My friend Jane adopted a pug, Sadie, a few months ago that was turned over to a rescue after her lifelong owner died. Last week, Jane brought Sadie to the vet because her eye was swollen. Sadly, the vet diagnosed Sadie with a tumor in her head. This week her face looks misshapen. The vet suggested putting her down right away, but Jane brought her home. Sadie has not shown any pain, she has been bounding up and down the stairs and across the lawn and eating with gusto. She responds to her name and begs to be lifted up on the couch.
Jane worries, however, about what might happen next. Will she know if Sadie is in pain, when will the time come to put her to sleep? Surprisingly, it is not an easy decision and one that we do not often have with humans. Animals cannot express their wishes in this matter. If they were in the wild, left to their own devices, they would not have the choice. When my 14-year-old pug, Vader, lost the use of his legs and began to soil himself and get severe bedsores, I had to decide if it was his time to go. If he were not a pet, this option would not be a question. He would not be able to hunt for himself. Yet, he was a pet and so is Sadie and it is not nature or fate that gets to decide their outcomes, but us as their owners.
Vets and friends often have more objectivity, urging us to ease our pets' suffering. Some suggest that prolonging their lives is for our benefit not theirs. Maybe, maybe that is true. So many humans believe that if they were in the same situation they would rather die than suffer or live in a helpless or painful state. My mother always says she would not want me to keep her alive if this were the case. My 91-year-old grandmother says she would like to hold onto life no matter what. It seems an individual choice and not one we can impose on another or another's pets.
Even in his last week of life, Vader feasted wholeheartedly on McDonald's fish fillets. He basked out in the sun. He watched my nieces and nephews with apparent interest as they played around him. When I propped his head up in a dog stroller, he stared out over the edge at his familiar haunts. Was he sad, melancholy, content? I may not know for sure, but on his last day, I sat with him under a tree looking up to the heavens. I could feel his body move gently up and down with every breath as he snuggled next to me. We gazed up at the leafy green canopy above us and at the dappled light peeking through the branches and warming our faces. We shared a lifetime in this moment. I may never know if it meant as much to Vader as it did to me, but I heard his soft pug snorts, felt the nuzzle of his nose in my armpit. He seemed content and I felt loved. All I can say is I hope Jane and Sadie get to share such a moment.