Between heaven and earth: a dog’s last days

March 4, 2010

BellaPortraitWhen Bella turned 14 in January, I was hopeful yet cautious. She has clearly slowed down over the past year, spending the majority of her time sleeping under my desk but still eating enthusiastically, going out for short walks and going up the stairs on her own if I didn’t immediately whisk her up in my arms. I thought she was stable enough that I felt comfortable–mostly–going on vacation and leaving her with her breeder in a home she had known all her life.

But the change, I fear, was enough to tip her over the edge. We came back to a dog who was depressed with little appetite. That’s the one thing that really scares me when it happens with my girls, because they all love to eat, Bella especially. She hasn’t lost weight, but she will soon if we can’t get her appetite back. We’ve increased her dose of lasix, a diuretic, and added pimobendan, which often has a salutary effect on appetite, as well as various heart benefits. And, of course, she’s getting any delicious tidbits that I think might tempt her taste buds. They may help for a while, but I’m not kidding myself that we have months together still. Right now I’ll be grateful if we have weeks.

And in this twilight of Bella’s life, I’ll be asking myself that most difficult of questions: When? When is the right time to let her go? I’ve made the decision so many times and written about it so many times and I still don’t know the answer. I know all the quality-of-life questions to ask myself and I’m still not sure if we’re there yet. Or if she is but I’m not.

Susan Little, DVM, president of the Winn Feline Foundation, says quality of life is degraded when pets have more bad days than good, when they stop interacting with their owners, or when medical problems can’t be controlled or are too burdensome. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but it’s hard to tell with Bella. She’s like me: she doesn’t say much and she’s mostly stoic about discomfort, with the exception of having her ears combed out.

I thought it might be easier with a 14-year-old dog. I don’t know why I thought that because it wasn’t easy with a 13-year-old dog or a 15-year-old cat or a 19-year-old cat. I have to go now. For the first time in her life, Bella is making me cry.

Portrait of Bella by Terry Albert.

Filed under: pets, connected — Kim Campbell Thornton @ 10:49 am


  1. Such a difficult thing we must face with our aging companions! My heart aches for all of us who wait for a sign, some signal from our beloved friends that tells us that the time to let them go is *now*.

    My Sparky dog (14 in June) is in good senior health based on her last check up. But her sleep is longer and deeper every day, her appetite waxes and wanes, and failing vision and recent profound hearing loss has turned her familiar world into a different landscape. She still has her sassy moments and bursts of lively energy, but my soul senses we are at the beginning of our long farewell. Just let me know, Spark. I’ll be with you to the end and beyond.

    Comment by Melinda — March 4, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  2. You’ve touched my heart. Now I’m crying, too. You are where I was not so long ago. Cherish the time you had together & the time you have left.

    Comment by Kathyb — March 4, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  3. Oh Kim! I am so sorry. Not only is it tough to lose a treasured pet; it’s even harder to make that decision.

    And I agree, no matter how often you have to do it, it’s always hard to know when the right time is. You don’t want to make the decision too soon yet you also don’t want her to suffer.

    I try to open up so that the dog or cat can tell me. Dax made it very clear throughout her years of liver disease that she wasn’t giving up; she was going to fight. But in the last couple of weeks before we let her go, she made it very clear that enough was enough. Especially when she was incontinent. She hated breaking housetraining even though I never said a word to her. She hated it. And she hated the Depends even more.

    Then when her body was failing, she finally let Paul and I know that this was it; it was time. Her actions, her body language, her lack of appetite, her lack of joy in life, and snapping at us when we tried to put the Depends on her – all of this communicated to us that she was ready.

    I have thanked her numerous times for letting us know because many of our past pets haven’t been able to do that.

    And although we no longer have Dax with us here, in this lifetime, I know she’s across the Rainbow Bridge herding all the other treasured pets. That is, if they don’t kick her out for creating hate and discontent – just as she did her in her lifetime! smile…

    My thoughts are with you and your husband, Kim, at this very tough time. If you need any help – even a shoulder to cry on – you have my phone number and my email. I’m here for you.

