How we knew

Almost exactly three years ago, a friend posted on social media about the trauma of saying goodbye to Roxy, his faithful companion of 12 years. He and his wife candidly outlined their struggles and Roxy’s, demonstrating their compassion and caring, and providing a window into the hardship of choosing to euthanise a beloved family member. 

I benefited so much from their insight; it made me want to share our experience with letting Sofie go. I’ve written another post about not being ready to let her go that deals with more of the emotional stuff; this one is all about the decision.

There’s no one moment that made Tony and I say, “It’s time,” rather, it was a collection of things that brought us to the conclusion. 

A slow accumulation of signs

Having one catastrophic event might have made it easier to make the decision to put Sofie down, but her gradual decline allowed us the grace of saying goodbye without immense trauma. She was spared spending her final moments in extraordinary pain. We aren’t left with the memory of our little floof suffering horribly. Instead, her last months contained a few moments of awfulness, interspersed with flashes of peace, and many indicators that Sofie was not long for this world.

1. Her personality changed

While Sofie retained her judgemental gaze right to the end, a lot of her other characteristics shifted. She had always been snuggly; keen to curl into us as we napped, happy to lie alongside me during a gentle yoga practice, pleased to be petted, delighted to be next to her people. Her willingness to cuddle started dropping off after her back injury came to light in Spring 2020, but up until January or so, she was still the best nap buddy imaginable. 

In her last couple of months, Sofie kept her distance. She stopped being concerned about pleasing us or being a good girl. It was as though she was breaking away from the pack. She receded into herself, no longer the affectionate, easy-going dog she’d been for the better part of her 16 years.

2. She seemed confused and scared a lot

Since we moved to Zurich in early 2019, Sofie had spent a lot of time ‘talking to ghosts.’ That’s how Tony and I described her long moments standing in the middle of a room or staring at a wall. Over the winter, Sofie’s dementia became more pronounced. She paced. She startled easily. Her peripheral awareness was almost nil. She appeared lost in our bedroom. She began drifting into rooms that had previously held no interest. The vet cautioned us not to get a Christmas tree because Sof wouldn’t be able to handle the rearranged furniture.

When she did sleep, it was often not a light doze. Tony and I would walk heavily and call her name as we approached, attempting to gently rouse her. It almost never worked. Placing a hand on her shoulder or leg caused Sofie to wake with a start, her eyes darting around trying to determine where she was. So much of life seemed disorienting.

3. Her senses and motor control were failing

Sofie’s eyes started to cloud over several years ago and her hearing dropped off, too—although sometimes we suspected not hearing us was a choice. She regularly couldn’t see or sniff a treat left on the carpet and frequently walked into furniture or barely avoided it. 

She could no longer jump onto a bed or couch. Her back legs slid out, sometimes while she ate, and her front legs had started to slip as well. She developed a tremor in her front legs that often manifested when she sat. Taking stairs was risky as she periodically lost her balance and fell face first. Physiotherapy helped, but there was no way for Sofie to regain what she’d lost; her abilities had been vastly limited.

4. Sofie no longer enjoyed her favourite things

If anyone had ever wanted to kidnap Sofie, all they would have had to do is open a car door. She loved car rides—and train/tram trips, too, but the automobile was her preferred mode of transport. The last two times we had Sof in a car, she would not settle. She wasn’t excited to hop in and burrow into the wheel well (her favourite place to be). 

She also stopped wanting to dig in the sand. Chasing cats (or simply staring at them) became a thing of the past. Even passing interactions with other dogs held no allure. She didn’t want to meet new people.

An article I read by a vet tech suggested identifying five of your dog’s favourite things to do as a ‘healthy’ pet and determining how many still brought them joy. When I made that list for Sofie, there was only one thing left on the list: licking sweat off Tony. Without enjoyment of so many of the things that used to make her happy, it was clear that Sofie’s quality of life was greatly diminished.

5. She had many, varied, and complex health issues

After her spinal issue came to a head in Spring 2020 (x-rays showed a long-degenerated disc), Sofie walked with a limp, dragging her right leg behind her. It’s likely that her back caused her discomfort for years; how much we’ll never know. Her weakened bladder muscles necessitated anti-incontinence medication starting in Fall 2019 and there were still times we frantically cleaned up urine. Sofie began having seizures at the beginning of February, 2021, causing her to flop like a fish out of water with a dead look in her eyes, leaving her shaken and uncertain. The vet also detected a heart murmur. Her liver wasn’t working smoothly and there was concern about her gallbladder function, too.

In Sofie’s final week, she vomited most mornings, bringing up the cluster of pills we now had to force down her throat. For a year and a half, Sofie swallowed daily medication without protest. In the last two weeks she started pushing my hands away with her front paws, clawing to keep me away from her mouth. 

And then there was the unstoppable cognitive deterioration.  

6. Her good moments got fewer and farther between

Zurich got a light dusting of snow in early February. The perfect amount for Sof. She raced around on her morning walk, snuffling her nose into the fresh powder, clearly enjoying herself. Later that day she had a seizure, releasing her bladder onto Tony’s boot as he comforted her. 

We have many happy memories of Sofie in her last few months, but we worried about her more and more. The week before she died, Sofie had four days in a row where she seemed uncomfortable for nearly all of her waking hours. She also had two seizures that week, the first since she’d started the anti-epilepsy medication. The bad days were taking over.

7. Intervention was likely damaging

After x-rays, ultrasounds, and blood work ruled out a tumour in her torso or organ failure causing the seizures, we were left with options to get to the root cause. Could it be related to the heart murmur? Maybe. An appointment with a veterinary cardiologist and an echocardiogram would be needed to be sure. What if the seizures were caused by a brain tumour (also partially explaining Sofie’s changed personality and cognitive decline)? She’d need a CT scan, more x-rays, and treatment would involve chemo or radiation. The tests would all require sedation that would be dangerous for a geriatric dog.

The vet could prescribe medication to increase Sofie’s appetite, another to prevent her from vomiting. We could try another anti-epilepsy medication. Perhaps omega-3-6-9 supplements would slow the progress of dementia.

Some of Sofie’s smaller issues could have been managed by medication, but she couldn’t be cured. No amount of veterinary care would make Sofie young again. And attempting to treat the larger issues would potentially kill her.

Letting go

Instead of increasing medical intervention while we clung to whatever good moments Sofie had left, Tony and I decided to let her go. We both wanted more time with her, but the quality of that time was rapidly declining.

Watching her progressively grow more disorientated, become increasingly unsettled, and overall seem less like herself, we knew there was only one devastatingly sad option left. On that sunny February afternoon, we knew it was time.

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