Written By Marissa Greenberg, DVM
If you have been reading Animal Care Clinic’s articles for a while, you will remember Slink and my stories of living with an old dog. Over the last several months, as Slink’s body and mind were failing her it became too difficult and emotional for me to write about my experiences. But, now three weeks after saying goodbye to Slink, there are some things I find myself wanting to share with others, in thoughts that it may be therapeutic for me, and maybe help just one reader.
Though I was taught in vet school that age isn’t a disease, Slink really wasn’t suffering from any specific disease besides what happens to the body with age. Her muscles and her nervous system were growing weak and had trouble supporting her. She’d fall once in a while, and drag her feet, but she was able to get up by herself. She suffered from canine cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to human dementia. She started odd behaviors – the most notable being standing at the doggie door and just putting her head in and out for extended periods of time. At times she’d lose interest in food, and it would take some trying of new things to get her interested again. And she’d occasionally vomit, with no medical explanation.
Like I tell my clients to do, I was constantly assessing Slink’s quality of life. She was still happy to see the family, interacted with the humans and dogs in her life, could get up on her own, and still had a little bit of that spark that made her Slink. That all changed in the last week of her life. Slink started having some accidents in the house, and really slowed down-instead of putting her head in and out the doggie door, she was sleeping more, and instead of being in my room ready for me to get up to get her breakfast, she was sound asleep. I made sure there was no medical explanation for any of this, but again, could find nothing; just the fact that she was 16 and her body was starting to give up on her.
A few days later, I had to make the biggest decision in any pet owner’s life. I have never had to make the decision to euthanize one of my own pets, and even though it is something I help clients deal with on a daily basis, it still wasn’t something I was totally prepared for. Any vet will tell you, it’s different when it’s his or her own. But over the last 8 and a half years, I have told clients many a times, that somehow you will just know when it’s time, somehow that beloved pet that you know so well, will give you a sign or tell you somehow, that it’s time to let them be at peace. I kept telling myself that. And that day, when I sat down next to Slink on her bed, it suddenly became clear to me that it was her time to be at peace. It wasn’t what she did, it’s what she didn’t do. She hardly acknowledged that I was there, because she was just too tired to lift her head. She didn’t push her nose under my hand so that I would pet her like she had done so many thousands of times before, and when she did pick up her head, she didn’t put it down in my lap, she put it down on her bed instead. In her own way, she told me she was tired, and that her spark was gone. As I watched her very shakily get up and not make it very far before having to lie down again, I knew that nothing but her age was making her tired, and that she deserved to be at peace.
I miss Slink every single day, and some days are harder than others, and being a veterinarian does in some ways, pose its own challenges to the grieving process. But, the grieving process is a difficult and complex one, unique for each individual. Slink taught a lot of people a lot of things in our fifteen years together – she was often the dog new employees at Animal Care Clinic practiced things on, she visited classrooms at SLO High for students to learn things like how to put on bandages, and she was even one of the dogs my first year vet school class practiced simple things like animal handling on. She taught many a foster dog, friend’s puppies, and her biggest fan, my younger dog, Mico, how to be good dogs. And through her aging process, the decision to let her go peacefully with euthanasia, and the grieving process that followed, she taught me some lessons that I will forever be grateful for. She was a teacher, in life and death, and will be missed greatly, but never forgotten, as her legacy will live on through what she has taught me that may help others through the process.
As part of my grieving process, I’ve written a separate tribute to Slink and all that we experienced together, if you’d like to hear about her life.