A Vet Tech's Farewell to Her Best Friend
Pet Euthanasia Do's, Dont's, and Explanations.
I am a veterinary technician. This means I educate pet owners and non-pet owners alike. I answer questions, take vitals, collect blood, urine, stool, skin cell (or other cytology) samples, give vaccines or other injections, keep medical records up-to-date, admit and monitor sick patients, place catheters, administer medications, take radiographs, administer sedatives and local anesthetics, induce anesthetic planes, and provide recovery care. I must have a good math and science skill set; my calculations and knowledge must be accessed accurately and efficiently executed in even the most adrenaline-rushed situation.
In reality among a few others I am sure to be missing, I perform the tasks of: nurse, anesthesiologist, laboratory technician, radiology technician, emergency and critical care technician, reproductive technician, dietician, counselor, behaviorist, and dental hygienist. Sometimes, I even play the role of the Angel of Mercy.
I am expected to (and willingly do most days) show absolute dedication, skip lunches, work on weekends and holidays, stay past “closed” most days, and smile through all of the joy and pain that I see on a daily basis. I am supposed to provide a clear head and educate amidst the most beautiful moments and the most heart-wrenching times in a owner’s life. Most of those close to me know that my passions in life are veterinary medicine and behavior and I would take any amount of time discussing the varied topics in either field with anyone who wants to learn more.
If it is any lesson I can teach; any advice I can give: Timing is critical. Everything in life is based on timing. Whether it is words, emotions, life events...or actions.
For me, time stopped at 9:25pm on Tuesday, August 9th, 2016, as the heart of my best friend stopped beneath my hands. Cancer had taken its toll on his body and his spirit was freed while we snuggled in his bed and listened to the final words of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars”.
You see, I had thought about this day for many months…especially since his diagnosis, but even long before. I see the worst of the worst. I see medical emergencies happen to unsuspecting owners. I see behavioral concerns escalate into lawsuits and thus mandated euthanasia. I try to explain potential risks and help owners prevent situations as described, but even with all of our calculations, we just cannot predict the future, like:
Lung Cancer. An incidental diagnosis found because I am an ever-suspicious vet tech and I decided to radiograph my whole dog when I found crystals in his urine and needed a bladder x-ray to check for stones…and thus: a lung mass was discovered. And the process of internal, holistic, and oncological medicine began.
The Stages of Grief also began:
Anyone who says you go in this order is an idiot. There is no “order” to grief. There is only experiencing it; bouncing around through the stages like a pinball in a machine full of macabre thoughts.
He has been an Angel for a month now and I’m still experiencing ALL of them. I “know” I will forever bounce through them, and only hope that the sands of time do their job and file down the jagged edges, so that the pain is a little less each day. I still wake up hoping he is there. I’ll feel a weight of a blanket - and for just a moment - think his back is to mine once more on the bed. Or I’ll be in that hazy twilight between sleep and consciousness, snuggling my comforter close, swearing I feel his fur and warmth before my brain tells my heart it’s only his stuffed Gorilla, which to this day I have no idea how it got there. I still hope he’ll bring me my shoes as I sit on the bed or greet me when I walk in the door after work by bounding over, nubbin’ wagging crazily, telling me all about how he kept away the bad guys. The only thing that keeps me going right now is thinking that he’s at The Bridge…playfully bounding around, his vigor fully restored, and using his newly earned wings to create chaos with all of the others I’ve lost along the way. I even laugh out loud sometimes as I imagine the Angels flipping frantically through his Cue Book, trying to figure out which of the over 400 cues (in a few different languages) they can call out to make him Settle Down or Leave the rabbits or deer, etc. Yep, that would be My Guinness, frustrating even the most sanguine of angels. These are the thoughts that I like…imagining his new adventure. One that I will join him in when my own purpose here on Earth has been served.
It would be a disservice to our Legacy to stop now, however. We had quite the Adventure. He helped create the person I am today: CVT. Behaviorist. Rescuer. And so much more.
