Loving Your Dog Enough to Let Go

Can I be the pet owner my chihuahua deserves?

My dog was in the ICU this week. Those are words I never thought I’d write—not because my 11-year-old chihuahua is the picture of perfect health, but because I never imagined I’d be willing to spend enough money to have my dog given high-level medical treatment. And yet when you’re standing in the emergency room and you’re told you have two options—take her home to die or give her life-saving medical treatment—it’s amazing how quickly the imaginary dollars fly off the credit card. When I saw my tiny, seven-pound dog—her ears trembling, eyes bulging with panic—whisked away into an oxygen cage by a triage nurse, I felt completely bereft and terrified. And as though my credit rating would soon be much lower.

Once the dog is in the ICU, further decisions are required; those are attached to dollar signs too. But I’ve always admired what writer Jon Katz says in his books about border collies: If you love your dogs, do for them what you can’t do for the humans in your life: Let them go out on top. Give them the dignity in their waning years that you’d want for yourself, even if it means less time spent in their company. It’s the most generous, selfless thing you can do. And damn if it isn’t the hardest.

I picked my dog up from the ICU today, and heard about the way she cawed like a bird of prey when they dared to remove a bandage from her foot. My friend who was on the scene said Hannah behaved as though they were sawing her paw off rather than delicately cutting away a teensy bandage with miniature scissors that never touched her flesh. I heard from others in the ICU that she tried to bite the doctor multiple times, gave people “the evil eye” and generally behaved badly—even though, at home, she’s about as threatening as a throw pillow. To get Hannah to lash out, you have to torture her. I guess the ICU felt like torture.

Now she’s home, and there are shaved patches all over her body and little drops of dried blood. She’s woozy from sedatives and still bloated with fluid. There are further diagnostic tests we could do to see if it’s cancer, but I look at her now and I think, Why? For me. It would only be for me.

A friend who’s in vet school told me to make a list of the things Hannah loves to do, and as she stops doing them, cross them off. Once they’re all crossed off, she told me, I’ll know it’s time. But if I were to make a list of the things Hannah loves to do, I’d only be able to come up with this:

1. Sleep in her bed
2. Sleep in a patch of sun
3. Sleep in a lap during a car ride
4. Look out the window during car rides
5. Sleep between my legs
6. Sleep on a pile of warm laundry
7. Sleep on a down jacket
7. Get carried around in her doggie backpack
8. Snack

As you can see, it’s going to be hard to tell when she really stops enjoying life. The vet told me when she stops wanting to go outside and exercise, that’s a sign. I didn’t tell him that if she suddenly wants to go outside and exercise, I’ll know it’s the end.

You never know when it’s time. And for the humans, of course, no time is right. Looking at her now (in her bed, of course), it’s hard for me to imagine that little face not being ever present in my view. She pads after me from room to room. When I’m in the bathroom, she sits outside, half-mournful that I’m away, half-protective. When I sit on the couch, she sits on the couch. When I move to a chair, she moves to a chair. She’s my little shadow. We’re perfect companions: We both love sleep, snacks and sleep. We like the outdoors, but only briefly. We like other people, but we’re a little afraid of them. Mostly, we’d just like to be curled up in bed reading/sleeping, so that’s what we do. Sometimes I think she’s disappeared, and I look around for her, only to realize she’s pressing the length of her body so tightly against my leg while I’m watching TV, I’ve taken her for an armrest.

How can I let this creature go? And yet, how can I insist she endure further indignities just so I can hear her tiny footsteps after mine, and hear her sighs of pleasure when she spots me? This will be the hardest thing I’ll ever do, but maybe it’ll make me worthy of her. At last.