“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” asked Tina Turner back in 1985. Or in this case, what does love have to do with death and fitness? The answer is in three parts.
As any dog lover knows, our canine family members hold very special places in our hearts. Our dogs are like our children—except they never grow up and leave home. When we adopted Abby more than 11 years ago, she was a frightened, skinny Labrador mix who had likely been abused. We showered her with love, patience and tenderness. She returned our affections with wet kisses and unconditional love of her own.
Abby became my shadow. She followed me everywhere she could. “Love me; love my dog” became my motto. I was always a little sad when we traveled or went places that didn’t allow dogs. But I also knew she would be waiting excitedly for me when I returned, wagging her long, looping tail and offering a warm, happy welcome.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew Abby would not be with us forever. In time she began to slow down a bit. Our walks became shorter. Play time with other dogs lost some of its appeal. But she continued to enjoy her toys, belly rubs and treats. Most of all, she loved being with her “mom,” and I loved being with her.
At first I attributed Abby’s more noticeable decline to her aging. She’s a senior, I told myself, and has earned the right to take it easy. But eventually I had to admit that she was going downhill more quickly than I expected. Her vet ran tests and told us she had early stages of renal failure. We adjusted her food and added a supplement. Her kidney function began to improve.
But soon she was dragging one hind leg very slightly, then another. Always a trooper, Abby still went for short walks and enjoyed her treats. Her interest in belly rubs and toys began to wane. She sometimes banged into the doorframe while going in or out. I knew her time with us was growing shorter, but I didn’t know by how much.
Then one day Abby suffered a frightening seizure. We rushed to the vet where she received medication and was stabilized. We brought her home later in the day, only to witness another seizure that evening. Things were looking bleak.
Our vet recommended a consult with a neurologist. On the day of our appointment, Abby could not walk on her own. We said that we didn’t want any intrusive tests, let alone surgery. At 13, she was 91 in people years. She had a right to die with dignity and not to be kept alive simply because we were unwilling to let her go.
Based on a careful examination, the neurologist concluded that Abby likely had a brain tumor. It would account for her dragging her hind legs, spatial confusion and seizures. He suggested trying steroids in addition to her anti-seizure medication. He thought there was the possibility of extending her life with some quality by several months.
We weighed the options. Were we delaying the inevitable by putting her on more medication? Would she suffer unnecessarily? Were we acting in our own best interest, rather than hers?
The questions require a bit of context. Over the past 25 years, I have become a fierce advocate for my husband’s healthcare needs. He has been hospitalized 14 separate times—sometimes for long periods and a few with life-threatening conditions. As a result I have become passionate about healthcare and the need for patient advocacy. I was determined to fight within reason for the best possible care for my dog.
We opted to try the steroids, and Abby began to improve. We were cautiously optimistic. But a day later she was backsliding. The following day, Sunday, thing were even worse. Abby was in terrible shape. The steroids were not helping. We knew what we had to do.
All that day we doted on her, giving her favorite foods and treats. We used a special harness with handles to carry her outside for potty breaks. Mostly, we stayed by her side and said long, tearful good-byes. It was her last full day, but she didn’t know it.
First thing Monday morning, I sorrowfully called the vet and made the appointment. The special harness was no longer helpful. Despite her dwindling size, she still weighed more than 50 pounds. So we wrapped her in a blanket and each grabbed an end, hammock style, to transport her. She was cradled for her last car trip—an event she had enjoyed so much in the past.