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The Language of Euthanasia
What’s the alternative to “putting him down”?
Donna Kane finds solace with her rescue dog Lucy.

(Editor’s Note: We received this letter from Bark reader Donna Kane of Portland, Oregon. She writes so honestly and forthrightly about an experience many of us have faced and stumbled over, we thought we’d let her open a conversation about the language we use to describe this difficult passage.)

My husband and I had a rough year and a half starting in June 2006 when we made the decision to euthanize our 16-year-old deaf and nearly blind dog. His quality of life was limited to a very small window of time on sunny and warm afternoons; the rest of the time, he paced and would flinch if you tried to comfort him. After that, our nine-year-old cat’s kidneys failed and we found ourselves in another round of grief, only to have our second cat of 15 die of a stroke six months later.

We are recovered now and have good memories and a great little rescue dog, who is delightful. But the words that come back, not only through our own loss process but throughout other conversations I’ve had the last couple of years, are “put him down.” Just as I’ve never considered myself an owner, but merely a guardian for the animals that I’ve adopted and taken the responsibility for, I’ve never thought when making the decision to euthanize them that we were “putting them down.” I find this term somehow offensive even when it comes out of the best of mouths with the best intentions.

“Putting him (or her) down” feels abusive and not something a loving person would want to happen to their beloved pets. “Putting him down” needs a compassionate replacement, nothing too cute or too blunt, but something that makes you feel as though you have done the right thing by your pet who has loved you unconditionally, given you years of pleasure and then relied on you to make a choice for them that is very hard for to you make.

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Submitted by Briana | February 13 2009 |

We lost our 9 year old beagle to lymphoma in January of 2006. I have been mulling over Donna's same conundrum since I had to make the call to the vet on that very sad day. I have had more than enough time to come up with something; and I've seen more than enough synonyms that irk me just the same. The stark indifference of "euthanize". The childishness of "cross the rainbow bridge". The emptiness of "put her to sleep".

Ultimately, I've come to reference Minnie's passing as "we let her go". Essentially, that's what we did. For a year and a half, we battle with chemotherapy, steroids, pain killers, all because of our belief that she would spring back from this illness. She hadn't finished her life; she wanted to fight.

But just under a year after completing treatment, she began to come out of remission. It was only then that we noticed, Minnie's once beautifully radiant auburn coat appeared dusty and weathered. She had trouble regulating her body temperature and guzzled water. And because of the swelling of her lymph nodes, our superlatively housebroken pup began having accidents inside again. She was ashamed. She was irritated. But mostly, she was tired.

In her true spirit, Minnie was tail-wagging, sock-stealing, and treat-begging through the tumors and the tests, the shots and the medications, until her last peaceful moments. We loved her dearly, and could not comprehend the joy and strength she brought to our family until we were faced with her absence. But we had to respect her quality of life, her pride, we had to let her go.

Submitted by Beth | February 14 2009 |

I used to come home to Kelly,our German Shepherd and say to myself " Still Alive" She died May 17, 2004 of complications from diabetes. I still miss her and blame myself that I did not put her out of her misery when I could. The last time I saw her she was vibrating and then she relaxed and put her head in my hand. The next time I saw her she had died. Her tongue was distended, her eyes open and dry. My thought was how she must have suffered from thirst. It is a choice that has to be made by listening to what your dog wants. Unfortunatley, I think I was too selfish.

Submitted by Nancy | February 16 2009 |

Ijust had to euthanize my beloved 17 year old minature Schaunzer Angie yesterday. We kept her going since Christmas with Cortizone shots and pain pills. Finally yesterday she said it was time to visit the RAINBOW BRIDGE and to see Riley the Cocker Spaniel. Her roommate Miss Sunshine is devasted as are the rest of us.
There was not a way we could keep Angie going. It was not fair to keep her like this.

Submitted by Beth Ryan | February 18 2009 |

We just pts our Irish Wolfhound Sweet Eli last Monday (February 9th) and our friend in Scotland pts her Irish Wolfhound Harry Potter on Wednesday (February 11). She says "pts" as do we and that seems not as harsh as "put down"; not actually saying any words, just the letters. Whatever we call it we know they're going away from us and hopefully over the Rainbow Bridge to chase the bad bunnies that are sent there for their amusement until we all meet again.

Submitted by woody | February 20 2009 |

In the last year, my two senior canine companions, Mischief (a spaniel) and Dixiebelle (Goldie-cross), went on ahead.

That's how I regard it: sending 'em on ahead. I don't care about "heaven" if my canine and feline companions aren't gonna be there.

I also regard the experience as a final gift from them to us: their passing gives us--a people who are often urged to suppress our tears--the opportunity and the excuse to weep openly...

Submitted by M&M | February 23 2009 |

I've always found it a bit more tolerable to say "put her to sleep". We had to do this with our 19-year-old doggy 4 years ago. Being put to sleep somehow sounds more peaceful, like I'm doing one last helpful thing for my pet. Though they go to sleep forever, never to wake again, we know that in some way we were able to ease their suffering.

Submitted by Fred and Barb | February 24 2009 |

We lost our 12 yo German Shepard Sophie about 4.5 years ago. I know we made the right decision. After the pain pills didn't work as well her life was limited to her crate and trying to get up to go outside to the bathroom. Most of the time she did not make it and felt ashamed. It still hurts today, but letting her go is what we did.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 25 2009 |

We always say that "we helped her pass over" because it allows people to realize that she did indeed die but that it wasn't from a sudden accident. It denotes a gradual aging or chronic condition that caused difficulty for our fur-child. It also lets people know that it was a conscious, humane decision made by us as her caretakers.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 25 2009 |

Helped him get to doggie heaven, is our phrase, having helped over the years three doggie angels that blessed our lives. And, kitty heaven, for the two cats that trained the dogs how to properly respect & live with kitty siblings.

