Man’s Best Friend

wellness dogThe painful process of coping with the loss of a pet

Everyone told me the same thing when my 14-year-old standard poodle’s health started to go: “Don’t worry. She’ll tell you when it’s time. You’ll know.”

It was hard to believe. Riley was great at telling me when she wanted to go to the beach (which was always) or when she was hungry, but I doubted her communications skills ranged to esoteric questions about life and death. Hell, I’m not sure my skills are so great in that department either. I couldn’t come up with an answer for when to put my best pet friend down.

Our health is often connected to the health of our pets. More and more, people have dogs trained as service dogs, to aid them in times of crisis. Others use them for therapy or unconditionally loving companions. Santa Cruz is a capital of dog lovers. Take a look at the car next to you and odds are there is a dog hanging out the window—and half the time, they are sitting on the driver’s lap.

One of the great tragedies is that their lifespans are so much shorter than ours. So what do we do when the animals who once contributed to our own wellness get too sick or too old, and need help from us? When is euthanasia the right thing to do?

I looked for advice on the Internet and got this at a pet blog: “Your dog wants fun, love, attention, and good health. … That means no pain or suffering … which is pretty much what we want ourselves.”

Some experts suggest that if their bad days outnumber the good ones, it’s time, but watching my dog, there weren’t really bad days, despite the fact that she didn’t enjoy all the things she used to, like running on the beach.

Riley was a constant, mostly well-behaved companion, and I think she knew more people than I did. She really was a best friend, and I felt like we had a telepathic bond. She followed me to school and work, and made friends around two college campuses. She was graceful and friendly and liked to catch waves and hike in the mountains. She was no fou-fou poodle. She traveled in my car with her head out of the sunroof like some kind of living ship’s figurehead, and I’ve seen pictures of her posted on strangers’ websites. She was so smart that when I drove past her favorite Blue Balls park, she would nudge my hands at the steering wheel trying to get me to turn there.

People as far away as the campgrounds at Plaskett Beach in Big Sur approached me and said, “So, you’re Riley’s owner?” Apparently she snuck off and visited neighbors while I was writing, and she was like an official greeter outside Pacific Coffee Roasting in Aptos, and in front of the Los Gatos Apple store, while I was getting help in back.

Her health was perfect until she turned 12, and it started slipping like the stretch band in an old pair of underwear.

She had a close call on a road trip to Las Vegas. For the first time in her life, she could barely move and she looked miserable. She’d had a physical at a local veterinary chain and was pronounced healthy, but when I took her into the Vegas outpost of the same business, the doctor said she had a tumor and he would have to operate. I was terrified and distraught. I couldn’t stop crying, and wished for at least another year. The doctor told me if it was malignant, he’d leave her sleeping.

No way, I said. If it was, I would either seek more treatment or at least let her have some more beach time and her first taste of chocolate. Luckily, the tumor wasn’t malignant. But it was huge. I figured a tumor on a 47-pound dog would be the size of my pinky, at best, but when my reporter friend John Glionna asked questions about what it looked like, the vet took us in to see it. It was a three-pound mass of tissue bigger than her heart.

Riley recovered the next year, and I was constantly having to brush up on my feeble math skills figuring out how old she was in “dog years.” I’d met 20-year-old poodles and wondered if we could have that kind of Noah-like lifespan together.

She slowed down a bit the next year, and considerably the year after that. The vet put her on heart medication for an arrhythmia she’d had since birth, since it could be more of a factor now. Then she added another heart medicine to improve her circulation. Soon there was a painkiller for arthritis, vitamins to help her joints, antibiotics for her cough, something to stop seizures and something else to keep her stools solid.

She lost her bark when half of her vocal cords were paralyzed. Her attempts to scare those threatening people who rang the doorbell sounded like a cat trying to imitate a dog. Then she stopped wagging her tail. That hurt me more than it did her. Her whiplash wag had been my greeting for 13 years. Was this the sign people said I should see? Did it mean she wasn’t happy?

No, she had a degenerative nerve disease that eventually spread to her back legs. I think she was still happy, although many friends told me it was time to let her go. She showed no signs of pain, which made the decision tougher. I started asking everyone I knew what they would do.

On one of my frequent trips to the vet, which were starting to mount to about $500 a month, I saw a woman in the waiting room with a dog that was blind and deaf. That got me wondering where you draw the line. Surely, I thought, I wouldn’t keep Riley alive if she were blind and deaf. But as Riley got worse, the line kept changing as my hope stayed the same.

She became incontinent, and I had to put her in diapers. That didn’t work, so I bought big nursing home pads for her to lie on and cleaned up after her constantly. She lost a lot of her hearing and would sometimes stick her head in a corner or behind a chest of drawers and just stand there, unable to get back out. Before long, she couldn’t get up on her own and I would have to pick her up to take her out of the house with me. I saw a lady in my neighborhood walk her dog in a baby carriage and again I thought, “I couldn’t do that, could I?”

“What about her quality of life?” people asked. I snarkily answered: “Would you put Stephen Hawking to sleep? He has problems, too.”

She started falling regularly, which was starting to look like the sign I was waiting for. But then I read about these walkers you can get that put their back legs on wheels and let them use their front legs to get around. I ordered one at an incredibly high $561, and a friend told me I reminded him of his 93-year-old father, who thought every ad he saw on TV was going to help him get his memory and health back.

I laughed at myself, but I couldn’t put her to sleep until I tried every possibility. (I hated the euphemism for euthanasia. In my mind, and to the chagrin of my girlfriend, I asked too cavalierly, “Should I kill her today?”  Now that it’s over with, I’m OK with the softer version.)

I brought her to one of her favorite hangouts, Frank’s Pharmacy in Aptos, where the staff always gave her treats and talked to her. Two of the women behind the counter who hadn’t seen her in a couple of months cried. That was a wake-up call. It was worse than I was seeing.

So many people told me that Riley had had a great life and would be in a better place, but that didn’t register. One of the pharmacists named Tanya gave me my first real comfort. “She won’t even know what’s happening,” she said. “It won’t matter to her. It will be peaceful. She’ll appreciate it.” I don’t know why, but that made my guilt dwindle.

On Thanksgiving night, after she had had a full dinner of ham, roast beef and turkey, Riley started barking constantly. I tried to placate her with water, a walk and more food, but she only stopped when I petted her. I put her on the bed with me and kept petting until I fell asleep, and every time I did, she woke me up with more barking. She’d never done that before. She kept me up until 7 a.m., and I understood what she was saying. It was the message they all talked about.

She was frustrated and over it, tired of not being able to walk, and, I guess, in pain. Even at the end, I kept waiting for a miracle that wouldn’t come. She fell asleep peacefully at the vet’s even before they put the drugs in her. I’m pretty sure she’s happier now.

PHOTO: Riley went everywhere with her owner during her life, from coffee to concerts to the Cabrillo classroom where he taught. She was happiest at the beach.  MARIA GRUSAUSKAS

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