My dog died 5 weeks ago. He was a mongrel, mostly Jack Russell but with a bit of just about everything else in him as well.
He was an abandoned puppy. I found him left on the side of the road at about 12 weeks old, distraught and desperate for care. I brought him home and he moved in, lock stock and barrel within about 10 seconds flat. He knew a good thing when he saw it. That was 18 years ago.
He wasn't just my friend or companion. He was part of me. He came to work with me, he came on holiday with me, he slept on my bed and he filled every single moment of my life. He was kind; I found him protecting an injured rabbit once. He quite literally would not hurt a fly. He was intensely loyal. He was fun. He was accident prone. He was sensitive to my moods and could always make me smile and laugh no matter what else was wrong.
2 months ago he started bleeding a little from his mouth, nothing much, just a couple of spots. He appeared to have an abscess and, in spite of the inherent risks associated with anaesthetising a dog of his age, something had to be done. The vet was great; managed to put him under the lightest of anaesthetics and extract 6 teeth in record time, and bring him round. I'd been beside myself with worry, trying to prepare myself for the worst and so was ecstatic that he made it through. Over the following days most of the cavities healed over, except for where the "abscess" was. I was spoon feeding him liquidised food and not overly worried at first because the infection had been deep, I felt his age would mean he would heal more slowly anyway and he was on huge doses of antibiotics that would kill any infection.
After a week though I began to worry and went back to the vet. His liver function had been declining over the last 8 or 9 months so I had been wary of making too much use of pain relief for fear of putting his liver under too much pressure. My concern for the failure of the infection and the open cavity to heal was marginalised when the vet told me not to worry about his liver and to give him whatever pain relief he needed. "Why?" "Because I don't much like the look of this. Keep him on the antibiotics, as much pain relief as he needs and bring him back in 4 days."
He didn't improve, and the pain was increasing. Back at the vet, the bombshell was dropped. It might not be an abscess at all. It might be a tumour. Did I want to risk another anaesthetic and go for a biopsy? The alternative? None really...
Brought him back in the following day, heart as low as could be, extremely upset. Stayed with him while he had his pre-med, IV and intubation, went out and sat in the car feeling like my world was disintegrating. After 5 minutes the vet came rushing out. Said he didn't need a biopsy; he could clearly see the tumour. It was big, it was aggressive (as there had been no sign of it 10 days previously when the teeth were extracted) and...
It was terminal.
Did I want to revive him, or did I want to let him slip away under the anaesthetic?
I thought I had been prepared for anything. I wasn't. I couldn't take it in. How could he possibly be terminal? He was meant to live for ever. Can we revive him? Is it fair? I didn't want him suffering, but I did NOT want to lose him on the operating table...
Vet said the pain could be controlled for a while but I needed to decide NOW, because he wouldn't survive much longer under the anaesthetic...
Revive him. NOW!
He came through. He came through while I sat in my car, devastated, crying my eyes out. I'm a middle aged male, I should be better at this, but I found I'm not. Eventually I went back inside to talk to the vet and ask THAT question; how long...?
Not long he said. Squamous Cell Carcinoma; extremely aggressive, hard to say exactly... I thought he meant months. No, he said, if you're lucky you may have 2 weeks before the pain is too much or the bleeding gets out of control. More likely, you might have a week.
I brought him home, not believing it. I took a week off work, not accepting it was necessary. The weather was unexpectedly good; he was knocked sideways a bit from two general anaesthetics in two weeks at 18 years of age, but he pulled himself together and he and I spend 4 days at the beach, on his favourite walks, whatever he wanted; he got. He was in amazingly good form; he was on pain relief so mild it hardly seemed worth giving it to him, he was like a dog half his age and, although his food still had to be liquidised, he was eating like a horse and I was giving him whatever he wanted.
I began to think the vet had made a terrible mistake because he was in such good spirits. I knew hope was dangerous, but it was unavoidable. Before the vet had revived him he had taken a biopsy anyway, just to be sure, and the results were due in the middle of the week. On the day I was to ring for the results I had my speech all ready; when the vet told me there had been an awful mistake and it wasn't cancer at all I was going to get very angry and say how, on the basis of his snap diagnosis I could have let him die on the operating table; how I'd been going through hell and how in future he was to get his facts straight before telling people things like “cancer” and “terminal”.
I didn't get to say any of that because, of course, the biopsy results were positive for squamous cell carcinoma.
By the Friday of the first week he started to decline. The dose of pain relief had to be dramatically increased, he was very tired and he was starting to bleed. Back at the vets on Saturday expecting to be told it was time, instead was told that the pain relief could be increased, the bleeding looked frightening but in fact was not yet a risk, and while he was still eating and drinking we still had some time. Back home again.
Very bad night. Very unhappy, a lot of pain. I had a very strong opiate pain killer for him from the vet. I gave him that and he settled, but was still very uncomfortable. The following morning, Sunday 31st October, he wouldn't eat, couldn't. Wouldn't drink either. His usual pain relief no longer worked and he was obviously in great pain. I had to give him another of the opiates, which basically knocked him out.
I knew he couldn't go on. It wasn’t right for him to be in unending, increasing pain with no hope of recovery. I also knew I couldn't let go.
His needs won out; didn't matter what it did to me, I couldn't let him go on in huge pain, unable to eat, the bleeding getting worse all the time and him slowly starving and dehydrating in misery.
It nearly killed me, but I made a call to the vet and asked him to come out. An hour later it was very quietly, very sensitively and very humanely brought to an end.
That was 5 weeks ago. I'm meant to be healing, but I'm not. I miss him tremendously, all the time. When I'm alone I cry and I can’t stop. I'm haunted by something that happened when the vet came to the house.
I was lying beside him, stroking him, comforting him, trying to say goodbye and trying to avoid it becoming traumatic for his sake. When the vet injected him with the first strong sedative prior to the final drug, he tried to get up. I had to hold him and prevent him from moving while the injection was given.
It's illogical and unreasonable, but I'm haunted by the idea that he knew what was going on and was trying to get away.
And I prevented him.
Every time I close my eyes I see him on the bed, trying to get to the window, and me holding him back.
I know it was the right time. I know I did the right thing. I know he couldn't go on. I know I gave him a wonderful, long life. I know I have no reason to feel guilt. I know I did everything I possibly could have for him, and that it isn't my fault that it wasn't enough. I know it was right not to let him go on the operating table. I know that for most of the last week he (and I) had a wonderful time. And I know that, lying on his bed with the winter sunshine coming through the window, was the right way for him to go.
I don't know though how I'm going to move on from this. I don't know how I'm going to overcome the completely unfounded sense of guilt that fills me. I don't know how I'm going to stop missing him so much that it dominates my life. I don't know how I'm going to stop feeling so lost.
I'm not the type to do anything nonsensical (should anyone be wondering...) but I am sort of hoping that letting it all out here might help. If this story has touched an unwelcome raw nerve with anyone then I do most sincerely apologise; that is certainly not my intention. I miss my friend as I'm sure so many here do. I wish I could have the last 18 years over again.