One night 18 years ago, Toby Jennings’ mom brought home a box. Toby, who was 6 at the time, didn’t know what was in it, but his older sister, Cody, had a hunch: Eerily, she’d had a dream the night before in which her mother had brought home a cardboard box, a black dog tucked inside. The dream served as a prophecy of sorts, and as the children crept closer to the container, their suspicions were confirmed. Inside was Satch, a black lab-Australian shepherd mix.
“I remember not even thinking we were going to keep her for some reason,” Toby Jennings says. “I think the idea of having our own dog seemed unreal.”
The family kept the dog for 14 years. There were soggy tennis balls, daily walks, back scratches and stolen candy. (The dog had once poached a 1-pound bar of chocolate from Cody’s Easter basket). There were 14 years of Satch barking whenever a conversation didn’t include her, never saying “walk” aloud unless you wanted to take Satch for one, no matter what time it was. And 14 years of nature excursions with Satch in tow: One time, when Toby went canoeing, Satch plunged into the pond, too, paddling next to the boat for the duration of the journey.
But then there was arthritis so painful Satch couldn’t lay down without wincing.
“We finally had to commit to having her put down,” Jennings says. “She was in pain, and it was obvious.”
It wasn’t easy; it never is. Euthanizing a pet is tough when it happens, and can be even tougher when unprepared.
“It’s a pretty emotional time for people,” says Bill Bayouth, veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Lawrence. “A lot of people really agonize over (losing their pets.)”
Reserved for animals tormented by disease and deterioration, euthanasia is a last resort. Most veterinarians refuse to euthanize healthy animals, although in rare instances people do ask.
“There are times in this economy when people just can’t afford treatment,” says Mary Berg of Gentle Care Animal Hospital, 601 Kasold Drive. “We do require an examination to ensure that euthanasia is the best option.”
For the majority of owners, euthanasia is a way of intervening after cancers and old age have battered at their pets’ quality of life, making life functions like walking, eating and breathing without struggle agonizing or impossible.
“It’s the toughest decision in the world (for a pet owner) to make,” Berg says. “You know as an owner when they look at you that it’s time.”
At 8:30 p.m., just a few weeks ago, Berg knew that it was time. Her obedient-trained golden retriever, Sandy, was in pain. The 14-year-old dog was clutched by the pains of arthritis and old age. One night Sandy slid into a state of constant discomfort. After Berg looked at the animal, she and her family took her to Gentle Care to have the animal put down. Once at the office, Berg let Sandy slide under her desk, her favorite spot in the clinic, and the family huddled around the dog. There were two injections: an anesthetic agent, similar in nature to Valium, and a barbiturate, which stopped Sandy’s heart within minutes.
“Once we hit the vein they just kind of go to sleep,” Bayouth says.
The descent from sickness to death occurs quickly, in some cases less than a minute, which was the case when Bayouth stuck an ane
Telling the kids
• Tell your child, as calmly as possibly, the truth. Trying to protect them with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety.
• Answer all his or her questions simply, but honestly. Parents can be models by sharing their feelings, even if they can’t answer all their questions. It will be extremely difficult for a child under the age of 9 to understand the permanence of death.
• Give them a chance to say goodbye in their own way: This may take the form of a memorial service or ceremony; writing poems or making drawings.
• Do not replace the animal right away. Some children may be overwhelmed, especially if the death brings up other painful losses. If your child seems unable to function normally, they may benefit from seeing a qualified mental health professional.
Source: The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
sthetic-filled needle into his golden retriever Andy’s vein when the animal’s health had deteriorated further.
“Don’t ask me how I did it,” Bayouth says. “I figured I couldn’t abandon him at that point.”
Companions to the end
Most owners choose to be with their pets when they die.
“We encourage them to be present,” says Berg, “ and a high percentage choose to be there.”
After euthanasia, clinics offer two types of cremation: simple and private. Simple is a mass cremation, and ashes are discarded. Private cremation occurs individually and owners receive an urn. At Gentle Care, owners who pick private cremation receive a clay dish imprinted with their pet’s paw, as well as a death certificate.
Euthanasia is usually done at an animal clinic, by appointment if possible and on emergency, if necessary. Sometimes, at the owner’s request, euthanasia is performed at home.
Jennings’ dog Satch died at home. On Satch’s last day, friends and neighbors came over. They brought ice cream and hamburgers and treats. Jennings’ dad played “Dogs Run Free,” by Bob Dylan, and everyone said their goodbyes.
“I thought that I would be able to handle it, but when they gave her the shot and she nervously stood up, it made me feel pretty unsure...,” Jennings says. “I couldn’t help but cry... it was far more heart wrenching than I’d expected. It made me realize how close she was to us.”