    Comment by Liz Palika — March 4, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  4. Sharing is sometimes helpful. As always there is never just one answer and unfortunately many owners feel that the professional dog people always have the right answer.
    Wow that “level of interaction with owners” is a tough measure. It brings back an argument I had with myself years ago. I had a 19yr old cat in renal failure. With subq fluids she was perky and interactive….so I was giving her subq fluids daily. But then each time I would hesitate… more fluids or just let her go? was I prolonging any suffering between doses of fluids? was she really just resting in between doses? if she wasn’t willingly consuming enough fluids was that her way of telling me? There are so many choices ethical and medical. Unfortunately if our pets don’t decide for themselves we are left with the burden of decision.
    Eventually for each of us there is one moment. It can be something little or something huge. Whether it is a moment that causes us to setup that last appointment or cancel it to reschedule. You and Bella are in our thoughts and prayers.

    Comment by mcappy — March 4, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  5. {{Hugs}}
    I understand exactly…

    Comment by Alison — March 4, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

  6. I’m crying, too, of course. Bella is such a wonderful girl.

    Saying goodbye … Been there, done that and nothing I can do, say or write will make this any easier for you and Jerry.


    Comment by Gina Spadafori — March 4, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  7. I’m so sorry. I don’t even know you, or your lovely dog, but these stories and feelings are so universal.

    There is no easy way to say goodbye. And when they’re taken from you without the chance to try to say goodbye, it hurts even more. So cherish the time with her, and build up some more good memories.

    Okay, now I’m crying. Hugs and gentle pets, to you and your Bella.

    Comment by KathyF — March 4, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  8. Ouch. Be very gentle as you comb out those ears. Treasure every moment. Cry lots. (It helps, really it does.) My old Ende is still with me. She turned 15 in August. She’s was diagnosed with both kidney and liver failure back in December, and her breath stinks horribly, but she’s eating and drinking (LOTS) and the pee pills have helped her incontinence issues. She follows me around from room to room when she’s awake, but since the weather has warmed she spends a lot of time napping outside. She’s a stoic sled dog, but she also appears happy.
    I’ve done hospice care for others’ aged dogs. It’s a labor of love and something I consider to be God’s Work. Life is good. Death is inevitable.
    Take care of yourself and the rest of your family too.

    Comment by LynnO — March 4, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  9. All good thoughts for you Kim and of course for Bella.

    Comment by YesBiscuit! — March 4, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  10. I am sorry, Kim. When the time comes, you will have us here to help you.

    As many times as I have been through it with families and patients, I still am nearly powerless to really help people decide ‘when’. You have lived with her, and I fervently believe you will know best. All we can do is support that decision and your family.

    I wish you peace.

    Comment by Dr. Tony Johnson — March 4, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  11. I just want to join in to give my social network support.

    The pain is deep and real–but it is what we all go through in this life.

    The decision was made for me with my previous two cats, Batman and Brandy. However, I have had to make the painful decisions with other cats. Never easy, never just right, and always with a whole lot of guilt.

    That is why I appreciate this discussion because I feel less guilty about all those other times past.

    I am sure you will do right by Bella, because you love her so much. She will live in your heart for ever after, I feel.

    Comment by Evelyn — March 4, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  12. Thank you all so much. Last night I was starting to think it was time. This morning, she was interested in watching me fix everyone’s breakfast, ate pretty well on her own and ate some more when I spoonfed her. A little while later, she came from the other room when I called, which is more activity than I’ve seen lately. So I guess she’s telling me not to rush into anything. We’re just happy with every day that we have left with her, and I hope the med changes that we’ve made will increase them.

    Comment by Kim Thornton — March 4, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  13. Good news!

    Comment by Evelyn — March 4, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  14. Every extra day you get now is a blessing. I was afraid I wouldn’t know when it was time with my stoic husky, but I could see it in his eyes and his body language, almost from one day to the next, that he couldn’t fight any more and was ready to go. Bella will let you know in her own way. And you’re right – it doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 15, it’s just as hard. Wishing you peace on the hard journey you are on – take comfort in knowing Bella has been loved long and well.

    Comment by Di — March 4, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  15. Everyone here is saying all the right things. Just know that we’re all thinking of you and Jerry and your pack. If you need to talk, you’ve got my number; I’m just a phone call away. Meanwhile, lots of hugs ….

    Comment by Susan — March 4, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

  16. My heart was in my throat as I read your post. I was so glad to see her portrait too. You write beautifully. It seems every writer must tell the story of their special dog. No matter many pets I have lived with or how many I have lost, each still touches my heart deeply. Too many of my beloved client dogs have gone to the Rainbow Bridge lately. You’ll know when it is time, and I hope you will be able to be with Bella.

    Comment by Terry Albert — March 4, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  17. My heart goes out to you and beautiful Bella.

