How Do You Know When It's Time?

How do you know when it’s time? 

Sadly, if you’ve been a long-term pet owner, the day will come for you eventually—the day when your doggie or kitty passes from that cute little furball into old age, infirmity, possibly even pain.

Our lifespans are longer than theirs, and watching a pet grow from a wee thing into an adult and then into a senior citizen while you’ve remained roughly in the same age bracket can be heart-wrenching.

It’s even harder on kids: watching their favorite animal going into the dark night can break their young souls. I know, because I’m on my second set of dogs, after seeing the first two grow old in front of my eyes and then depart the earth. The reason we even have a second set of canine companions is because our young’uns were so sad after the first two died that we brought new love into our house to try to help, and it worked. You can’t simply replace Fido, but you can keep living while always remembering him. (I used Fido as a generic; actually, our first two were Zack and Bebe. God bless ’em.)

But the hardest question is: when is it time? And by that, I think you know that I mean, when is it time to “put them down?” Some would argue that there is never such a time; we don’t put humans down (except in Canada), and we shouldn’t play God – let nature take its course. But with my beloved Scrappy the Wonder Dog, he was having terrifying seizures and injuring himself due to incurable brain cancer. He was in pain, he was angry, and his brain was clearly no longer operating. Which is crueler – putting him to sleep or watching him slam his little head into the wall night after night, living a nightmare?

I still miss the little guy:

In Honor of Scrappy, the July 4th Wonder Dog

Our family has been through a few pet passings, and it never gets easier. Actually, I take that back—when it’s one of my fish, it’s just not there one day in the tank, completely disappearing as if it never existed. Sorry if this sounds cold, but… you just get another one. Fish are not the same as cats or dogs; there, I said it.

But now my wife and I are faced with the question again, as Blaze, our last living dog, is in his end days. He misses his lifelong pal Thunder, who left us in the fall. We still love you, Thunder Wonder:

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“Let Blaze live those last days out!” I can hear some of you saying. And we have, and we are. But it’s tough… Although I purposefully chose a picture to accompany the article where he still looked OK, the once ferocious barker can now barely see—his eyes are misted over—he can’t hear a thing, and his back legs don’t really work. They simply give out on him, and he falls with a THUMP, and we grab him and say, “Oh, poor baby!” and give him hugs.

But it’s not easy to watch. He was so adorable as a puppy:

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How do you know when it’s time?

At least one member of our extended family argues that it’s cruel to let him go on like this, watching him fall off the couch or moan at the front door when he thinks he’s been left alone. The moaning can be especially difficult—it sounds like the Hound of the Baskervilles, a tortured soul, and he might think he’s been abandoned even though I’m just in the next room. Years ago, his senses would have alerted him to my presence, but now those senses are gone, and he jerks in surprise when I walk up to soothe him. But who am I to dictate God’s will?

We call him the Counter Surfer because of his insane ability to grab food off surfaces that would seem to be way out of his reach. During our kitchen renovation, we even built a “Blaze Shelf,” high off the ground so we can place food there where he can’t get it.

I’ll always remember the night he got a whole plate of chicken my wife had just prepared. And bless the Big Guy, he just managed to get a pizza box last night that ostensibly should have been far beyond his reach. Gotta give credit where credit’s due.

But how do you know when it’s time?

I don’t have the answer, but I do know one thing—that time is not yet now. Despite Blaze’s aimless wandering, his apparent confusion, his non-working back legs, he still gets excited for dinner. He still seems to smile when the kids are home from Spring Break. He will still occasionally bark at the random squirrel, even if it’s not with the enthusiasm he once displayed. He will still once in a while work up the energy to terrify the Amazon delivery person. He doesn’t seem to be in terrible pain, but I can’t swear to that; it’s impossible to enter the mind of a dog. Do his endless circlings on the couch as he prepares to lay down indicate that he’s suffering, or are they just signs of an aging mind? 

Pets are so important to people and their families, and we are blessed to have them in our lives. They have an ability that we do not—to truly live life in the moment, relishing the happiness of the day and not getting overwhelmed by mortgage payments, Twitter feeds, or politics. But they can also present us with sadness and difficult choices.

How do you know when it’s time?

I am no closer to the answer than when I started, but I guess I’d say this: as long as Blaze still shows some happiness and doesn’t appear to be suffering from immense pain, that time is not today.

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