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A Death in the Family

Life Inevitably Ends, but Preparation Can Determine How It Ends


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Intelligent brown eyes, a playful personality, and loads of curiosity characterized Lizzie as a puppy. Named by our 8-year-old daughter, Sabrina, the black Labrador-German shepherd mix joined our family in 1991 and lived with us nearly 15 years. She lost her energy and physical abilities as she advanced into old age, but her spirit could only be described as ennobled.

Originally a companion for Sabrina, Lizzie’s entertaining antics soon endeared her to my wife and me. Every corner was worth investigating, and she never met a stick she wouldn’t chew. Early on she demonstrated quick learning abilities, though it took patience and consistency on our part to stop her from digging up the yard, to direct her barking toward suspicious strangers, and to leave the neighborhood cats alone.

Vic Cox

Daily walks made her widely known in the neighborhood. Standing behind a cyclone fence on the side yard and looking into the adjacent open space, she often greeted other dogs. Some of them made it a point to touch noses when they visited.

However, if we ordered “no barking,” Lizzie knew the social moment was over. Should we have to repeat the command, a guilty look crossed her face and she would grab the nearest chew toy.

From our dining room window we watched children who frequented the grassy area and its swing set come to Lizzie. Small kids would thrust little fingers through the fence and squeal in delight when Lizzie licked them. A couple of the boys, their father later told me, dubbed the open space “Lizzie’s Park.”

Despite anti-inflammatory drugs, arthritis had greatly diminished her walking ability by the middle of her fifteenth year, and she lost control of her bowels. Tests showed her kidneys were failing and she began to refuse favorite treats. Our family realized that Lizzie’s life was spiraling to its end.

Drs. Bill Wallace and Stephen Lewis, veterinarians at Goleta’s Airport Animal Hospital, had done almost all they could to prolong her quality of life. Faced with the certainty that nothing would reverse the process and that Lizzie, who showed little of the pain she felt, could only get worse, we made one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make as a family: to ease our beloved canine friend’s passage from life into death.

Lizzie
Click to enlarge photo

© Vic Cox

Lizzie

Sabrina took the lead that overcast September day as we listened to Dr. Wallace explain Lizzie’s weakening condition. Our options: Inject her with a powerful steroid to temporarily ease her pain and possibly revive mobility, or employ a sedative and shut down her heart within seconds. She would feel nothing after the initial drowsiness.

The previous year we had twice tried the steroid on her and knew the positive effects wore off in a couple of days. Our daughter chose to blend the options. Sabrina requested the injection so she could have a farewell walk in a wooded area with Lizzie before the final sleep. We all hoped Lizzie’s movements would ease as she took in nature’s smells one last time while beside the human she loved best.

That was how it worked out. As Dr. Wallace shaved fur from a foreleg, desensitized the area, and prepared the intravenous sedative I held Lizzie gently on the examination table. Sabrina caressed her head and spoke to her soothingly. I did the same as the needle entered the vein and Lizzie gave me a trusting look. She uttered no sound and soon drooped her head.

A check with the stethoscope detected no heartbeat. There were no dry eyes in the room as Sabrina kissed Lizzie’s grizzled head.

Nearly five years later I asked Dr. Wallace if our experience with euthanasia in his office had been about standard. When he replied in the affirmative, I asked if it takes a toll on the veterinarian who offers this service. “A lot of animals touch your heart,” he replied. “They’re unafraid, and they like you. It’s the hardest thing a vet has to do.”

That’s 46 years of experience speaking, most of it acquired in Goleta. He added that he tries to “walk a fine line” with clients who bring him their aged or cancer-ridden dogs and cats. He listens first and then advises. Sometimes, he noted, opinions are divided between spouses or within families.

“The best thing is to be direct about (options among) hospice services,” said the vet. “I give them my opinion,” and if it concerns a dog with inoperable cancer, he usually finds no good reason for prolonging life with painkillers. However, he cautioned, “Time is fleeting, and it’s seldom a black-and-white decision.”

After our discussion, I realized that in many ways end-of-life decisions for pets (or companion animals, if you prefer) are one of the few ways this society allows people to prepare for their own mortality, or that of loved ones. Learning about painless methods of gently easing a pet from life into death, and dealing with the consequences, could stand us all in good stead.

Grieving pet owners might also check the Goleta Valley-based Santa Barbara Humane Society Web site and its resources.

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