    Comment by Pamela Picard — March 4, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  18. My prayers are with you and your Bella. It is one of the toughest decsions we will ever have to make in our lifetime. I often think what would I want. I would want to be in the comfort of my home and with the ones that i love. I think you will know when the time is right.

    We recently went to visit my boyfriends family dog who is 16 years old and he wasn’t eating and could barely move. We went to pray with him and hold him and tell him how much that we love him. His mouth hurt and he couldn’t chew so we went and got him baby food and he tried his best to eat it. I felt a sigh of relief as I was holding him that he was happy to feel all this love around him. We just got an email from my boyfriends parents that after we left his spirits have been lifted, he’s eating, and moving around on his own. Anything is possible…just have faith and it may be hard but don’t let Bella feel how sad you are ..even though it may be extremely painful. You’ll be amazed to see what your strength and love will transfer to her.

    Many blessings to you both

    Comment by Madison Svensson — March 4, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  19. I am so glad Bella is doing a little better. May you have many more quality days together and a gentle passing when its time.

    Comment by Leslie K — March 4, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

  20. Now I’m crying too. Special thoughts and hugs to you Kim and your Bella. Every pet is so very special to those who love them beyond measure.

    Comment by VJ — March 4, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  21. Kim,

    It is so hard when they grow old and die. My thoughts are with you and Bella, and the rest of your family. For what it is worth, as many times as I have been through this myself, I have never cursed myself for letting an animal go too soon, but have sometimes regretted making them stay longer than they wanted. I am here if you need to talk.


    Comment by Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. — March 4, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  22. My thoughts and prayers to you…every day is a gift…

    Comment by Carol V — March 4, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  23. I’m glad Bella is doing better, and I’m glad I didn’t read this early in the day before you posted an update!

    In my experience, it never gets easier, and as many times as I’ve had to let a pet go, I don’t know as my intuition has improved any either. Every time, I just have to play it by ear and hope I don’t screw up too badly.

    Gentle pats to Bella.

    Comment by Eucritta — March 4, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  24. Oh Kim, I’m sorry that you are having to face this. We’ll all be here for you as you guide Bella through her final days. Please don’t feel like you are alone. You and your family will be in my thoughts.

    Comment by The Other Lori — March 4, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  25. Good thoguhts for you- and many more days of wonderful tidbits and warm sunshine and slow walks for Bella.

    Today is the 1 year anniversary of my friend’s dog Shadow’s death. She was 17, and was the dog that convinced me that no, I really DID like dogs as a teenager.

    Comment by Cait — March 4, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

  26. I’m so sorry! I think it is especially hard when they are in that long, slow decline. Good days and bad days are normal, but they sure make it hard to tell “when”.
    Treasure these precious days, even though each one breaks your heart.
    Hugs to you all, and we will send thoughts of peace your way.

    Comment by Barb — March 4, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  27. My dog was recently diagnosed with failing kidneys. The vet seems to think I’ll be where you are sooner than later.

    I’ve had one old dog before and I had to make the decision to let him go. I realized at the time that I was waiting to see him suffering so that I’d know the time was right, but that it was my job to prevent him from suffering. And so I let him go even though he could have had a few more days or weeks or months, and a few more meals. He never lost his appetite but he cried at night as his blindness, deafness and partial paralysis lead him to walk into walls and not be able to find the way outside. I still don’t know if it was the exact right day, but I know it hurt me to do it and that I did for him.

    Comment by Alison — March 4, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  28. My prayers are with you, Bella, and your family.

    Comment by Marcy — March 4, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

  29. I wish you as many good days as possible together. These stories always choke me up and make me cry. I wish my elderly dad would adopt an older cat to keep him company, but he won’t. He’s probably right. So often they do much more from us than we do for them.

    Comment by Susan — March 4, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  30. The portrait is beautiful–but the subject, Bella, is beautiful.

    Loving is easier than letting go, which is so difficult (for me, anyway).

    Comment by Evelyn — March 5, 2010 @ 6:23 am

  31. My heart goes out to you, Kim. No matter how many times you’ve made the decision before, it never gets any easier. How could it? It seems that it should be impossible that those of us who love our animals so much would need to be the ones to make such a final decision.

    Ultimately, Bella will let you know. I wish for you that you can hear her when that time comes. And until then, I hope you and Bella have many more good days together. You’re in my thoughts.

