I often get The Look when friends and family come over to our house. They look at Smudge struggle to rise from her relaxed recumbency, watch her walk straight legged as she makes her way to the door, then wag her tail when they give her a pat hello. “Awwwww, poor thing” is often the next thing that squeaks out of their mouth.
Poor Smudge. The thing is, I don’t look at her that way. Does she look like the robust, beautiful Berner she did when she was 7 years old? Heck, no! Smudge has basically doubled the average life expectancy of a Bernese Mountain Dog, and lost the equivalent of a medium sized dog in weight and muscle mass. Sarcopenia, the dreaded common side effect of growing old. Old dogs are not pretty. They are lumpy, skinny and sometimes stiff. They often have accidents in the house. They are not steady on their feet and they can seem spacey due to some degree of doggy dementia. Our almost 14 year old Smudge has all of the above.
Is it time to say good bye? Give her the blue juice and free her of her mostly broken body? I don’t think so. Am I wearing denial goggles? I hope not.
When clients are stuck in this same grey zone of not wanting to say goodbye too early and not waiting until it becomes too late, we discuss and fill out a quality of life scale. Although it doesn’t sit exactly right that I am discussing the life of a much loved pet and reducing that life into a number in each category from 0 (very low) to 5 (normal), it does seem to be a very helpful exercise for pet parents. It helps to put things in perspective.
Smudge’s appetite...5, breathing difficulties...5, gives love/takes love...5, accidents in the house...2, mobility...2-3, and the list goes on. I often find owners can get through this questionnaire with dry eyes until I ask them, “Do you think your dog is happy?” Tears begin to flow. They reminisce about chasing balls in the park, swimming off the boat in the summer time, frolicking in the snow, or rolling over for belly rubs. When your dog stops doing their favorite things, it can be a clue that they are not happy and no longer have joy in their life. Smudge typically scores between a 70-75%. Still quite good, but this high score doesn't come easily. She is on 6 different medications to treat her pain, hypothyroidism and cognitive dysfunction. I massage her every night, she has had several chiropractic sessions and she just had her first session of acupuncture. She has a special harness for times when she needs extra support. She needs help getting up the 2 steps from our back deck into our house. Our entire main floor is covered in criss cross runway of yoga mats for her so she doesn't splay out on her back legs and her food and water bowl are now elevated to prevent her neck from stretching down too far to the ground. Did I mention she has fecal incontinence? After a lifetime of no messes in the house, Smudge can’t control her bowel movements. Waking up to an aromatic fragrance is now the norm in our house.
In 2001, early on in our marriage, I surprised my husband with a big furball that came to be known as Smudge. When we looked at her nose, it looked like someone took their thumb and smeared the blackness, as if it was smudged. We always knew a dog was going to be our first (fur) baby and she would help prepare us for the commitment we would eventually make in having our own children. Smudge proved to be a gentle giant with the patience of a saint in her role as playmate for our kids and all other children. She has continued to be an integral part of our family.
She has had a wonderful life. Being loved and loving us in return. She deserves a beautiful death. And when we determine it is time for her to leave her failing body, she will leave this world, in her home, surrounded by her family as we shower her with kisses and words of love. If this happens to fall on a warm day, my 9 year old son has decided we should bring snow from the local hockey arena for her to lie on. One of her favourite things. She will feel no stress or anxiety in her final moments, as euthanasia, by my hand, ensures she will pass peacefully and painlessly. That is what she deserves as she heads for the snow covered Swiss mountains in the sky. So the next time you see Smudge, instead of saying “poor Smudge,” perhaps give her a pat and say “ lucky Smudge.”
Smudge making a snow angel!
Dr. Faith Banks is a dear friend of Dr. Mary Gardner and Dr. Dani McVety - she offers end of life care to families in Toronto Canada.
Dr. Faith Banks, DVM
Midtown Mobile Veterinary Services