Thursday, December 10, 2009

How much is too much?

One tough little guy. Too hard to let go.

I once had a wonderful little mixed breed dog. He was strong and brave and got me through one of the most difficult portions of my life. But he eventually grew older, and that stalwart and healthy little dog very suddenly, in the course of a few months, went from being a strong and healthy old dog, to a dog dying of a brain tumor.

Although mentally, I knew this was a dog, emotionally, I felt as if I was losing a child. There is an exceedingly profound way we sometimes connect to certain dogs. Often, we find there is no real way to cope with the emotions we feel when faced with their impending loss.

At the time we went through this, I felt as if this burden of grief was exacerbated by the need of certain members of the vet community to keep our dog alive. He was at the time, 13 years old. Whether healthy, or not, he probably had at most, a year or two left of his lifespan.

But, we were encouraged to drug this dog with steroids and phenobarbital...even to pursue brain surgery and courses of radiation. And during this time, neither the dog nor us slept due to his pain and seizures, which broke out in raging clusters in the middle of the night.

Even in the last hours of his life, we were presented with options -- highly expensive options -- on how we could prolong it. In the end, we spent over $10,000 and really succeeded only in extending the suffering of a wonderful dog.

Yes, we were the ultimate decision makers, but there was also a certain pressure to take additional and costly measures which, ultimately, only extended the life of, but did not heal or help our dog.

Today, I came across an article about a new book, On the Destiny of Species: by Means of Natural Selection, or Elimination of Unfavoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by British veterinarian, Matthew Watkinson.

While I have not read, nor necessarily endorse the book, I was struck by several of the comments described in a review of the book by the blog, Pawnation.

Watkinson is quoted:

"I have forgotten the name of the dog of course, and indeed a lot of other ancillary details, but I do know that its front leg had been amputated to remove an aggressive bone tumor, and I do know that I will never forget its screams. It wasn't even a young dog. It was an old dog with cancer and yet, despite being within touching distance of the end, it was lying in a soulless hospital kennel screaming in agony and recoiling in horror when anybody approached. It was horrible and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't justify its suffering. I must admit, I couldn't justify my own anger properly either.

I was quite sure the dog's suffering was entirely based on the emotional needs of its owners, and that it couldn't have suffered if it had been euthanized, but the full implications were beyond me. What if the dog had been younger for instance, would that have made the suffering acceptable? And if it had, what does 'younger' actually mean? Is it less than 8 years old? Or 9? Or 8½? And if it had been young enough to make the procedure acceptable, does a dog know whether the pain will stop, even if I do?"

It's an ethical quandary, both for pet owners and the veterinary community. Does the availability of options and the resources to support it justify the treatment? It's a difficult question to answer, especially when one is faced with making decisions on behalf of a beloved friend.

My only wish is that when the time comes for my own dogs, that I will have the strength to make the right decisions. Not just for myself and my own wish never to lose them, but for the sake of the lives that depend on me.

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