Dog ownership is not all puppy breath and humorous or beautiful Instagram photos of our dogs; there are times when it is breathtakingly difficult. These are the times when it helps to have good relationships with great vets, good information resources, great friends – and sometimes, deepish pockets. (Or at least a credit card without a balance on it already.) My message for today: Remember always that pain and loss is the flip side of dog ownership, the cost of all the joy they bring us. But it’s our responsibility to be grownups and deliver our dogs from pain and suffering when it’s needed.
Amputating my current foster pup’s badly injured leg
Last week, I delivered my foster puppy to a veterinary hospital to have his badly broken leg amputated – and days later, accompanied my good friend and her senior dog to the same clinic for euthanasia. Both visits were emotionally trying – but they both were in service of doing the right thing, the most responsible thing.
The pup I am fostering was brought into rescue with a leg that was broken, the vet estimated, about a month prior. The hock joint was just a smashed-up mess, with all those tiny bones in the joint all smooshed and displaced from where they are supposed to be– and the puppy’s body, of course, was trying to fuse and heal all of that damage, but given the location – in the very middle of his back leg, every time the pup took a step the broken joint would flex in all the wrong ways.
The pup is absolutely adorable and, as these things often go, has a totally sweet, funny personality. Of course the rescue group’s leader wanted to know whether the leg could be saved. The veterinarian who examined him said slowly, “Well, certainly, you could try to go down that road . . . we could get an orthopedic consultation. We couldn’t help him here . . . It would likely take two or even three surgeries, and months and months of healing and pain meds – and even then, the damage is so bad, he’s going to have arthritis no matter what, and it may end up having to be amputated anyway . . . .”
After seeing the x-rays, and talking to the vet, I felt compelled to push the rescue group to schedule amputation ASAP. The puppy was in pain; that was indisputable. The faster we could get him out of pain, the better. Surgery was totally iffy, and would mean months and months of more pain – and the pain of amputation would be pretty much done in a week or so.
I was bolstered in my opinion about this by having had a peripheral role in another rescue group’s handling of another young dog who had a broken leg; my best dog friend here in my town fostered that dog following the dog’s second surgery to repair a broken rear leg (the dog had been hit by a car – and the first repair failed and needed a total and more elaborate do-over, this time complete with bone grafts). The dog was young and energetic and excitable, difficult to keep under control – and she had to be kept on a leash most of the time, even in the house, to keep her from trying to whirl and play and do zoomies. For months and months the dog had to endure assiduous control, at times with pharmaceutical help to keep her calm, and often with pain medication. And despite all this, she was going to walk with a limp forever, and would need another surgery at some point to remove the metal hardware used to hold her leg together. It just didn’t seem worth it. With my encouragement, the rescue made an appointment for this puppy to have amputation surgery a little more than a week later.
But boy, oh boy, did I second-guess this decision all week. Every time I saw the pup put his leg down in what looked like a somewhat regular way, my heart would sink; maybe we should be trying to get an orthopedic consult after all. I was taking video of him at one point and he scratched behind his ear with his bad leg, and I was instantly convinced amputation was the wrong thing. But then I’d see him take a step that would make the leg twist in a sickeningly wrong way, or yelp as the paw hit a bit of uneven ground too hard and the shock would obviously carry up to the injured joint, and I’d feel relieved that we were doing the right thing. Right, wrong, right, wrong, all week.
Making the tough decision to euthanize your beloved dog
Meanwhile, my friend who had fostered that other dog with the bad leg a couple months ago was dealing with a terrible decision of her own: whether it was time to euthanize her senior dog, who had two terrible hips and two terrible knees. She had maintained the dog at a healthy weight her whole life, and maintained strict control over her activities, had supplied the dog with every type of “brain game” interactive toy and food puzzle that exists, had taught the dog a dozen tricks, took her for regular car rides and field trips where she could see interesting sights and smell interesting aromas, all in a low-impact way . . . but Lena’s body was finally just giving out altogether. She collapsed suddenly one day, horribly, and couldn’t get up. My friend brought her to an emergency appointment – on a Sunday, as these things tend to go – and Lena’s x-rays made the veterinarian shake her head sadly: so much arthritis, those hips, compressed vertebrae – it was a wonder my friend had gotten the dog to age 12.
My friend made the final appointment for Lena for the following weekend, and, all week, gave Lena extra meds for pain and a ton of all her favorite foods, the ones she had to enjoy in tiny amounts her whole life in order to keep her weight under control. We planned a field trip for Lena and Otto, who had played and romped together when they were both young, to a spot in a nearby lake that is shallow and warm, where you can drive right up to the water. We put her life jacket on and she and Otto spent nearly an hour just sort of float-walking around us in the shallow water, not quite swimming, just barely touching their paws to the lake bottom. It was bittersweet, seeing her so happy and comfortable in the water – but knowing how much discomfort she is in every day as she goes about the daily business of life: getting up to drink and eat, going outside to potty, not being able to get up quickly to go bark at the mailman, and so on. And knowing that every day brings more risks of collapsing in pain.
I went with my friend for the final appointment. I have to say that it was absolutely the most peaceful and calm euthanasia I have ever been present for, and the veterinarian and the clinic responsible have my everlasting loyalty from now on. We had one of the first appointments of the day, and we waited for the vet on a blanket that we spread on a grassy area under some giant oak trees outside the rural clinic. The veterinarian and a technician came outside and, after a brief exam, administered a subcutaneous dose of sedative, and let us sit with Lena there under the trees until she grew very, very relaxed. When they came back out of the clinic to administer the euthanasia solution into a vein on her back leg, Lena barely noticed. Her owner stroked her face and told her what a good girl she was, and she slipped quietly away.
My friend and I agreed – if only humans could have deaths that were as peaceful and painless, with loved ones around us and birds singing overhead. But I know my friend will also second-guess herself. Was it too soon? Could Lena have made it a few more months, was there some other intervention that could have helped?
These are tough decisions – though of course, life and death decisions should be tough. My foster pup is recovering from surgery wonderfully – and the increasing mischief he is getting into tells me he is in less and less pain as each day passes. He gets the surgical stitches out two weeks after his surgery, and a few days later, he will go home to a new family – a mom and dad and teenaged girl who met him a few days before surgery and already love him. I’ve been reading about the care of “tripawd” dogs, and have assigned our veterinarian contributor to write an article about this for an upcoming issue, but I, too, still wonder if amputation was the right thing to do. This uncertainty, too, is part of the price of loving dogs like we do.