Submitted by Nellie Bell | February 26 2009 |

First let me send my best withes to Donna and her new companion, Lucy.
Like many of you, I have recently "let go" of a long time friend, Max, my cat of almost 19 years. I was glad to have been able to give him that last gift of peace.
In reading all the heart-felt stories I must say that the term of sending them ahead appeals to me. I like that thought.
A friend recently sent a letter of support, she expressed her wonder at how animals can take such a chunk of our hearts when they go....yet manage to leave them bigger in the end.

Submitted by Eco-chick1971 | February 27 2009 |

I am so sorry to hear about your recent loss... what has worked for me is saying that we helped our companion to cross over. You can follow-it up with "heaven," "rainbow bridge," "a better place." or whatever descriptive you're most comfortable with -- that is the most important thing.

I wish you much peace in these difficult times and hope your new canine partner can continur to give you solace and comfort.

Submitted by Robin | February 28 2009 |

I was so sorry to hear of your loss. It is never easy to lose a friend. We recently lost our dear 12 yr old furry friend "Jesse" to bladder cancer. We "let him go" when we knew he was losing his quality of life. He became a tripod at age 6 and adapted quite well. As he aged and hopping became more difficult he accompanied us on walks in his red wagon with his furry brothers and sisters. The bladder cancer took us by surprise as most creatures don't show signs of weakness until the problem is advanced. We only had 3 more weeks after the diagnosis. Our wonderful vet told us to call when we needed him and that he had given his best friend a rotisiere chicken as a final meal. We took his advice, offered our friend the chicken on a blanket in the front room then went for a final walk in the wagon. He was ready and we had to be ready to "let him go." He would have tried to stay longer for us but it would have been selfish for us to ask this of him. I miss him every day and planted daffodils on his grave this year.

Submitted by Karen | March 1 2009 |

As our sweet Indy was failing, our vet told us that we would know when it was time to let him go. One morning, the look on his face was just different and I knew this was the time. I like to think we "helped him cross over," from life with us to his next one. Hopefully, he'll be waiting for us there.

Submitted by Bernice Lee | March 2 2009 |

My first dog ever, I had an Old English Sheepdog, Emily in my youth. I was 23 years old. One morning, Emily could not move out of her bed. I lifted her and took her outside to p and p. She was paralyzed. To the vet we went. He told me that she had a stroke. Meds would help her for 6 months but the prognosis was bad.

I remember that when she was a pup, I promised her that I would never let her suffered. If I kept her alive, it would be for me and not for her.

I asked the vet to euthanize her. I went home and they called me several hours later. I was in shock. I was so stoic. I put Emily in my Honda Civic and drove to all the parks she and I play and wento to all the homes we shared together in her 11 years. Then buried her in the back yard.

Now I can say that I feel guilty. Maybe I could have had more months with her- kept her comfortable. Now I think if I knew then in 1983 what I know now in in 2009.

Comments? I can take it. I need to come clean with Emily's life.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 7 2009 |

I don't think what you did was wrong. There are times in our lives when we have to make ethical and/or moral decisions that don't set right with our gut feelings.

I just had to euthenize my dog a few weeks ago because he bit a young girl, and I felt that under no circumstance couuld we take a chance it could possibly happen again. I too feel guilty. What we have to rememebr is that guilt serves no purpose, and it is some thing that you can chose not to feel. This doesn't mean you will never feel it, just that you can stop it from eating you up.

You said that you were very stoic at the time this happened. Maybe you did that because it was too painful to deal with at the time. The thing that you have to remember about grief is that it doesn't happen in some predictable pattern. I think grief comes back to you periodically and you just have to recognize it.

i am sure that you loved your dog. Know that you helped ease her suffering.

If you are looking for someone to disapprove of what you did, I think that you will find most pet lovers would be in support of your decision.

I hope you find peace in your memories of Emily.

Submitted by Kathy Konetzka-Close | March 4 2009 |

After working more than 16 years in veterinary medicine, I’ve had plenty of experience with euthanasia, both in my personal and professional life. And all I can say is that it’s never an easy decision for a caring owner/guardian to make. It’s always difficult. There are always plenty of opportunities to ask “what if?” And a grieving caregiver can find plenty of ways to feel guilty. Whatever euphemism one uses to describe the act of euthanasia is fine IF it allows the person to find peace with their decision. For myself, I have decided to say “we decided to give Jack the gift of euthanasia and end his suffering”. (Which is what we did for our terrier last spring after his cancerous tumor returned) It tells it like it is, but it also allows for my own personal opinion that euthanasia is a gift that we are allowed to share with our beloved animal companions once it’s become obvious that medicine has no more to offer. The process one goes through in making that decision is a different subject altogether, and it is one that’s fraught with emotional perils. But what’s most important is the ultimate knowledge that we loved and cared for our companion(s) to be the best of our ability at the time, and that we allow our broken spirits whatever time they need to heal. To Bernice, I respectfully suggest that while you are still grieving your decision, you are using the knowledge that you have now to keep yourself locked in the guilt you still feel about the past. Please treat yourself with kindness as you work through these painful memories and know that Emily knew how deeply she was loved. Beating yourself up over her final moments does not serve her memory, and it keeps you trapped in emotional turmoil and regret. She would not want that for her best friend. Take good care.

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