Sophie’s Choice

The love of a pet is never ending, but the inevitable truth is our pets will leave us. I was reminded of this recently when  my sweet dog Sophie passed. She was bright and wonderful, and I sorely miss her. Through this personal loss, I decided to share a difficult – but important insight: How to approach the loss of your pet when she or he is sick and ensure our pets  don’t live in suffering and pain.

As the Executive Director of the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando,  I often get asked “How do I know if it is the right time?” This question comes when pet owners are considering euthanasia of a beloved pet due to illness.   A common response from people and professionals is, “ You will know.”  Candidly, this is not a particularly helpful answer. For someone who has a sick pet and wants to make sure they have quality of life and no suffering, “you will know,” seems inadequate.

Most people have heard the word euthanasia – but it is misunderstood much of the time. In the original Greek it means “a good death.”  Medically, euthanasia is the administering of the drug pentobarbital by a veterinarian, which causes your pets heart to stop in a few seconds. It is a quick and painless process.

Recently, with Sophie’s worsening physical condition, I faced the question, “how will I know?” I did not have an answer and I felt embarrassed. My beloved Sophie had become picky about her food, so I started preparing her meals. She would devour her grilled chicken and looked so happy. After about three weeks, she was no longer interested in chicken.

As she was approaching 12, I thought a visit to the vet was in order.  Her liver enzymes were very high, and I was referred to a specialist the following day. The prognosis was not good.  Options were discussed: injections, oncology consultation, chemo, and appetite stimulants.  I left the clinic with her by my side, heartbroken.

It was a long weekend and my sweet girl was not interested in eating. Even her all-time favorite food, peanut butter had no appeal. Our time together was ending. As she sat on the lounge chair looking at the yard, I considered euthanasia.  In my head, I kept hearing, “ You will know when it’s time.”  But, in truth, I did not know.  I certainly was not ready for her to leave. But was she ready?

As evening approached, I prayed for guidance, a sign.  Sophie was resting in her spot next to the bed all night.  As the sun rose, she did not get up to go outside at 6:30 like every day since she was four months old. She was more reliable than any alarm clock.  In that moment, there was clarity, the sign I needed.

I called Lap of Love, a wonderful organization that offers in-home euthanasia services. The woman on the other end was patient and understood that it was difficult for me to talk. There are other places that offer this service, including my own organization, Pet Alliance, as well as any veterinarian clinic.  For Sophie, it seemed best for her to remain in her favorite spot looking outside at the trees.

So, “How do you know if it is the right time for your pet?”  You know your pet better than anyone –their quirks, behaviors and tendencies.  Upon reflection, I realized the question I needed to have answered was “when will I know?” It is important to have as much information as possible regarding your pet’s health to make an informed decision.  Typically, you will not need to make an immediate decision – so be thoughtful and take your time.

A few hours before Lap of Love arrived, Sophie peacefully chose to pass on her own.

They came to the house and with such care and love, wrapped her in a blanket and took her to be cremated.  Her ashes were returned to me which requires an individual cremation.  There are other options, such as group cremation in which the owner does not receive the ashes, burial in a pet cemetery or at home.  For home burial you need to check local zoning ordinances.

Sophie was a wonderfully soft furred, mixed-breed dog that was as gentle and happy as any dog I have ever known. And while the hurt from her loss is deeper than can be explained, the nearly 12 years of sweeping up dog hair, chasing squirrels, nose licking wake up calls, greetings at the door, squeezing between me and a date on the couch, and the warm love that radiated from those milk chocolate brown eyes made every tear worth it.

I am fortunate to have many friends and colleagues who understand the loss of a family pet.  Know that your grief is normal and surround yourself with those that understand and are graceful when you need them to be.

In this situation, it was Sophie’s choice. Sometimes as pet owners, we have to honor our pet and make the loving and humane decision.

Another shelter dog will come my way one day.  I hope she is a sweet, furry brindle just like Sophie.  But whatever comes my way, I know my big girl would want my heart to be filled with joy again.