But sometimes we CANNOT save them and the only gift we can give is to end their suffering. But I can still walk with my head held high, knowing that I have continued to do the right thing, to the best of my abilities, and continue to care for patients like they are my own. I treat them as I would want my own to be treated. I speak to owners as I would want to be spoken to. I still choose to be in this field, regardless of the heartache, frustration, and even sometimes anger that bubbles up. I choose to live this life of perpetual chaos and the day that my tears stop falling over a life lost too soon is the day that I change my career.
So, here it is…my advice…Take it or Leave It: Live. Every Moment of Every Day…because there may NOT be a tomorrow.
I was there the moment Guinness took his first breath…and I was there, as promised, when he took his last. He gave me so many wonderful memories; so many beautiful gifts that I hope can help inspire more to ever-strengthen their bond. To…live.
Don’t wait “until the day comes”. Guinness refused all of his favorite snacks - even the ones he was allergic to, so rarely got! - that day. He didn’t want to eat. Not even ice cream. His absolute favorite. I have videos. I have a lot of videos of our entire journey, even the end of it. But in my head I always thought, “We’ll get steak, chicken, burgers, cheese, ice cream…and it will be a free day.” He FINALLY ate a little ice cream late afternoon…because I begged him to. Because I told him sugar, SOMETHING in his belly, would make this easier. He always trusted me…so he ate a little ice cream…but then lay back down to rest. He was so tired. He had fought as long as he could; he had nothing left...and I had promised him: “When you stop fighting, I do too.”
He had stopped eating after Barn Hunt that previous Saturday night – a final Bucket List item that we were able to try because of a wonderful person who allowed us to come out to her barn. I didn’t know it at the time; just thought he was tired again, with all the medications and even activities. But that was it. His Top Five things disappeared completely in the next 3 days. He spiked a high fever. His body completely weakened. I brought him to WVRC in Waukesha on Monday night because he could barely stand and was tense in his abdomen and I could not get him comfortable. Something was REALLY wrong.
While we waited for the Doctor and lab results…Guinness told me he was done. I saw it in his eyes. There was no spark. No more hope. Just a plea to help him; to let him rest. So, selfishly, I asked him for “one more day”. I needed just one more day and I would ease all of his pain and help set him free. So we told the Doctors we were done. We would do no further testing; no more treatment. We left and I drove down by the Lake because what better way to start his last day on Earth than to watch the glorious sunrise together for one last time. The Gods delivered. It’s one of my favorite pictures of him. We then went home for a bit to rest. Then I brought him to the park and he went into the Creek for the last time, laying in the cool waters and there was a small spark as he chased after the dude on the bike in the field, before thudding to the ground to rest again. We said goodbye to a few more friends and then the wonderful Dr. McClanahan and Nicky came to my house and helped me ease his pain for the final time. He was snuggled in my arms and surrounded by friends. Without any doubt about how much he was loved, his heartbeat ceased to exist. In a numbing haze, I then drove him to All Paws in IL for an after-hours drop off around 11:30pm…because I could not do anything but this final car ride with him. The reality of my heartbreak set in as I handed his lifeless remains to the compassionate employee who was there in the darkest of hours so I could find a little peace knowing Guinness would be cremated in a few short hours. His paperwork had been filled out weeks before, except for date. I filled this in and it was done. I compartmentalized my pain for the moment and passed out as my beloved Dan drove me home. I don’t remember the next few days, really. A blessing in disguise perhaps, as I’m sure I was more zombie than not.
It’s been a month now. Only a month. Already a month. I can acknowledge that I was blessed in so many ways to have this wonderful creature choose to spend his life with me, but I don’t dare say his name too loudly for the memories will surely fall from my eyes. We accomplished more than what anyone thought possible, myself included. I set out wanting ONE title; we earned 15, including him being the 3rd Doberman in the world to achieve a Trick Dog Championship. His legacy will live on. I know all this. But I miss my friend. We travelled this Earth together for over 10.5 years. He may have known over 400 cues…but he has taught me so much more.
