About a year ago, our 15-year-old pup began falling down when he tried to walk. Each time Maverick took a few steps, he stumbled to the left and his back legs buckled, sending him to the ground.
This is the same 20-pound bundle of energy who once had such leaping ability that he grabbed our Easter dinner off a 4-foot-high counter. The same little black fuzz of curls who would pogo-stick his way along our picket fence whenever he saw a dog or human across the street he wanted to greet.
Even though he was a few months shy of his 16th birthday and arthritis had already robbed him of his ability to jump reliably on our couch, falling down as he walked was concerning.
We ended up at the office of a neurology veterinarian who told us what no pet owner wants to hear: It was almost certainly a brain tumor. The only way to know for sure would be a costly MRI, but given his age and his symptoms, it was highly likely.
My husband and I went home, I cried and we decided to let Maverick have the best life possible for as long as possible, making sure he was as comfortable and as happy as he could be. But how would I know when it was time to say goodbye?
Maverick was the first dog I ever had, after a childhood spent yearning for a furry best friend prohibited by my mom’s allergies. I’d never had to determine when a dog had reached the end of his life—and I’d also never loved a small bundle of fur so fiercely.
Mav came into my life the year I turned 30, and it wasn’t long before he began to define my identity. As my friends were getting married and having babies (while I barely even dated), Maverick was my constant sidekick. We went on hourslong hikes together. I began signing birthday cards to my niece and nephews with “Love, Jodie and Maverick.” He occasionally came when I asked him to, he was a perfect fit when he curled up in the crook behind my knees to snuggle on the couch and his separation anxiety-induced high-pitched bark infuriated my neighbors. A friend called him my canine soulmate.
We were a package deal. Everywhere I went, I asked if Maverick could come. The truth is, I felt separation anxiety, too.
And now we were facing the final goodbye.
I’m a journalist, which means I approach every decision and obstacle armed with facts and information. Mav’s veterinarian sent me home with a list of seven local at-home euthanasia vets. The closest hospice vet to us in Charlotte, North Carolina, was Dr. Barbara Butchko of Meridian Mobile Veterinary Care. She would become our counselor and confidant over three months of emails and phone calls as Maverick’s condition declined.
In her initial at-home evaluation, she saw Mav’s unsteadiness and heard how we hand-fed him—sometimes one piece of kibble at a time—because he could no longer stand at his food bowl. We told her how he woke each night around 1 a.m. needing to drink water and go outside, requiring our help to find his water bowl and be carried to our backyard.
She left us with a questionnaire to assess not only Maverick’s quality of life, but ours: How is he interacting with you and your family? Is he able to have restful sleep? How are you coping with the changes?
The most valuable exercise asked us to identify three things that Maverick still enjoyed and then track whether he was able to enjoy each of those activities every day. For Mav, it was eating (our schnoodle never turned down a morsel of food), spending time with me (he perked up each day when I returned home from the office) and going on car rides (he immediately relaxed and went to sleep every time he was buckled into the back seat).
To help senior and geriatric pets have a more comfortable life as they age, consider these modifications:
Shorten walks and play sessions.
Add throw rugs to hard surfaces to ensure traction.
Provide a ramp to help access litter boxes or favorite napping spots.
Raise food and water bowls for easier use.
Dealing with grief after the loss of a pet
Give yourself time: Take time to grieve the loss of your pet and understand there’s no “right way” to mourn. Reach out to your workplace to ask about pet bereavement days, or consider using paid time off.
Expect the unexpected: Even if you’ve been preparing for the loss of your pet, the actual event might hit you harder than you anticipated. The grieving process can include feelings of shock, numbness, denial and anger. Allow yourself time to work through whatever emotions arise and avoid negative self-talk such as “I should be stronger than this” or “I’m just being overly emotional.”
Respect how others grieve: Remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and those around you might not show outward signs of mourning. Be as gentle with friends and family members as you are with yourself.
Reflect: Journal about your pet’s life, collect photos, draw pictures or use other creative outlets to help you remember your pet.
Take care of yourself: Make sure to eat healthy foods, try to stick to a sleep schedule, exercise (even just a quick walk around the block can help) and practice other forms of self-care.
Connect with others: Talk to a friend or family member about how you’re feeling. Spend time with your other pets while trying to maintain their schedule the best you can. They sense the loss, too.
Seek help: Online groups and books on grief can provide advice and support. Reach out to professionals whenever necessary.