back to the wonderful being that gave you so much through its lifetime.
This is a very personal time and everyone comes to their farewells in a different way. Some need to verbally say goodbye, some just sit with their pets and stroke them, some need to distance themselves a bit to get through the pain.
However you do it, if you have shared yourself with your pet over the years and have that heartbreaking feeling now that your time together has come to an end, you can be sure that your pet knows you love them and are doing what you feel best to help them.
This knowledge probably won’t decrease your sorrow (or your tears), but hopefully, it will ease the questioning racing through your mind and perhaps any guilt you may feel in the ‘taking of a life'. In my eyes, you are GIVING not taking—you are giving your pet freedom from pain & suffering, giving them one last act of kindness and love and if they could speak they’d say thank you.
To My Pepper (RIP)
Thanks to you my heart has always been full,
So unconditionally loved by you;
You taught me how to be patient & kind,
Forgiveness was all that you knew.
You made me laugh, you made me smile,
You comforted me through pain;
You were there for me through it all,
You presence helped keep me sane.
No more loyal or loving a soul could there be,
Then the one you shared with me;
And now it is my turn to give back to you,
I’ll miss you, I love you, be free!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 JanMarie Kelly