Sunday Support Group: Doggie End-of-Life Decisions (OT)

[A day late! But not a dollar short. —Mike the Ed.] –
Several readers have asked recently about Lulu the Elder Dog, noticing that I seldom show pictures of her.
Here’s an interesting thing about mutts: you really don’t know what to expect with them. If you get them as puppies, you don’t know how big they’re going to get. And while you have a range of reasonable expectations for life expectancy if you buy a purebred dog—for example, a St. Bernard usually lives eight to 10 years, while a normal lifespan for a Jack Russell terrier is 13 to 16—you really don’t know how long a mutt will live. You might get lucky, you might not.
Gray girl
Some time next Fall Lulu will turn 14, which is getting up there for a mid-sized (~60 lbs.) dog. She seems to be changing fast as she ages, which has caused me to continually adjust to her changing needs. For example, she went largely deaf over about a three-month period last year (she can still hear a little). I had a stone step built for her a couple of years ago—cleverly disguised as a step humans might use!—when she could no longer jump up to the deck, but now she can’t always manage that, so I patiently “herd” her around to places where she doesn’t have to negotiate changes in level of more than a few inches. (Even that much causes her to fall down now and then.) And I no longer toss treats to her, because she can no longer see well enough to catch them in her mouth. I throw them on the ground in front of her, in places where she’ll be able to see where it lands. There have been lots of little adjustments like those.
Of course she has a nice soft bed, where she spends a lot of time sleeping. Nobody sleeps like an old dog.
Tough choicesWe’re charged with potentially—okay, probably—having to make end-of-life decisions for our animals. The question is how to hit the proper balance. You don’t want to extend their lives needlessly if you’re only prolonging suffering, but you also don’t want to give up on them too soon. I’m aware that there’s no such thing as a perfect decision, so I’ve already forgiven myself for making a less-than-perfect one. At the same time, I want to do the best I can for Lulu, so I’m reading articles about doggie end-of-life issues. I’m preparing myself to make the best decision I can when the time comes.
Lulu was a rescue, a foundling from a park in Chicago, and we learned something of her history. She escaped from a man who was probably engaged in breeding fighting dogs; her most likely fate if she hadn’t escaped by leaping his cast-iron fence would have been to be a “bait dog.” Look up the term if you have the stomach for it, but beware—it’s a nasty, brutish business. I always figured she needed to live a good, safe, cared-for life to help make up for what might have happened to her poor littermates, who I suspect did not end up in loving homes with caring owners. “A dog’s life” is not automatically a good thing.
The thing I’m most worried about is her hind legs. Lulu was prodigiously strong as a young dog, and she had an amazing vertical leap. She was not naturally fleet like a whippet or a greyhound but she ran with great heart and determination, pounding the ground like a horse. She had a TPLO operation at about five years of age, in which a steel plate is used to stabilize the stifle joint after a rupture of the CCL (a ligament analogous to the ACL in human knees). It was a hard pill to swallow at the time—it hit me during a nadir in my fortunes, and the nearly $3,000 the operation cost was a very large part of all the cash I had in the bank at the time. But the logic was persuasive. If a dog has a torn or severed CCL in one leg, they naturally put more weight on the other leg, increasing the chance of a CCL rupture in that leg as well (Lulu had CCL tears in both legs). And while a dog can get by on three good legs, it’s in big trouble if both hind legs are compromised. For one thing, it makes it much more difficult to recover from an operation on one leg if the other one isn’t functioning (and the recovery is arduous anyway). There was no way I could have paid for two TPLOs, but I had to find a way to pay for one. I’m glad I managed it.
But the vet told me at the time that Lulu would have arthritis in her back legs when she was older, and that prediction has come home to roost. She manages, but I suspect she’s in a fair amount of pain sometimes. It takes her a long time to “get her legs underneath her” when I roust her for “last outs” at 9:00 or 9:30 every evening. I continually admonish myself to be patient with her, knowing that dogs instinctively seek to hide their pain. If she doesn’t want to move, I don’t push her. So far, surprisingly, I’m doing a good job of being patient. It’s a quality that, in general, is becoming more natural with practice.
The bossBeyond that, the most important thing I can do is take time to give her love and comfort every day.  I take time with her every day to give her affection and tell her I love her. Her stepbrother the attention hound gets jealous easily, and tries to horn in, but I don’t let him distract me when I’m giving Lulu her fair share.
And whenever I take Butters out to play, Lulu comes too. Often she doesn’t want to stay out for very long, and all she can do is bark for a few treats, but still, she gets excited at the prospect of venturing outdoors and I don’t want to leave her out. I think it’s important for her to have something to look forward to. We have to be careful now, though. Her legs are so weak that she occasionally spontaneously collapses, and it’s usually worse when she gets excited. Maybe she momentarily forgets she’s not young and strong any more.
She’s still the boss come feeding time, though, same as always. At dinner time, she’s the one who gets to come to the barn to get the food with me. It’s the one thing she and I do alone together. We leave Butters in the house despite the blow to his ego. It’s not always easy for her to cope with a rambunctious younger dog; sometimes I separate the two of them so she can get a respite when I sense that Butters is getting on her nerves.
Look at the individual in front of youMostly I try to observe, be patient, and look for clues. With both kids and dogs, general rules are just that—what’s most important is to look at the individual in front of you and try to divine what he or she needs. I’m trying to be aware of changes in her behaviors and her physical state so I can adjust. At her age you can’t make assumptions.
I’ve never seen a dog through to end-of-life before, so I’m on uncharted territory. But then, so is she. I’m just trying and hoping to be up for the challenge. So far, so good.
And Summer is a good time to be a dog. It’s warm, it’s light, life is easy, and there’s plenty of lazy time for an old gray girl to zonk out, sleep, and dream.
P.S. All three of my favorite pictures of Lulu can be seen in this old post.
Original contents copyright 2020 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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