So, here I am…because I have been asked so many times, throughout the years, “How will I know? Will they tell me? What do I look for? What do I expect?”
This is what I’ve recommended. This is what I’ve done. The choices are all yours.
First…live. Today. What you THINK you may want to do; what you may want to try…DO. Tomorrow is not promised. I cannot say it enough.
My proudest moments are that we did what we wanted to do as we wanted to do it.
Pick the Top Five. I call it the Top Five because it literally is the Top Five things your pet LOVES to do. It could be anything. Chasing rabbits. Eating chicken. Carrying a Ball. Laying in the sun. Rolling on their back in the grass. Jumping on the bed. Barking at squirrels. Whatever. Make a longer list, even…but at least five things they love to do. As you start to see these things disappear, then we start to evaluate Quality of Life (QOL).
Assess QOL...every 3 months, regardless of age! So many illnesses can be prevented or progression can be delayed by evaluating factors. For every year here, a dog’s life has gone by 5-10, depending on breed/age/etc. By truly “knowing” your dog and really observing what they are communicating, how their likes and dislikes change over time, you can ensure that you WILL know when “it’s time”…versus guessing. Your veterinarian can help you alleviate physical concerns. Your professional behaviorist can help you alleviate mental concerns.
Examinations every 6months, especially on pets aged 7 or over (5 or over for Giant Breeds!) can help find disease processes early so treatment can be more effective…or the process can even be delayed with life changes. This includes urine, blood-work, + / - Radiographs. I ran routine urine/blood so I could start medication for Guinness’s sore neck/back…and we found crystals in the urine. So I did x-rays. We found no stones in the bladder…but a lung mass because I took 2 extra radiographs of his chest. He was ASYMPTOMATIC for ANYTHING chest related. I am just a paranoid technician…and a worried pet parent, so I wanted to check out his chest too, as he was over 10yrs old, a Doberman, and if I was already taking x-rays, might as well.
If you don’t trust your vet…find a new one! You can absolutely research things and ask questions…but Dr. Google is NOT always right or knows your pet’s personal medical history, possible complications or risks. Your vet and you should work TOGETHER for your pet’s best interests.
Behavioral needs being met can help your pet stay mentally young…and less anxiety = less physical illness!
Teach new tricks. Try new games. Even doing Adventure Hunt / Scent Games in the house can help your pet “stay busy” and have fun while you are gone. As some senses start to fade (eyesight, hearing, etc) anxiety can escalate…scent games (how the dog TRULY “sees” their world!) can make an anxious transition…into a not-so-bad one.
Even pets with arthritis can be helped…and keeping them moving, at healthy weights, can help long-term health.
It’s not about One Day of losing some of the Top Five…it’s about multiple days.
We all have bad days. We all get sick. But if you pet exhibits only 1 or 2 of the Top Five for 3 or more days, especially with the help of veterinary intervention…your pet may actually be telling you they are growing weary of fighting.
Then, you have to ask: Are they tired/sick and need rest…or just hanging on for you?
Dogs who bond to their owners…don’t want to leave. Ever. We have to give them permission. They love us more than they love themselves.
The greatest gift we can give them in the end…is peace.
Think about “the day” and make a little plan of the activities you may want to do. You may – or may not – be able to do the things on this list.
So…DO THEM NOW! Have fun…NOW. If they are on “the list” they can be done NOW and your pet can experience them in all of their glory.
Then…do the favorite ones again on “the day”.
Everything Guinness and I did on his final day on Earth…we had done before. But they were his favorite spots. Down by the Lake. At the Park. In the Creek. With Friends. In My Arms. We’d done it all before.
Think about the Treats.
FEED THEM NOW…if not going to cause kidney failure, of course! No grapes, onions, raisins, etc.
Chicken bits. Steak bits. Cheese bits. Guinness was food allergic and got itchiness from them all…but he still got them. Then, he got Benadryl. But little pieces here and there for AWESOME jobs well done? He loved it!
Don’t wait…Live. Now.
This one is hard, really hard: Think about “the after”.
