In college, the country veterinarian who owned the clinic where I worked said to me, “Son, go grab a bag and meet me at the freezer.” It was his way of communicating that it was time to “put down” a dog or cat. I hated it.
Animal clinics have a way of accumulating friendly strays that over time evolve into permanent residents. Those dogs and cats, living in cages or kennels far in the back, became de facto pets for the staff. For instance during my time at the clinic, there was Blackie. His humans left him there and never came to retrieve him, so he became the “kennel dog,” offering energetic, unconditional love to anyone willing to pause work and scratch him behind the ears. And there was Charlie, a beefy, club-footed cat who walked on his knee and thus bled from a permanent leg wound. He had an outgoing, affable disposition. I adored him.
Every few years, a creek that ran through our small town flooded. A neighboring animal clinic was within the flood plain, so the staff of that neighboring clinic would evacuate the various dogs and cats in temporary residence, the pets of paying customers. For whatever reason, the destination for that clinic’s periodic evacuations was our clinic.
Typically, we had space to accommodate — it was rare that the many cages and kennels in our facility were full. But one spring, huge storms rolled through on the odd day in which our clinic was packed. As the floodwaters rose, our front-desk staff got the phone call from the neighboring facility. The doctor who owned ours instructed me to grab clubfooted Charlie, along with a trash bag, and meet him by the freezer.
I froze. A few months earlier, I arrived at work one morning to discover the kennel that had been occupied by Blackie to be empty. When I asked, a coworker told me they had put him to sleep because they needed the space. The nonchalance got under my skin and stayed there. So when the doc told me to grab Charlie and a trash bag, I refused. Taken aback by my defiance, he told me flatly that if I wanted to take the cat home right then, I could. Otherwise, I needed to follow his instructions . I cried as that cat drew his last breath.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with pet euthanasia in the decades since. That relationship was tested recently as my best friend of 13 years, Maggie, succumbed to canine cancer. I’m 51 years old, but its the first time in my adult life that I lost a dog or cat. And the first time I was forced to make a decision to euthanize.
In 2016, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a woman who visited an emergency room with a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Its common name is “broken heart syndrome,” and it mimics the clinical symptoms of heart attack. The woman felt like she was under cardiac arrest. But the source of the pain was her profound grief over the loss of her Yorkshire terrier.
Maggie was a great terrific mate for me. She saw states from Louisiana to California and every one in between. She mountain biked trails in Breckenridge, Crested Butte and Taos. She patrolled for moose, stood guard against coyotes, and tangled with porcupines. She loped playfully out of reach, slept with her legs straight up in the air, and wore a big, happy smile much of every day. For most of her life, I worked from home, her at my feet. We were constant companions.
So I was positively devastated to lose her. I cried for days, I slept erratically, and I missed three days of work. As a COO at a global business with pretty significant job responsibility, I layered guilt for my absence on top of my grief. The emotional pain was more severe than when my mom passed a few years before, and she and I were incredibly close … I had spent time as her caretaker as she succumbed to dementia disease. My friend Libby, who euthanized her beloved dog in the few months before I did, told me she thought she might die from the pain. I wondered the same thing. The loss was debilitating, and the revisit to euthanasia cut extra deep.
We pet owners know what we sign up for when we bring a companion animal into our lives. But the decision to euthanize, to look right in the eye of a best friend who trusts us completely while poison is injected into their veins … well, I’m convinced it has a rewiring effect on the brain. It was the right thing to do for Maggie. She was suffering and only had weeks left to live. None of those weeks were likely to be pleasant. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that I compromised the trust on which her bond to me was based.
It’s been nearly two months since she left, and the pain has dulled some. I’m starting to shift my focus to the many wonderful memories. Yet I wonder if the burden of the decision to euthanize, however appropriate and maybe even courageous it was for the moment, is something I will carry with me for as long as I live.