How Do You Know When It's Time to Say Goodbye to Your Dog?

I don't want to be like one of those people who just gave up on a senior dog, but my friends assure me he's beyond "senior dog."
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Marci
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I don't want to be like one of those people who just gave up on a senior dog, but my friends assure me he's beyond "senior dog."

As I write this, my 15-year-old dog, Max, is lying at my feet, squeaking and squealing. I don't know what he wants. He just ate; his water bowl is full; I picked him up and put him on the couch next to me, but he jumped off, lay down and started yelping again. He looks in my direction with urgency but doesn't really see much of me because cataracts have mostly blinded him.

This is just how it is most waking hours at home with Max. If he's not sleeping, he's either lying on the floor or on the bed, screeching and howling for reasons my vet and I haven't been able to figure out other than possible senility or anxiety, maybe arthritis pain. Although this has been going on for about a year, it's gotten much worse in the last few months, and I can't block it out; it triggers in me what feels like heartburn, and I've actually called my mother hysterically crying because I was afraid I was going to lose my mind from the sound. Even my six-year-old dog, Rufus, seems stressed out by it, whining himself when Max's cries get too intense.

If he's not making brain-piercing screeches, he's uncoordinatedly walking around the apartment with the gracefulness of a drunken sailor, his four legs refusing to work together. He falls down every dozen steps, gets back up, and keeps walking towards his destination.

His destination is one of three things: his water bowl, his wee-wee pad, or any object that smells like food has been in or on it. I've been told it's a good sign that he still has such a strong appetite—that when a dog is really near the end, he'll stop eating—but Max's quest for food is one of inexplicable desperation. He knocks over garbage, tries to climb furniture, and has even tried to steal it right out of my hand. But despite his willingness to eat everything in sight, he has become bony from weight loss over the past six months.

I've been told it's also a good sign that he hasn't been having accidents, that it's amazing a dog with his compromised sight and coordination always makes it to his wee-wee pads and has perfect aim. But having wee-wee pads in my kitchen has compromised my life; I almost never have company over out of embarrassment and fear that it might smell worse than I can detect. I don't really have a choice, though—Max can't go on walks anymore.

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I do take Max to the local dog run several times a week. I'll walk Rufus on a leash, but I carry Max in an oversized bag. People on the sidewalk think it's adorable when he pokes his head out—and it is—but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it was worsening my back problems. Although he's down to 18 pounds—he was a chubby 30 when I adopted him from the Humane Society 13 years ago—it's still a pretty heavy load to carry on my shoulder. But he seems to still like getting outside sometimes.

Max is practically a celebrity at the dog run. Other dog owners there know he's one of the oldest patrons, and they give him looks of loving sympathy as he hobbles toward them to beg for treats. People think his howls, which are much less frequent in the park, are pathetically adorable, but they don't hear them for hours each day. 

Most dogs at the run seem to understand he's too old to tussle with and respectfully leave him alone. They'll even leap over him if he happens to stumble through a chase scene. Puppies, however, find him intriguing and try desperately to play with him, nudging him to be as spring-loaded as they are and well-meaningly barking in his mostly deaf ears when he isn't. It's reached the point where Rufus, who gave up on playing with Max a while ago, has actually stepped in to protect him from overly rambunctious young dogs.

On the days that I don't bring Max to the park, the first question I get from other owners is, "Is Max OK?" It seems like people would understand if it was his time to go. But yes, he's as OK as he was yesterday; either my back was hurting too much to carry him, or he was sleeping. It's hard for me to leave the apartment when he's sleeping; he's just so sweet when he's not wailing, and I want to spend every mellow moment with him that I can.

The vet prescribed Prozac to see if it would help with the bellowing. About three days in on a very low dose, I found him trembling and drooling in the hallway, and he'd gotten diarrhea. This isn't how I wanted him to feel. I stopped the Prozac.

The vet who prescribed the Prozac told me that Max's heart and lungs are strong and his blood work is "pretty normal." That's all he said when I asked him if Max is still comfortable, though I didn't specifically say "still comfortable enough to keep him alive." I was hoping he would give me a clearer hint about how much longer he had or should have, but I left feeling even more confused than before—and guilty, too. I was worried that his bellows were a sign of pain or misery, but they're also making me miserable. 

I don't want to put Max to sleep for selfish reasons—because his almost-constant yelping feels like it's giving me an ulcer and because keeping wee-wee pads in my kitchen feels like it's standing in the way of having a more fulfilling social life. But could Max really be happy and comfortable if he's wailing all the time and falling down over and over on his walk to the pads? Happy and comfortable enough to keep him going in his current and declining state?

When I read about people who surrender senior dogs, it makes me so angry and sad. I don't want to be like one of those people who just gave up on an older dog. My friends assure me he's more than an "older dog," though. He's very clearly nearing the end of his life. But, barring sudden death, it's now up to me how much longer that life should go on, and it's tearing me apart.

This is the first time the decision to mercifully end a dog's life has been up to me; it was previously my parents' decision. My childhood dog and cat were euthanized on the same day when I was 12; both were seniors with health issues, though I don't remember either being as decrepit as Max currently is. Monte, the black lab my family had when I was in high school and college, got very aggressive cancer, and when he was nine, I went with my father to sit with him at the vet as we said goodbye. It was one of the most traumatizing moments of my young adulthood, Monte looking me in the eyes with discomfort and fear when he got the shot, and then all of the fluids and sickness releasing from his nose when he was gone.

I don't know how to go through that again. My mother assures me I don't have to be there for that moment, that I can say goodbye and hand him off to the vet. But I'm not sure if that feels right to me. I think I should be with him when he goes. But I'm also not sure if now feels right to me. Or if it will ever feel right, short of something truly catastrophic and obvious.

I think it might have been Denis Leary who said in a standup set once that when you get a dog, you're welcoming a little tragedy into your life. And it's true—I've reached the point in my journey with Max where it hurts, a lot. I was hoping by the time I finished writing this and getting all of my thoughts on the table that I'd have a clearer idea of what I should do, but Max is now relaxing quietly at my feet, reminding me of how wonderful it is to have him in my life, how wonderful it is has been to have him in my life. 

I don't know what to do.