Do you want to be with them? For me, this was an absolute yes. I would encourage all owners to be there for their pet. But I understand the concept that some people absolutely cannot see their pet…after. This is an extremely personal decision…but I really think if you can be there, you should. Your pet may not understand it all…but having you there (being with someone you love and trust) always makes everything easier.
Do you want to bring them to the vet’s office or have an in-home euthanasia done?
Sometimes your personal vet will make house-calls for this event…and some do not. There are veterinarians who specialize in at-home euthanasia, so you may want to research now, talk to them, get comfortable with one and establish trust now. Guinness had known Dr. McClanahan on cookie terms prior…and knowing…trusting…definitely helps.
These, again, are all personal choices. Some people cannot stand the thought of having their pet die at home.
I chose in-home because I knew I wanted Guinness relaxed in his bed, snuggled in my arms, with all of his stuffed toys surrounding him and a few select people with us.
Do you have a place to bury them or do you want them cremated?
If you are going to bury, do you have an area picked out? What if it is winter/ground is frozen? Do you have a place to store their remains (freezer) until you can create a legal plot for them (check your state’s legalities about pet burials!)
There ARE pet cemeteries as well, so you may want to research those also.
If you are cremating them, do you want ashes back?
Do you want to transport them yourself or have the veterinarian do it?
If you want ashes back, do you want to pick out a special urn? Do you want any ashes in a pendant or bracelet?
These are all very personal options and many people don’t consider them so have to make “split second” decisions.
I didn’t want any regrets. I picked out Guinness’s urn when he was diagnosed. I was still hopeful. I still did everything possible to diagnose, treat, and give him a chance at remission…but I wanted to also be prepared in case of an emergency. I didn’t want to make a split second decision that I may regret.
So, I have his special urn with a Doberman in a play-bow on top. I have my Yin-Yang necklace pendant with a few of his ashes in it that I wear around my neck, so a part of him is always with me. When I am ready, I will also have a memorial tattoo done, with his ashes mixed in, so he will be a permanent part of me.
These may sound morbid…but I PROMISE you being prepared now with some ideas means you can focus on what matters when “the day” comes.
Do you want an ink or clay paw print made?
I have two clay pawprints that were made by All Paws…but I cherish my ink pawprints made BEFORE he was euthanized. Guinness was so tolerant of “arts n crafts” times with me…again, I have so many pictures and videos of this absolutely amazing dog.
I encourage owners to do NOW what they THINK they may want to do later.
There is no guarantee for Time.
Leave on the collar, favorite T-shirt, etc. Guinness was used to be collar-less, so he was. But I also took OFF the belly band that was helping him not leak urine (a side effect of the high dose steroids he was on) and so he did not have to wear that. Instead, I put potty pads under his blankets and we snuggled on the blankets. Taking off a collar that your pet has always worn...changes the picture. Collars are taken off for baths, sometimes…and some pets get anxious without them. If you want to keep the collar, we can take it off afterwards for you, if you can’t.
Scent: What is comforting for your pet? For you? I diffused Frankincense for days…because I believe in helping ease anxiety and help transitions…for all involved.
Is there a song or special music you would like to dedicate to your pet’s final moments?
I chose “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. I was driving with him by the Lake one day, going to one of our favorite spots, when it came on…and I knew. This was the song I wanted to play. The final chorus is when I wanted the injection to be administered and the final 30-ish seconds, before the song ended, he would be gone.
I am asked so many times: What happens? Do they really just “go to sleep”? In my experience…yes. We can help make these final moments the most peaceful possible…by preparing for them.
If you have questions, I am happy to answer them. Guinness and I were always teaching; always trying to help others. I guess my heart says maybe this is another way we can help ease pain during one of the most difficult times there is, so… this was our final moment. Viewer discretion is advised. https://www.facebook.com/juliewestphal/videos/10210509914049023/?l=2233894524385151802
If I lay here. If I just lay here. Would you lie with me and just forget the world…
It’s not Goodbye…it’s Until I See You Again.