It was a tough day for me when Jimmy came in. His bright eyes and wagging tail didn’t disguise his shambling, painful walk and the fact that he couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without lying down. He wasn’t a regular patient of ours, but he was in Vermont with his owners for vacation and needed a refill of medications. It was clear that Jimmy’s case was a “quality of life” issue—the veterinarians and owners were working together to control his pain and maintain function for as long as possible, until the time came when the bad days outnumbered the good days and it was time for a discussion about euthanasia.
It was hard for me to retain my composure during Jimmy’s exam, because I had never seen a dog (that wasn’t actively dying) look so badly off. Jimmy had severely arthritic hips, a hunched back, and elbows abducted for maximum stability. Each step was a titanic effort, culminating in an awkward, unbalanced hop-skip that made me cringe in sympathy. Once he had made it to the thick, cushioned mat I had laid out, Jimmy lay there panting heavily, each breath clearly an effort. Jimmy’s abdomen was distended, and the vet felt an abdominal wave on palpation, evidence that there was a large quantity of free fluid. The vet spent several minutes listening to Jimmy’s heart in silence, then looked up to discuss the fact that his heart rate was 260 beats per minute, much higher than the normal 80-140 range.
While assisting the vet during her exam, I felt myself tearing up and had to hide my face from the cheerful owner. It was clear that this owner loved his dog more than anything, as he regaled us with tales of Jimmy swimming with the grandchildren in the pool. I knew that Jimmy’s pain was being controlled as best it could, and that he had a loving family. But I couldn’t help but be heartbroken, because Jimmy was a nightmare of mine brought to life. 5 years ago I had urged my parents to put down our elderly family Labrador, because I knew I couldn’t handle his slow decline in function over the long Vermont winter. It’s always hard to see an animal in distress, and harder still to accept that the time for goodbye varies from person to person.