By Marilyn Soltis.
Arthritis and old age had taken their toll.At age 14, Ruff, an Airedale-shepherd mix, was in pain and could move only by dragging himself around on his front legs.The dog who loved to romp in the snow and play in the rain could no longer stand.Hearing Ruff whimpering late one night, Cathy Cortese left the warmth of her bed and spent the night ona sleeping mat next to the family pet. Her presence seemed to comfort him, she said; the dog became quiet and more relaxed.Ruff’s respite was short-lived, however.
The next morning, Cortese couldn’t get Ruff up at all and resorted to crafting a makeshiftsling out of a towel.Cortese and her teenage daughter, Cate, faced a tough decision: Was it time to end the life of the dog who had been such a loyal companion for the last decade?Cortese didn’t know what to do. Her veterinarian was in the hospital undergoing cardiac surgery. She called another veterinary office near her Jefferson Park home.”They told me there was a vet who would come to your house and he was just wonderful. When you think of life and death, you think of home,” says Cortese, who works for a group of doctors who perform home births.
“Ruff would have been very stressed out an(less than)ywhere else.”Acting on the advice she had been given, Cortese called Dr. Amir Shanan of Chicago Home Veterinary Care to perform a home euthanasia for Ruff.Shanan came over the next day and examined Ruff. Unfortunately there was little that could be done.
Cortese and Cate talked privately and made the decision to end Ruff’s suffering.As mother and daughter cried together, Shanan put a tourniquet around Ruff’s paw in preparation for an injection of sedatives that would help end Ruff’s life and his suffering.That moment was too much for Cate, who remembers bringing Ruff home from a shelter when she was 8 years old, remembers Ruff’s fondness for snow and rain,for sprawling on the furniture and insinuating himself onto her lap.
“No, I changed my mind,” said Cate, not quite ready to say goodbye to “the best dog I’ve ever had or will ever have.”Shanan undid the tourniquet; Cate and her mother talked again. Cate composed herself and agreed to go ahead. As Cate cradled Ruff’s head, Shanan began the injection.”I love you, Ruff,” Cate crooned as the gentle old dog closed his eyes for the last time. Mother, daughter and even the doctor shed tears as Ruff took his last breaths.
Cortese and Cate spent some final moments with Ruff before Shanan took him away for cremation.
Cortese and her daughter are among many pet owners who are seeking veterinarians to do home euthanasia for their pets, a service provided by a handfulof doctors in the Chicago area. Home is a less stressful environment for the animal, and many pet owners feel that it is an easier way for them to deal with their own grief.Mary Jane Wang reached that same decision over the objections of family members. When her miniature schnauzer, Heidi, could no longer stand, Wang knew it was time.
She didn’t want to leave Heidi alone at a veterinary clinic, so she also called Shanan to perform a home euthanasia.”He was very gentle. He sat with Heidi on the floor and told her how much everyone loved her. She hobbled over to him. He was so calm and gentle.
She didn’t whimper or flinch. I told her what a good girl she was, how much I loved her and how she would always be with me,” Wang says. Having the euthanasia done athome helped her with the ensuing grief.Shanan, who also runs Allen Animal Hospital in Broadview, says that more and more pet owners are expressing interest in having their pet euthanized at home.”The human-animal bond or pet-family bond, which I see, isa variant of the family relationship,” he says. “This has been grossly underrated by human health professionals when you compare the amount of resources that go to other sources.
Two-thirds of all households own pets. There aren’t that many marital households,” Shanan says.He disagrees with the popular belief that pets are substitute children.”Pets don’t replace other relationships. It is often pointed out that a pet’s love is unconditional. It is much simpler and less complex than relationships between humans. Because of this difference, grief over the loss of a pet may be felt more intensely.”But grieving over animals usually takes less time than with human relationships because the relationship is simpler.
You know what you’ve lost, and it hurts,” Shanan says.The grieving process can be even more difficult for people whose pets provided a link to another person, he says. For example, the pet may have belonged to a close friend or family member who has died. In the case of divorce, it can be a connection to someone who is no longer part of the household.A home euthanasia can take on various forms. Veterinarian Charron Bryant of the Escanaba Animal Hospital in Chicago says he sometimes participates in ceremonies, which have included candles and special garments.
A year ago he was asked to euthanize a samoyed that had suffered a long bout with cancer.”There were about 20 people at the house –kids, grandkids, friends and neighbors. The people were highly religious. The wife read a special poem while I gave the dog a sedative,” Bryant says.Still, “some pets give the impression they know,” he says.The procedure requires excellent technical skills. Bryant may spend up to an hour at the house. If the pet has good circulation, death takes about 60 seconds.
