One man's personal story of grief. NBC News correspondent Mike Taibbi shares his touching story of the decline of his beloved pug Scoop. Read on to hear Mike's story, learn more about pets' endstage behavior and hear expert advice about the hardest part of being a pet owner.On the night after Thanksgiving our old pug Scoop limped into the living room, glanced at the fire crackling in the fireplace, and then circled for more than half a minute before plopping down awkwardly near the couch where my wife Siobhan and I sat, watching television. The limp was new. The circling wasn't.
When we'd arrived at our house after driving out from the city, Scoop had walked slowly to some of his regular spots on the property... near the woodpile, to his favorite trees... while Siobhan and I unpacked the car. But he didn't follow us into the house as he usually did and when I looked out the kitchen window I saw something else that was new: he couldn't get up the three steps to the back door. His rear legs, which had weakened considerably in the past year, simply couldn't propel his 17-pound weight over the last step. Standing on the grass again he looked up at the door and barked for help, and I went outside and carried him into the house.
We're watching and taking note of everything that's happening with our old guy these days. At 14 ½ and with his kidneys failing and body weakening, we know he doesn't have a lot of time. We also know there's a good chance we'll have to make the decision so many dog owners have to make... to have a beloved pet euthanized to keep him from suffering.
Scoop's veterinarian all these years, Dr. Keith Manning of Manhattan's East Side Animal Hospital, says it's all about the dog's quality of life...a relatively simple and unambiguous idea...but that making a euthanasia decision on that basis is different than acting on it.
"People just don't want to let go," he told me. "Or they say they've decided they really want their pet to die at home, or they have religious convictions about it that they hadn't really thought about." A lot of owners struggle mightily with the decision, he said, sometimes even after the dog is gone.
He gave me one example, a woman who showed up for her dog's euthanasia appointment not only with her sick and aged pet...but also with a friend who was willing to sign the papers she herself said she couldn't bring herself to sign. Some time after the dog had been euthanized Dr. Manning said he was informed that the woman was outside the office, "...causing a scene. I went outside and heard her screaming 'I murdered my dog! I murdered my dog!' Then she saw me and started shouting 'You murdered my dog, you murdered my dog!'" She later filed a lawsuit, Dr. Manning said, which went nowhere. "But I had to hire a lawyer, and the friend of hers who'd signed the release papers said she wouldn't testify. It was an expensive episode. These things can get very very messy..."
In fact it often gets messy because dog owners aren't sure what they're seeing... or not seeing... in their pets' endstage behavior. "It can frequently seem like a grey area," says Dr. Stephanie La Farge, a psychologist who serves as the senior director of counseling services for the ASPCA. "The animal's not screaming in pain, and seems to be tolerating well a range of problems the vet has confirmed. But there are subtle signs to look for."
Among the signs Dr. La Farge says can be monitored: air hunger, wasting syndrome and incontinence. She says it's one thing if a dog of any age is gulping air after physical exertion, but quite another if he's doing so at 2 in the morning in the cool of the night. She says it's imperative to honestly observe your pet's physical deterioration..."If he's 'going downhill,' is it fair to wait until he's at the bottom of the hill?" And the arrival of incontinence is almost always a bad sign. "Many a 'loving owner' will say 'oh I love him so much, I can put up with his incontinence.' But it's not about the owner: the dog will likely be terrified by his incontinence, because as a pack animal he knows instinctively that losing control of his eliminations puts him and the whole pack at risk of being killed in the wild."
Dr. La Farge runs a pet loss hotline for the ASPCA (1-877-474-3310) and, as an expert in the human-animal bond, speaks up for the animal in the equation.
"The priority should not be the owner's feelings of anxiety and anguish...the owner needs to de-center, to concentrate entirely on the animal and the animal's degree of distress, discomfort or pain." She suggests keeping a detailed journal of a full 24-hour period in the life of an older or deteriorating dog: is he often not entirely comfortable, unable to find a place to lie down and stay there? Does he pace at night, does he go to odd or unusual places in the house or around the property? "Because if he's doing these things," she says, "he's preparing to die. Again, it's the instinct of the pack animal..." to separate himself from the pack in his end stage.
For an owner who has monitored a pet's decline and concluded a decision to euthanize is very near, Dr. La Farge has several suggestions. First, confirm your decision by asking your veterinarian two questions: given the dog's condition, what will it be like... what will it look like...if we don't make a euthanasia decision and the dog dies at home? The honest answer will be that it's often not as neat and evidently painless an end for the animal as simply not waking up one morning. And the second question: if this was your dog, doctor, what would you do?
And if you and your vet agree that it's time, Dr. La Farge says to be pro-active about the timing of the euthanasia, and make an appointment. "Owners often say they don't want to do it too soon. Of course not, but it's always 'too soon' for the pet owner. Again, it's about whether it's too late for the pet, in terms of his needless suffering or distress." And once the appointment is made... say, in a week's time... use that time to say goodbye. "Take him for his last car rides, to his favorite places, give him his favorite meals. If you have children let them say goodbye too, with a careful explanation of what's happening. Many owners have the dog put down while the kids are at school, without explaining anything beforehand. Usually, a big mistake..."