    Comment by Ingrid King — March 5, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  32. Tearfully thinking of you and “our” darling girl.

    I know you will know when the time is right. I have all the faith in the world in you.

    Comment by Phyllis DeGioia — March 5, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  33. Kim, that twilight watch is the most touching time with an animal companion as each of you knows what is ahead, each moment is ever more precious and you grow closer than you could ever imagine. Each of my cats left me with a lesson as they passed, their legacy to make my observations more clear and the path easier for the next cat to leave, but that lessened the pain and tears none at all. I just heard more clearly their message when the time came, and I have been grateful to all the others for that.

    Nothing can or should stop your tears, but I hope your understanding of Bella’s message when that time comes is guided by your other losses, and for a moment you are all together again in a loving memory.

    Comment by Bernadette — March 5, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  34. We understand how hard this has to be for you and wish none of us ever had to go through it with our furries. We hope you two have more quality time left. purrs and tail wags.

    Comment by jansfunnyfarm — March 5, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

  35. i’am so sorry about everyone losing there pets here….i’am about to lose mine any moment she is named cassie my beloved german sheppard…she has cancer …it is so hard we spent so much time together….i can’t imagine tomorrow her not being here….i feel so empty….it is not about is seeing her quality of life dissolve….i can’t talk to real people how deeply my love is for her….it hurts so much to type this

    Comment by joe smolinsky — March 9, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  36. I am so sorry, joe smolinsky.

    Yes, it does hurt very much.

    I have loved all my pets that I have lost very, very deeply, and have suffered much pain when seeing them suffer and then losing them. afterward Afterward, I went dead inside for a period.

    Time did heal my pain–time and my spiritual beliefs.

    It is very hard, joe, to see a pet suffer, very hard indeed.

    Comment by Evelyn — March 9, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  37. `my cat passed away today. her name is Jenny but her mostly called name is meekey. Its not easy… I want to spend one more day with her. i guess ill have to wait until my time comes. shes 19 in cat years so 89 in human years. if ur gonna reply to this message. do it by email because im just trying to let her life ber heard. im gonna miss that beautiful little cat…until then…

    Comment by Imajyn — September 17, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  38. I feel sad to read each of these stories but feel relieved to know that I am not the only one that is so heart broken from my sweet Lucky’s illness and immanent death. He is sitting near me, as he has been for the last 6 months, not eating so well, not moving at all and just breathing. The vet told me today that he has advanced disease in the liver and kidney, so with an enlarged heart, a faulty heart valve and the organ failure, I have to make a decision. But when? Lucky is my first dog and my love. I don’t know what to look for. I don’t know what people are saying when they mention “a sign”. Maybe he gave me a sign when he stopped wanting to go on his favorite daily walks or when he stopped eating for 2 days or when he excuses himself from the family to sleep alone in dark corners.

    What if I was wrong and he could have lived for months longer? Would the guilt ever go away? Will the tears stop? Will the pain in my heart heal? I know I am selfish by wanting my beloved Lucky with me for a little or a lot longer. I can’t find the strength to end his life.

    Comment by Colette — January 15, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  39. Colette, as hard as it is, the hardest part is that there is no way to know for sure you didn’t do it sooner than necessary–only that you waited too long. And knowing that you waited too long, that you released them too late, is an awful feeling.

    One thing that works for some people is to take a picture of your sick pet. A picture is more objective, and sometimes, you can see in that picture whether you’re looking at a dog who still has some pleasure in life, or a dog who is only hanging on because you’re not ready to let go yet.

    Whether in a picture or in the pet himself, what you’re looking for is some sign that he’s still getting some pleasure out of life–or that he’s not.

    I will say that in my totally unscientific and non-representative sample of the family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances over the years, most loving, committed, but first-time pet owners do hang on too long that first time they need to let a pet go. It’s incredibly hard to really internalize the fact that there comes a point, with a pet, when ending a life is an act of love.

    Whatever you do, whenever you do it, as long as you are doing it for Lucky, and for your love of Lucky, yes, eventually, you will heal. The tears will stop. It takes time, but if you make your choices with love, in the end, you’ll have the loving, happy memories, and the pain will fade.

    I wish I could send you hugs.

    Comment by Lis — January 15, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

  40. Colette, two years ago I lost my first pet, an 11-year-old rabbit. She was the light of the household and inspired me, with her intelligence and wit and affection, to create a thriving advocacy group for domestic rabbits. As much as a member of a different species can be my best friend, she was.