The final injection is preceded by a sedative to keep the pet calm.Sometimes an owner will decide at a critical juncture to let the animal die naturally, especially if the pet is not in pain. This was the decision reached by Roger Nash of the Hollywood Park area. The family dog, Shannon, a beagle mix, was experiencing kidney failure and was disoriented but wasn’t in pain.
After a home consultation and weighing the pros and cons of euthanasia, the family decided to let nature run its course. Shannon died anatural death at home shortly thereafter.
For many cats and their owners, home euthanasia is the least stressful option, according to Dr. Colleen Currigan of Cat Hospital of Chicago. “There is minimal or no restraint. It’s very humane, like dying in theirsleep. It is basically an overdose of anesthesia,” she says.She recalls a bittersweet experience with one cat that had not eaten for a week and was dying of cancer.
Overweight and with a history of enjoying his food, he received the injection, walked the15 feet to his food bowl, ate his last meal and died.”It made us laugh, and the owner felt better that the cat could eat before he died,” Currigan says.She agrees that home euthanasia can help the grieving process.”From that point on, the owner can grieve. If they bring the cat into the office, it can be very difficult to carry an empty carrier out into a waiting room full of healthy cats,” she says.Since Ruff’s euthanasia, Cortese and Cate have been dealing with their grief.”I’m still very glad I hadit done at home,” Cortese says. “Whenever I took any of my dogs to the vet, they turned to jelly. I think it was better for us and for him. The privacy of being at home is better than sitting in the waiting room. We were able to express our emotions in a more comfortable situation. I don’t think it would be that way in the doctor’s office. We still cry and remember Ruff, but I think it was the best thing.
“He had such a sweet personality. He was more like a puppy in his old age. He loved to leap in the snow during the winters,” she says. “I kept wondering if he could have made it through one more winter.”
DEBATING KIDS’ AND PETS’ PRESENCE
Dr. Mary Baukert of Companion Animal Acupuncture in Skokie and founder and coordinator of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association Pet Loss Support Helpline says that the issue of children being present at a pet euthanasia should be carefully considered. What may be right for one 7-year-old may be inappropriate for another.”You cannot tell untruths, but you can be very selective in what you do choose to communicate. It may be more than the child can handle,” she says.
For example, you should avoid the term “put to sleep.” Baukert says it can lead to a fear of falling asleep for the child afterward as well as being difficult if the child ever has to face a surgery and undergo anesthesia where they are told they “will be put to sleep for a while.””Some people use the phrase `help to die.’ ” Baukert said. “With my own children, ages 5 and 7, when our pet was ill, they were not part of the decision.
We relayed to them that their pet was very sick and getting ready to die soon. They saw the pet before and after. They didn’t see the procedure,” she says.It is important to share feelings afterward and to be open about your feelings and talk about it.”They might be having nightmares and not sleeping and exhibiting difficult behavior,” she says.
The bottom line is to be cautious and talk it over with your vet.As far as other animals in the household are concerned, there are no scientific studies on the subject.”It boils down to the owner’s values and what they believe their pets feel. The argument goes both ways,” according to Dr. Amir Shanan of Chicago Home Veterinary Care. “There is concern that if they are present, the awareness of what is happening will traumatize them. On the other hand, if they do not participate, they could be left to wonder about the obscure disappearance of a creature that has been a close companion,” he says.
When asked what to do by pet owners, Shanan says his philosophy of letting people make their own decisions as often as possible also applies to pets.”My experience is that if you let companion pets follow their instincts, their behavior varies. Some stay completely away. Some snoop around anxiously and then leave. Some act out their usual attention mongering, ignoring the circumstances. Owners usually remove this type quickly.”
There are no laws requiring a veterinarian to take an animal after euthanasia. If the pet is taken, it is for cremation. A private cremation may cost about $120; ashes can be returned to the owner. A group cremation runs from $30 to $60. Charges for the euthanasia vary from doctor to doctor and can range from about $150 to $300.
FOR THE GRIEVING
Individuals coping with the loss of a beloved companion animal can call the Pet Loss Support Helpline at 630-603-3994. It is a free service sponsored by the Human-Animal Bond Committee of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. There is a recorded message, and most calls are returned between 7 and 9 p.m. Ninety percent of the calls are returned by veterinarians who are volunteers and experienced in how pet loss affects individuals. Other volunteers are people in the veterinary field.