Another big mistake: trying to bargain with the decision to end the life of a suffering pet. "I've heard so many reasons," Dr. La Farge says. "'I'm going through a divorce, I'll wait till it's done.' Or they'll say 'I'm giving him another year or another six months.'" Not fair, she says. "The more control the owner exerts over this part of the process, the better it is for all concerned... most importantly, for the dog."
And what about the aftermath?
"For the first few days," says this mother of seven children, "there's an extraordinary emptiness. People talk about '...the void,' and they often say with some shame and embarrassment that they didn't cry this much or hurt this much when their father or mother or sister died..." Not surprising, many veterinarians agree. "After all," Dr. Manning told me, "the pets have given unconditional love. No complications there."
Adds Dr. La Farge, "The way you relate to your pet doesn't require words, which are often a barrier to intimacy. For example, it's often a 'stressor' to talk to a human loved one...but when you pet or touch your dog, your blood pressure goes down. When you walk in the door he's there to greet you. You're constantly in contact with him, he sleeps in your bed. He wants nothing more than to be as close to you as possible. Most of us don't have human relationships that are that entwined."
All of which makes for a grieving process that's incredibly intense, and complicated by the fact that in quite specific ways it's a marginalized grief that is often self-limiting. You can't be completely free to express the pain of your loss because a colleague or acquaintance might say, 'hey, it's just a dog!' It's certainly not recognized as a grief on par with that experienced after the loss of a spouse or parent or other human loved one. Says Dr. La Farge, "You don't get a day off from work."
But many people could sure use a day off... or more than one. "I've had patients tell me they walk in the front door and hear the dog's footsteps, or they think they see him out of the corner of their eye. For some, it's like they're hallucinating...and they fear they're losing their minds. Or they get angry... at themselves, for 'killing' the dog. At the vet... at a roommate or spouse who isn't grieving as much or in the same way. They wonder whether the dog felt pain or fear at the end...they're second-guessing everything about their decision to 'let him go.'"
And then, inevitably, the second-guessing slows down and the almost physical pain of grief begins to subside. "This may take a week or two," Dr. La Farge says. "But you can move on the moment you accept two things: that your pet had a wonderful life, and that you made the right decision to let him go when you did.
"In other words, that you treated him well in life and in death."
Our guy Scoop isn't quite ready yet. He had a swell Thanksgiving, wagging his tail through a long day of guests and commotion in our New York apartment. The Sunday before I'd taken him out to our boat... his boat...in our inflatable dingy, and with not one but two fleeces around him for warmth we'd tooled around the calm harbor and he seemed to enjoy it the way he'd enjoyed it all these years. Though he doesn't have many teeth left he still likes to mash away at one of the small biscuits Siobhan gives him every night, and he still snuggles next to either one of us... or both of us, if he can...in tactile pleasure he continues to seek out.
But there are bad signs too. His kidney function continues to worsen, it's more of a struggle with each passing week for him to walk, stay balanced, complete his bodily functions. Almost every night he has stretches when he's gulping air; he's on the bed, off the bed, searching for a way to be comfortable. He's on a collection of anti-inflammatories, analgesics and diet supplements, and there are days when his lethargy is palpable, when the light in his eyes seems so dim. And, the day after he went for that boatride with me, I'd just landed in Boston on the early shuttle when Siobhan called and said that after I left she'd watched in sorrow as Scoop urinated on a bedroom rug, the first time in his adult life we've known him to empty his bladder indoors. Later in the day, Siobhan emailed me about the incident she said had saddened her so. "I took him out after that, and when we got back upstairs I washed his various parts and paws... and he looked at me as only those eyes can..."
He's telling us, it's almost time.
And when the time comes, and we've said goodbye to our sweet old pal, Dr. La Farge has some advice we'll follow.
"Avoid making any decisions you can't undo," she said. "Don't throw the dog's food bowl away, or his toys or his sleeping mat... just put them in a closet and decide later when you're past the acute stage of grieving whether you want to hold onto any of it.
"And find a place in the house that still 'belongs' to your lost pal..." A place for a favored photo, where you can revisit your feelings about him.
In those first weeks, Dr. La Farge said, even after the initial feelings of relief that you're no longer on deathwatch, you need to have a place...at home and at work, too... where you can go if you need to cry. "Because from long experience counseling grieving pet owners," she said, "I know the pain of that loss will hit you like a wave. For a long time."
But not yet. Right now we cherish every hour we can spend with him, and he still has his appetites and affections and sense of play. Scoop will tell us when he's ready. We're listening.
Mike Taibbi is an NBC News correspondent.