On Playing God and Euthanizing Our Family Pet

This weekend I experienced what it feels like to play God. And I didn’t like the role one bit.

When I was told that my 10 ½- year-old Golden Retriever had contracted aggressive, incurable liver cancer, I was faced with a huge decision. I – and my family – had to decide when to euthanize her. The vet told me that if she wasn’t eating and wasn’t happy, it was time.

Well, she had lost about 15 pounds in six weeks, because she wouldn’t eat. I had found a few human foods she liked – ground beef, peanut butter sandwiches, chicken – but even some of these she sometimes wouldn’t eat. Dog food was not an option; she refused to touch it. While she would eat the Greenies she had never been given before, she wouldn’t touch the one treat she had waited for all day – her “chewies” (rawhide chew bones).

As for being happy, my husband said it best: “She hasn’t smiled in a long time.” It was true. For at least the last month, more and more often we had found her laying outside not even picking her head up when we came out the door. She rarely greeted the car anymore wanting the treat she knew I always gave her when I arrived home, and when she did, she wouldn’t eat the milk bones or the special doggie cookies I had recently purchased for her (which initially she thought were fabulous). She had taken to holing up under the deck stairs, a spot she frequented only in the summer when she was very hot. She didn’t jump at the chance to go for a walk. There was no “body wag” when we returned from a six-day trip to New York on New Year’s Eve.

So, after being given the bad news on Thursday we decided that on Saturday we would put her to sleep. I called the vet on Friday and made the appointment.

An hour later the PG & E meter man came – my dog’s favorite person. He brought dog treats. (When we lived in Chicago, everyone, including the garbage men, brought our dog treats. Since moving to a secluded mountain home in California almost five years ago, she has missed these daily and weekly visits from people bearing gifts. When we moved to our new house almost two years ago – also in a secluded mountain area, the PG & E man began coming. Just as her rawhide chewies were the highlight of her day, he was the highlight of her month.) I was just trying to entice her out of her “hole” under the deck with some chicken. Well, when she saw him she wolfed down the chicken and began to smile and do the body wag. She even ate about 30 milk bones (which she wouldn’t eat for me) that he gave her when he found out she wouldn’t be waiting for him next month. He couldn’t believe she had cancer and we were going to have to put her to sleep. I couldn’t believe it either as I watched her.

That night we gave her a wonderful Shabbat dinner. My son, who had cried just one night earlier when we first found out what was wrong with his “sister” and knew she would die soon and again when he tried to get her to eat table scraps and she wouldn’t eat them (the last straw that brought on our decision not to wait but to take her to the vet on Shabbat), likened it to the last meal of a prisoner being put to death. First course, ground beef. Second course, challah (she knows the blessing and comes to the table when she hears motzi). Third course, roast beef, rice pilaf and gravy. She ate it all, and then spent the rest of the evening on the deck with her head between her paws.

The next morning, she had left overs from the night before even thought we saw evidence on her rear end and in the yard that the wonderful meal that she had loved had made her sick to her stomach. We took her for a nice walk – where she again looked so very normal (except when we went up hills, which made her struggle, and happy. And then we went to the vet.

After many tears and my son at her side and me with her head on my knee, the vet gave her a lethal dose of anesthesia and this animal – my buddy – who had moments before been trotting down a path in the local Christmas tree farm looking so alive became a limp rag doll. When I put her head gently down on the blanket upon which she lay and put her paw over her “baby,” a stuffed cow, I couldn’t believe how soft and pliable she was…how quickly and completely dead – because of our decision.

I told my kids and my husband that we should be thankful we were able to make this choice. Only with pets can you choose to put them out of their misery – and to stop yourself from suffering with them. We don’t have to wait until their hearts or other organs fail.

With humans, we don’t have this choice. We are not allowed to relieve our loved ones of their suffering. We cannot choose when they die. We cannot “let them go” when they are sick and unhappy and unable to eat. We cannot pick a time when we know death is inevitable but they still have their dignity and their wits about them. We can’t give them one or two great meals and a walk in nature and then say, “You had a great day. Go on a good note.”

It’s too bad really. Maybe Dr. Kevorkian had the right idea. Yet, he was criticized for playing God…and his “patients” played God as well. Judaism is not too accepting of suicide, and, of course, the actions of Kevorkian and his patients were deemed “assisted suicide.” Maybe we were not meant to choose the time of our death; Judaism, I think, would agree. Death is a fact of life better left in the hands of the Divine who seemingly has a plan for us all…and our pets.

Thank goodness for the ability to choose not to be resuscitated. Without that DNR order, many a good soul who would like to be returned to the Light, to meet his Maker, to become Pure Positive Energy again, to connect with God remains stuck, trapped, in a nonfunctioning body. I wouldn’t want that.

Dr. Kevorkian scared us. We are afraid of playing God – with our own lives or someone else’s life. And maybe that is best. I can’t say that I don’t now live with some guilt about taking my dog’s life. Maybe those hours when she was still happy, still enjoyed her food, were enough. Maybe she would have been happy and comfortable enough to live for a few more weeks or a month. Maybe I made a mistake. This is bad enough when it revolves around a pet; imagine what it would be like around a human. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to go there. I hope every one of my loved ones either has a DNR order or dies in their sleep. I don’t want to be asked if I want to “pull the plug” on another human being.

Just before I actually called the vet and made the appointment to euthanize our dog, a friend sent me an e-mail telling me that animals are very stoic. By the time we know they are in pain, that pain is quite severe. My mother followed suit by explaining that very sick dogs sometimes seem quite normal because they try to do things they have always done. They want to do them, but afterwards they suffer the consequences, feeling sicker than before. I saw that in our dog. I understood. That was what happened when the PG & E guy came…I felt better about my choice — our choice.

Maybe she was more uncomfortable and unhappy that I knew. Keeping her alive would have just extended her suffering, which would have only gotten worse. And it would have extended our suffering as well. At least now I know she has no discomfort and she is at peace. Only my children, my husband and I have the discomfort of grieving for her and feeling her loss. However, I am not yet at peace with this decision we made.

On the other hand, I believe that animals are so close to the Divine at all times. They come from Pure Positive Energy and return there in less than the blink of an eye. They have no fear of death. They don’t even know what it is. They just move instantly into bliss…and, from what I’m told, reincarnate almost immediately.

My rabbi called
me on Sunday night to offer his condolences. He told me that someone recently told him that when human’s die, they are greeted first by their pets. I’ll keep that picture in my mind and in my heart.

And I hope I won’t have another opportunity to play God again any time soon.

(Goodbye, Olympia. You were the sweetest, kindest, most trouble-free dog ever. You were a great pet, a superb companion and a blessing to all who saw your smile. You will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.)

2 thoughts on “On Playing God and Euthanizing Our Family Pet”

  1. Very moving story, Nina. It’s similar, in many ways, to the story I wrote for the Daily Herald, after Bear died. I especially loved the sentiment you wrote to Olympia, at the end.

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