The other day, I went to the vet with my 15-year-old dog to talk about euthanasia. A couple of my friends thought Korku was suffering and that I should free him from his infirmities. Many people refer to this as “putting down” a dog or cat, but I don’t like euphemisms. The truth is, if I did it, I’d be killing him for his own good.
Back in 1999, when my husband and I brought Korku home from our local animal shelter, he was an adorable, mostly beagle puppy. As I saw it, we made a commitment to take care of him for the rest of his life and that included not allowing him to suffer. Fifteen years later, my question for the vet was, is he in so much trouble now that I need to put an end to it?
I have to admit, Korku doesn’t look good. He’s bleary-eyed because of cataracts. He sometimes looks dazed. He walks very slowly and occasionally loses his balance and falls.
Korku is also so thin you’d think I never fed him. I do, but his body seems to have forgotten how to convert food into fat cells. I cook for him—chicken breast, ground turkey—and add those tidbits to the prescription dog food he dislikes, though the vet says he needs it. When he carefully extracts the chicken or turkey from his dish and spurns everything else, I add other treats. His favorite entrée these days is dog food parmigiana.
My compassionate vet spent 45 minutes with us. She examined Korku carefully, then asked me many questions about how he behaves. In the end, she assured me that he’s not in pain. He’s slow on his feet not because of arthritis but because of weakened leg muscles. And if he stands around at times, looking lost, it’s probably because he is lost. The cataracts limit his vision and he can’t see his surroundings clearly, especially when the sun is in his eyes. To help with that, I’ve bought him a sun visor.
The vet said she sees a lot of old dogs in similar condition. It’s not pretty, and she’d euthanize him if that was what I decided to do, but she wanted me to know he’s not suffering and there’s no need to end his life on that account.
When a dog has a painful, terminal illness, she said, it’s much easier to choose euthanasia than it is when a dog is merely old and having difficulties but is not in pain. It’s a quality-of-life choice then, and from what I’d told her, the quality of his life didn’t sound that bad. What did I want to do? With a huge rush of relief, I decided it isn’t yet time to say goodbye to Korku.
The great thing about dogs is that it’s so easy to make them happy. When he was younger, Korku seemed the embodiment of joy. He rushed to the door to welcome visitors, and on our walks he took fierce pleasure in tracking squirrels and rabbits. There was nothing, no matter how disgusting, that he wasn’t eager to eat. He has traded that joy now for small pleasures: a long tummy rub, a warm patch of sunlight to sleep in on a cool floor, a whiff of rabbit when we walk at the edge of the woods. He’s the world’s gentlest dog but he also has that beagle stubbornness. I don’t think he’d want to quit just because life is difficult for him at times.
Dogs don’t live nearly long enough, and their aging can be tough to watch because it foreshadows our own. But I learn from Korku daily as I watch him make the best of most of his waking and sleeping moments.
As long as Korku sets out for walks trotting ahead of me with his tail wagging, there’s some fun in his life even if he comes home 20 minutes later exhausted. As long as he eagerly snaps up treats, I’ll consider his life worth living even if he has to be bribed to eat the expensive, prescription dog food that’s good for him. If he becomes confused sometimes because he can’t see where he’s going, I’ll be his Seeing Eye person. But I’ll watch him for signs that life no longer holds pleasure—my vet says when that time comes, it will probably be obvious.
Caring for Korku takes a lot of time and energy, but that’s not a reason to cut his existence short. I want him to have as much enjoyment as life can still give him. And as for me, I’ll savor the time we have left.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.