    She had a terrible death. She contracted a double infection and spent her last days unable to stand or drink or much of anything. She was so, so sick. I waited too long. My grief was longer and more difficult because I kept thinking of her suffering.

    Two months ago, I lost my second pet, an elderly rabbit who had renal failure. This time, I did not wait. As soon as I saw her start to really suffer … her back legs became very weak, she wouldn’t eat on her own, odd breathing that pain meds didn’t remedy … I had her euthanized. Others might say I could have waited and given her a chance to recover (very doubtful) or to live a bit longer. But in my opinion, she wasn’t living, she was existing. I have zero regrets except I wish I had done it in the morning, not that night. I miss her so much, but I am not tormented.

    I get so frustrated when I ask vets what to look for and they say “you’ll know.” If I knew, I would not be asking!

    I hope you find some peace soon. This is a very, very difficult situation to maneuver. I was caring for both of my sweet pets around the clock, exhausted, crying, worried … not the best frame of mind for making big decisions.

    Comment by Mary Mary — January 15, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  41. Collette, everyone who has had pets has been where you are. The first one is the toughest, because it is unknown territory.
    This page may help:
    I did something like this with the first dog I had as an adult, the first time I had to face this decision. I had just lost my other dog a couple of months before, making it even more difficult, because it would mean I’d be dogless. So it was very hard to let go.
    I sat down next to her and talked to her, describing my life with her and how much I cherished it. When I asked her if she wanted to leave the planet she whined. My hair stood on end. And it took me two more days to accept it and act on it. It was Sunday, but my vet was responsive anyway, thank goodness.
    I know it’s the vet giving the shot, but it feels like you’re the one ordering the death sentence. It feels like an impossible decision to make. But many times it can be a blessing, helping an animal shed a suffering body.
    If you choose to share your life with more animals, you will eventually just “know” when it is time. You will know, from the animal’s point of view, when life in the current body is just too hard.
    My heart goes out to you.

    Comment by CathyA — January 16, 2011 @ 4:58 am

  42. I let my best boy Mac go this morning. He just turned 10, he had lymphoma. I have had 4 months to research and fight and finally to accept that I could not save him. Although this was not my first euthanasia, it was the first where I had a choice. Mac had a great appetite, he played, he ran, he barked(although lately the tumor in his throat changed his bark). I spoiled him terribly these last months, along with my other two shelties. All the house rules flew out the window. I had planned to let him go when his appetite waned…but it didnt. What helped me decide was that he was sleeping a lot more during the day, he wasnt following me around the house like before…he went off to sleep away from us…he just seemed tired. This change happened in a matter of 2-3 days. I would notice him just staring at me. I realized he was at the end of his good days…there was little hope that he would ever feel better. As much as I miss him, I had to release him from his commitment to stay with me. My vet is very kind and his clinic backs up to a pasture. I went early this morning and backed my car up to the field…lifted the back hatch and sat with Mac on a quilt with a huge box of kleenex and listened to the birds and felt the breeze. Dr Mike injected a tranquilizer to relieve Mac’s stress..that pinch was his only discomfort. He then left us for 15 minutes while I talked to Mac and told him what a great friend he had been, he settled down and put his head on his paws, staring out into the field. Dr Mike returned and injected a sedative to put him into a deep sleep…I continued to talk to him…he became very still. When Dr Mike returned for the final injection…I hugged Mac and in moments I could tell he was gone. We wrapped Mac in a fleece blanket I had made for this purpose then Dr Mike carried him inside until he could be cremated. I have been tormented these last months about doing this too soon..but once the appointment was made and I began preparing for the next morning…I felt like I was finally in control again and could make this last act of kindness as pleasant as possible for both of us….I felt a sense of relief. There will be many more days and nights of crying ahead..tonight at midnight I will go outside and light a candle so Mac can look down and see us. Thank you for letting me post has helped to put it into words… I wish you peace.

    Comment by Christine in Texas — June 16, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

  43. Oh Christine. That was so beautiful, and this particularly:

    “I have been tormented these last months about doing this too soon..but once the appointment was made and I began preparing for the next morning…I felt like I was finally in control again and could make this last act of kindness as pleasant as possible for both of us….I felt a sense of relief.”

    That matches exactly my experience so many times, especially when my Raven lost her battle with bone cancer. I wish you peace, too.

    Comment by Christie Keith — June 17, 2011 @ 5:02 am

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