Old Dogs: When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?

One year ago today I had to say goodbye to Zambi. She was 13 years old – ancient in Newfoundland years. And as with everything Zambi did for me, she made her passing easy, well as easy as possible for a pet parent.  She simply stopped eating and drinking Friday night after work.  By Sunday the decision I had to make was clear.

Now let me stress that I am grateful to the folks at Newfoundland rescue for bringing Splash into my life but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still miss Zambi. About a year before she passed I wrote down my thoughts about having to make that dreaded decision and while Zambi spared me from having to go through this, not every pet parent is as fortunate, so today I wanted to take a minute to remember Zambi (and cry a bit), to hug Splash, and to share my thoughts about having to say goodbye.

There comes a time when you realize that your pet is old. No longer is your pet “getting older” — he or she is just old. I’ve known for a long time that my 12 year old Newfoundland was getting old – I mean she is 12 and the average Newfie life span is around 10. But just in the last few months I have come to the harsh reality that she is old.

She spends most her day sleeping under my desk (which while very comforting can make it hard to reach the keys or my laptop) and increasingly has trouble standing up. Her bark has changed from a deep majestic Newfie song to that faint old dog bark. She is on Rimadyl and doesn’t seem to be in any pain, but it is still sad. Long gone are the days of her pulling a cart loaded with three of our kids or having the fourth child use her as a pillow. The question before me now is just how long before she is gone too.

Like many dog guardians I have faced this terrible situation in the past. My Labrador Retriever made it to 16 and our last Great Dane was 11 when she faded over the course of a weekend. They had wonderfully long lives but just thinking about it years later still brings me to tears. Intellectually I completely understand my obligation to the pets that I have loved for so many years (and who I think have loved me too) but of course emotionally it is a different story.

Faced with the hardest decision you question yourself: is it time? Is there something else I should do or try? You seek guidance from the veterinary professionals in your life, but that guidance is often lacking. You talk to others that might be in a similar situation but that often leaves you with even more questions.

Just last week, a client with a 12 year old Great Dane was checking in and said that he hoped she simply passed away on our watch so that he wouldn’t have to make the decision. Remarkably, this was not the first time this conversation has been had in our lobby. In many ways, after years of caring for someone’s pet when they are away from home you take on this surrogate role. We are not veterinarians and in some ways I think that makes it easier on folks to have the conversation with us. We don’t approach the situation from a medical point of view – we look at it as if we are the pet’s guardian too.

I still don’t know how to quantify when it’s time, I simply hope that when it is I have the ability to make the right decision.

Thanks for reading.